Buildings serve as wall-size canvases in the Wabash Arts Corridor, downtown Chicago's open-air gallery.
Wabash Arts Corridor
Wabash Arts Corridor

At shoe level, the sidewalks and parking lots along South Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago read like all the others: vast slabs spiderwebbed with the cracks endemic to Midwestern concrete. But in this urban art exhibit, no one sees the ground. They're studying the murals adorning the buildings above. A work portraying dancers in traditional Polish dress. A cartoonish piece featuring dripping slime. A bubblegum-blowing moose, before which a selfie-taker is probably standing at this moment, pretending to pop the jumbo bubble with a single outstretched finger.

Wabash Arts Corridor
Harmony (left) by Ben Eine, a London-based artist known for delivering messages in whimsical type; Provocateurs Series (center), produced with a group of artists as part of Lollapalooza; Moose Bubblegum Bubble (right) by Jacob Watts

The works are just a few of the dozens displayed along the Wabash Arts Corridor. It's an art gallery fit for giants, featuring a growing number of building-size murals and collaborative creations along nearly a dozen city blocks in the South Loop. Columbia College Chicago launched the project in 2013 to immerse students in artistry, ensuring they found a creative spark outside their classrooms as well as within them. Over the years, the project has transformed the buttoned-up business district into a cultural (and Instagram-tastic) gem featuring works of artists from around the world.

Much of the art lives along South Wabash Avenue, but colorful tributaries reach into alleys and adjacent streets, with surprises found around many corners. Those moments inspire Neysa Page-Lieberman, the corridor's chief curator: "I really love the idea of stumbling upon something that you don't expect to be there."

In this living canvas, fresh works take shape as new construction changes the landscape. Most of the corridor's art is not yet old enough to have deteriorated or been replaced. That day will come, but Neysa isn't worried, because artists will always have more to say.

"The artists know that their works may be covered up by construction or other changes in the environment," she says. "That's the name of the game-it's street art. But we've never painted over anything. Why would we when we have so many walls left to paint?"

Given its size, this is not a museum you can cover in a single day. So Neysa has curated an artful afternoon in the corridor: creative works to spot, plus places to fill your belly and your shopping bag along the way.

Afternoon arts walk

Fall color in the Arts Corridor
(Clockwise from top left): ShopColumbia, Vice District Brewing Company, Be the Change You Wish to See, Cafecito

Galleries The ShopColumbia art boutique features works of students, alumni and faculty. Any item you buy can be shipped to your home-no lugging it with you during your tour. Other college stops: Hokin Gallery, a student-curated stop where you can learn more about the corridor, and the free Museum of Contemporary Photography.

Eats and drinks Cafecito offers "fantastic sandwiches and really strong Cuban coffee," Neysa says. For tapas, she goes to Mercat a la Planxa. Head to Vice District Brewing Company for seasonal pours.

Murals Some picks from Neysa, within a walkable area: La Magia de Luzia, Gloria Talamantes, 33 E. Congress. This alley piece, commissioned by Cirque du Soleil, contains a selfie-perfect nook. Drowning in the City, Ruben Aguirre, 501 and 525 S. Wabash. The Chicago-based painter is influenced by graffiti writing and contemporary abstraction. Góralu, Czy Ci Nie Zal, Zor Zor Zor, 600 S. Michigan. A small alley work by an up-and-coming female artist. Slime Mountain, Heidi Unkefer, 623 S. Wabash. Winner of a Columbia College alumni contest. Stop Telling Women to Smile, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, 801 S. Wabash. News crews often use this mural as a backdrop for stories involving women's issues. In the same spot: Be the Change You Wish to See, Kashink. We Own the Future, Shepard Fairey, 916 S. Wabash. This work by the noted street artist (and founder of OBEY Clothing) helped kick off the corridor.

arts corridor map

Come crawl

On one October Friday each year, The Crawl summons art-lovers to check out gallery exhibitions, street performances and more culture in venues along South Wabash Avenue. The 2018 event (October 12) celebrates creative work happening in Columbia College Chicago's clasrooms and through its programs.

Neysa Page-Lieberman

Keeper of the Murals

Neysa Page-Lieberman An expert in public art portraying African diaspora and feminism, Neysa has taught curatorial classes at Columbia and oversees the school's spaces and exhibitions, including the arts corridor. She also offers occasional public programs at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Untitled mural
Untitled by Lady Lucx and Sarah Stewart greets Orange Line riders as the train enters the Loop from the south side.