The Art of Golf

A new exhibition at Elmhurst Art Museum this spring revisits an iconic 1988 show at the School of the Art Institute, combining art and recreation and drawing unparalleled interest in the museum experience from all corners of the city.

Back in the summer of 1988, 18 Chicago painters and sculptors assembled at the School of the Art Institute to design and build what has become one of the most wildly popular exhibitions it has showcased to date. In a fully immersive experience  that melded art and recreation, these artists designed a unique indoor 18-hole mini-golf course comprised of stations as  disparate as they were creative.

Brainchild of sculptor Michael O’Brien, the exhibition entitled Par Excellence (1988) opened to lines spanning Chicago’s city blocks. News of the frequently sold-out show quickly made its way to the pages of The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, People Magazine and CNN, among others. Following a downstate tour, it returned to Chicago rebranded as a commercial golf course called ArtGolf. It was the first of its kind, melding recreation and art, and it succeeded in doing something many museums and institutions had struggled with for years. It brought many new patrons into the school and the museum and shined a brilliant light on the work of these artists and the field of art in Chicago, captivating audiences in a truly original way. It broke down barriers and created sustained interest in art and the museum experience.

The exhibition culled the talents of such artists as painter, sculptor and activist  Jenny Krantz and sculptor Daina Shobrys. It also employed the skills of Don Howlett, an artist and professional golf course builder whose feet in both worlds helped him considerably as co-organizer of the original exhibition.

This summer, in homage to that first-of-its-kind exhibition, Elmhurst Art Museum will mount Par Excellence Redux, a fitting tribute to the 1988 original with 18 newly envisioned holes, each as original and innovative as the first course, and John McKinnon, executive director of Elmhurst Art Museum, is hoping to build on the cross-pollinating excitement inspired by Par Excellence 40 years later. Said McKinnon, “Originally I learned about the 1988 exhibit from Mark Pascale at the Art Institute, who was part of that show’s key organizing team. After several conversations with him and others, McKinnon decided to forge it as a keystone event of the museum’s greater community outreach efforts. His hope is to “further (the museum’s) art & architecture programming in an unexpected way, provide a fun, interactive experience, build partnerships, and incite a broader curiosity about the museum.”

After some internal discussion, McKinnon and his own team decided it would be best to issue an open call to artists much like the original 1988 show simply because they knew proposals today would not be short on originality and diversity. “We were more than pleased when the submissions started arriving,” he told me. Discussions were led by curator Christopher Jobson and included leadership from the Elmhurst Art Museum and City Museum in St. Louis.

Designed to inhabit each of the interior galleries in the venerable Elmhurst Art Museum, Par Excellence Redux will be comprised of a surprisingly varied assortment of themes and showcase a variety of forms, promising an ever artful and thought-provoking twist to the popular pastime.

Participating artists this go around are: Wesley Baker, Julie Cowan, Current Projects, Katherine Darnstadt, KT Duffy, Eve Fineman, Andrea Jablonski, Joshua Kirsch, Annalee Koehn, Vincent Lotesto, Joshua Lowe, Jesse Meredith, Jim Merz, David Quednau, Gautum Rao, Robin Schwartzman, Liam Wilson & Anna Gershoni, and the Elmhurst Art Museum’s Teen Art Council.

Criteria for any given hole of the course were three-fold, McKinnon told me: originality of the design; durability and playability; the ability of the design to blend art and recreation.

As the project materialized and pitches began making their way to the museum, the concept for the course began to take shape. But McKinnon admitted that in the beginning, it was difficult to imagine what would materialize in the museum’s halls once all was said and done, yet the scope and reception that the original show enjoyed offered incentive in ample supply. “There was a definite phase of faith in the concept, McKinnon explained. “With the exception of Annalee Koehn’s revived ‘Determine Your Fate,’ nothing existed before. We knew we’d have to start the course from scratch, potentially with artists we’ve never worked with before. But, after learning about the original Par Excellence show, and its eventual evolution into the ArtGolf business, we were very encouraged and excited to give shape to something new in homage to that original idea.”

One element that is new in the new show is the tie-in to not only art but architecture, a focus endemic to the Elmhurst Art Museum’s Mies van der Rohe connection. Several artists incorporated the element of architecture into their portions of the exhibition, clearly a nod to the museum’s iconic McCormick House.

Other references to the museum made their way into the exhibition also. In fact, Gautam Rao designed “Chairy Who” to reference the museum’s history of exhibiting The Hairy Who along with cut-out obstacles of key modernist chairs.

One particularly noticeable nod to the original 1988 show is a hole from Par Excellence recreated by artist Annelee Koehn. In addition, the museum will exhibit ephemera, photos and newspaper articles about the original exhibition.

Ultimately, McKinley hopes that the new course will change perceptions about the approachability of an art museum. After all, creative expression comes in a universe of forms. It doesn’t have to be relegated to painting, sculpture and drawings.

In fact, it can come quite impactfully in the form of an 18-hole creatively imagined mini-golf course that stirs the imagination and also gets your competitive juices flowing.

Par Excellence Redux will be on view at Elmhurst Art Museum May 9 through September 12, 2020.