On the night of September 29, 2018, there were 32,000 people assembled along the Chicago River to watch abstract shapes morph and change colors, eyeballs float, and a 20-story-tall giraffe chew cud—all projected onto the surface of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. This was the debut of Art on theMART, a permanent projection system that allows video art to animate the historic building’s entire 2.5-acre (1 ha) river-facing facade. Four artists—Diana Thater, Zheng Chongbin, Jason Salavon, and Jan Tichy—each created a video piece for the inaugural exhibition. Under an agreement with the city of Chicago, projections will take place Wednesday through Sunday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., 10 months a year, for 30 years.
Art on theMART, a privately funded partnership with the city of Chicago, came into being after Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago’s department of cultural affairs and special events declared 2017 the “Year of Public Art,” investing more than $1.5 million in a variety of artist-led community projects throughout the city. The goal was to support arts and culture in the city and increase tourism. The city was looking for ways to add public art to the Riverwalk, a 1.25-mile (2 km) pedestrian and bike path extending from Lake Michigan to Lake Street.
Meanwhile, the owner of the Merchandise Mart, New York City–based Vornado Property Trust, had completed a major renovation of the building in 2016 and rebranded it as theMART. Standing 25 stories tall and spanning two city blocks, the art deco structure opened in 1930 as a wholesale warehouse for department store buyers and remains the world’s largest privately owned commercial building and largest wholesale design center, with 4 million square feet (372,000 sq m) of floor space. Tenants include interior designers, architects, contractors, showrooms, and other businesses. In recent years, tech companies such as Braintree and Yelp have joined the tenant roster. In the wake of the renovations, Vornado saw an opportunity to raise the building’s profile in the city by funding the video art project. Vornado spent about $8 million to install the projection system.
A curatorial advisory board, which includes curators from local art institutions, two local artists, and the executive director of Art on theMART, consults with theMART on selecting artwork, inviting artists and cultural organizations to submit proposals. A civic advisory council coordinates with city agencies and other stakeholders to solicit input for the life of the project. Although the types of art displayed will vary widely, they will never include advertising or other commercial video.
Vornado brought in Chicago-based architecture firm Valerio Dewalt Train and San Francisco–based creative studio Obscura Digital to realize the video projection system. Obscura Digital laser-scanned the river-facing facade to make a digital 3-D model of the building and map out its architectural features. That allows the software controlling the projectors to mask the building’s windows, avoiding light leakage into the interior. Obscura Digital designed and created the software-driven platform.
Covering theMART’s facade required 34 projectors. To house them, Valerio Dewalt Train designed a 1,200-square-foot (110 sq m) weatherproof projector room that cantilevers over the Riverwalk, across from theMART. The projector room fits into an existing limestone balustrade above the walkway and below Upper Wacker Drive. Zinc cladding helps the enclosure blend into its context.
Billed as the largest permanent projection system in the world, Art on theMART turns the art deco Merchandise Mart into a 21st-century canvas for contemporary art, increasing foot traffic along the Riverwalk and raising the city’s profile as a cultural and artistic hub.
MARK DEWALT is a founding principal and BILL TURNER, a ULI member, is a principal of Valerio Dewalt Train.