It's August, and under the Cermak and Western viaduct, scraps of plastic, broken glass, and discarded chicken bones collect like autumn leaves. A line of yellow freight cars languishes on the tracks above. Near an LED sign for a grocery store, a new billboard is striking in its starkness. But it's not an ad. Rather, it's a black-and-white drawing of two proud black farmworkers.
Titled Harvest Talk, the 1953 work by south-side artist Charles White (1918-1979) is one of the selections from the Art Institute's permanent collection that was exhibited, blown-up, as part of Art Everywhere US, an initiative by five major museums—AIC, the Dallas Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney, and the National Gallery—to bring art to the street. Throughout August, 50,000 billboards, bus stops, subway platforms, and airports across the country showcased 58 American masterworks "to put discussion about art back in the classroom—and at the dinner table, water cooler, and car pool," DMA director Maxwell Anderson told me.
But who stopped to appreciate the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean coast shimmering in Mary Cassatt's The Boating Party perched above a MoneyGram outlet in Lawndale? Did Eisenhower Expressway commuters, speeding to work alone in their cars, really consider the analogous urban loneliness depicted in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks?
The program's impact is difficult to measure, beyond the 900 Instagram posts bearing the "Arteverywhereus" hashtag. But the impulse to display work outside the museum is a well-intentioned response to art institutions' shared history of prejudice. The charcoal lines of White's drawing, for one, remain haunted by art-world discrimination. "I am not a man without anger," he once said, frustrated by the obstacles that faced African-American artists in the middle of the last century. "I've had my work in museums where I wasn't allowed to see it."
The project's execution, however, was not without drawbacks. Financed by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which donated the exhibition space, Art Everywhere US was easily confused with a cheesy marketing stunt—and therefore all too easy to dismiss. In Times Square, digital signs flashed art amid the usual rotation of ads for soft drinks and electronics companies. But that kind of juxtaposition excited Art Institute director Douglas Druick. "What is astonishing here is the competition between images," he told me back in August. "It is wonderful to see how these iconic works of art hold their own and rivet attention even in a busy intersection."
In Little Village, White's Harvest Talk seemed to go largely unnoticed. Trucks unloaded their daily deliveries to Fairplay Foods while an old man browned by the sun slept on a nearby bench. As a small group apparently oblivious to the artwork waited for the #21 bus to arrive, one could imagine the two farmhands in the drawing laboring in the field, their monumental presence lost to the grind of the daily urban routine.