The Best Chicago Arts & Culture Experiences You Can Enjoy at Home

Stay safe and stay cultured at the same time.

Remember leaving the house? It's been approximately 10 zillion months since the state of Illinois began implementing various forms of shelter-in-place orders and yet somehow the new normal still feels like anything but. And between waning sunlight and rapidly dropping temps, winter-fearing Chicagoans all over the city are desperate for something—anything—new to experience.

We recommend taking this opportunity to get reacquainted with your creative self. Thankfully, Chicagoland arts and humanities organizations, music venues and performers, and other dedicated local creators are weathering this never-ending storm by adapting to the current virtual reality. Because if you’re going to stare at a screen all day, you might as well get a little culture in the process.

Take a virtual tour of Chicago’s top museums 

Institutional big wigs like the MCA, Field Museum, and the Museum of Science and Industry are going to great lengths to keep Chicagoans good and stimulated during the lockdown. In addition to a full calendar of digital events, the Field Museum teamed up with Giant Screen Films to present Movie Night with SUE the T. rex, a series of action-packed educational film rentals for at-home streaming. At the MCA, quarantiners can follow along as Manilow Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith treats them to the ultimate insider’s tour of The Long Dream, a brand new exhibition featuring the work of more than 70 local artists, while the Museum of Science and Industry is delivering dazzling live walk-throughs of their Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibit as well as hands-on science experiments directly to your computer screen.

Cult favorite American Writers Museum is encouraging would-be guests to dive into its newly revamped virtual hub, a one-stop shop for online exhibits, free webinars and author chats, podcasts, and a bounty of YouTube videos like Little Squirrels Storytime. Before bidding farewell, make sure to stop by the online shop and stock up on clever holiday gifts for the lit lovers in your life.

The Chicago History Museum, Adler Planetarium, and the Chicago Architecture Center have also expanded community-based initiatives aiming to foster a feeling of togetherness while we’re apart. The History Museum is staying busy with a host of immersive digital offerings like virtual reality exhibits and neighborhood tours as well as Zoom backgrounds and other fun downloadables while CAC is home to its own online exhibits plus live streamed events covering all aspects of Chicago’s built world from Wrigley Field to Tiffany glass. Over at Adler, science-minded folks can connect to the Zooniverse to jump head first into real research projects from the comfort of their couches, participate in weekly skywatches, peruse virtual exhibits, and more.

Calling all Wellington fans! The Shedd Aquarium’s beloved resident penguin has become something of a quarantine hero since he was first filmed roaming freely around the shuttered museum. Keep up with your boy and check in on his fellow tuxedoed pals Edward, Annie, Izzy, and Darwin via the aquarium’s free virtual reality penguin expedition or step it up a notch with a personalized Virtual Penguin Encounter. Meet and greets with other cuddly creatures like otters and sea lions are also available, as well as audio guides, live underwater cams, online camps, stories, and other family-friendly activities.


Transform your living room into an art studio

Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood has fully embraced Zoom life as evidenced by their massive roster of workshops led by esteemed artists. Sign up for adult-oriented classes on everything from hand-built ceramics, beginner’s cross-stitch, and drawing fundamentals to advanced bookbinding, oil painting, metalsmithing, and portrait photography or occupy the kiddos with seasonal crafting demos and painting tutorials just for them. And on the other end of town, Hyde Park Art Center has similarly pivoted into an online hub for all things creativity including virtual artist talks, open houses, and workshops.

As mentioned, major museums like the storied Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art have started pushing at-home activities inspired by their diverse collections and smaller outfits like the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago aren’t far behind. The Museum of Mexican Art includes activities in Spanish and English, as well as handicraft how-to guides, coloring sheets, and a full lineup of live streamed events while the Smart Museum has thrown their entire 16,000+ collection online for your browsing pleasure. 


Get up close and personal with bestselling books, build your collection, or pen your masterpiece

Burned out on Netflix? Satisfy your inner nerd by joining one of the city’s premiere virtual book clubs. Treasured indie venue Empty Bottle has taken a turn for the literary this year, featuring free monthly Zoom discussions on thought-provoking works like Dave Eggers’ "Monk of Mokha" and other choice picks. Unsurprisingly, the Chicago Reader is living up to its name with their own online lit collective featuring virtual chats with celebrated authors like Mikki Kendall ("Hood Feminism"), Riva Lehrer ("Golem Girl"), and Sonali Dev ("Recipe for Persuasion") for just $20 a session. And if bible-thick novels aren’t your thing, try Quimby’s Zine Club Chicago on for size, a monthly online meet-up celebrating the latest and greatest in DIY publishing.
Those inspired to chart their own literary course will be happy to learn that StoryStudio Chicago’s entire fleet of classes is now available online. The organization, which supports writers in honing their craft, strengthening their voice, and communicating with confidence, launched “Pajama Seminars” led by authors in various genres, tackling topics such as playwriting, memoir, building imaginary worlds, crime fiction, and more. Seminars can be purchased as single session one-and-dones or more in depth multi-week programs.

Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park relaunched its Front Table newsletter since closing its doors to keep with COVID-19 precautions. Readers can browse and purchase the store’s Front Table Books (aka titles deemed current must-reads), discover its backlist, engage with university and small press books, and uncover future favorites.


Ditch the couch for a dance class

Battle the winter blues and get your blood pumping with interactive dance tutorials presented by some of Chicago’s top performers. Noteworthy pros like Alvin Ailey II’s Antuan Byers, Jazz Roots Dance Company Artistic Director Sue Samuels, Motivated Movers’ Elise Melendez, and others have been lending their showstopping talents to the virtual lessons listed on Dancing Alone Together, an online resource for the dance community created during the state’s first lockdown last spring. Students can sign on for contemporary ballet barre, Butoh training, West African dance, classic jazz steps, and everything in between.


Tune in to world class live music, film screenings, and onstage performances

It’s a well-known fact that Chicago is a music town, birthing house music, redefining modern day hip-hop, and influencing garage rock on a national scale over the past few decades. So when venues across the city were forced to darken their stages, the community quickly got to work adapting to this new normal. Nine months in, indoor gatherings remain off-limits and dropping into a live streamed show sponsored by one of the area’s many neighborhood gems is still an ideal way to spread the love. Keep an eye on event listing specialists like the Chicago Reader for the skinny on what’s (virtually) popping at the Hideout, Lincoln Hall and Schuba’s, the Bottle, Sleeping Village, Old Town School of Folk Music, and other much-loved haunts.

Elsewhere, Experimental Sound Studio’s Quarantine Concerts continue to deliver live sets and archival footage from Monday night performance showcase Option’s 5 year history through its website, with 100% of proceeds going directly to the artists performing each day.

Bring two of the city’s most beloved movie theaters, the Music Box and Logan Theatre straight to your living room. Music Box at Home is a revolutionary streaming service offering the venue’s acclaimed international art house lineup on demand. Current and upcoming selections include Zappa, Flowers of Shanghai, Frida Khalo, and Jindrich Polák’s pioneering IKARIE XB-1.

A night at the theater is tough to replicate during quarantine but, as they say, the show must go on. Get into the holiday spirit with festive streams like Manual Cinema’s puppet-fueled Christmas Carol, Porchlight’s Burning Bluebird, One-Man Christmas Carol from Writers Theater artistic director Michael Halberstam, Looking Glass Theater’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, two versions of The Nutcracker at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, and the Goodman Theater’s inventive audio-only adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Off the Christmas beat, indie darling Steppenwolf Theatre Company has rolled out a robust schedule of upcoming performances and the Belmont Theater District has banded together to keep folks entertained while at home, with programming from different improv comedy and stand-up acts and theaters across the North side neighborhood, available online for bite-sized yet effective respite. Remember, laughter is the best medicine.

Looking for something a bit less, er, tame? Quarantine Cabaret, brought to you by burlesque performer Michelle L’amour, features a titillating array of performance artists, illusionists, comedians, drag performers, circus acts, and dancers. Episodes and additional content are available through L’amour’s website

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