The Mystery of the Dry Noguchi Fountain, Located Outside the Art Institute of Chicago

I’m a huge fan of Ted Kooser’s writing, and subscribe to his weekly American Life in Poetry – the project he initiated while serving as US Poet Laureate (2004 – 2006). On Monday, he shared a poem by poet Helen T. Glenn entitled Noguchi’s Fountain.

Glenn’s poem is about grief in the wake of a husband’s passing. And I have to admit, I struggled with the poem a bit, not really knowing much about the fountain in the poem’s title. But on doing a quick search for noguchi fountain, I came across this video and the poem clicked for me a bit more:

doing some additional searching, I found out more about the artist Isamu Noguchi. And to my surprise, I learned that there was an actual Noguchi fountain at the Art Institute, just a few blocks away from where I worked!

I found a blog post mentioning the fountain, but it sounded like many people have forgotten it even exists. Curious to see if the fountain was still there and running, I decided to hop over on my lunch break.

The Noguchi fountain is located on the Eastern-most side of the grounds, overlooking Columbus Ave. As I got closer, I saw that it looked to be non-functional. Part of me wondered how long the fountain had been this way – ever since 2010?

As I was standing there checking things out and trying to take photos, I had to dance around a few groundskeepers, who were tending to the grass directly in front of the fountain.

On closer inspection – yup, still pretty dry (though there was a bit of water near the steps, a few feet away).

Dedicated in 1976, the fountain is over 37 years old. I found this incredibly surprising, as the fountain struck me as very contemporary looking. Here’s what the placard nearby says:

Celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Republic. By Isamu Noguchi. Commissioned by the trustees of the B. F. Ferguson Monument Fund. Dedicated November 30, 1976.

Still curious about whether the fountain still works or not, I went around the corner to the Modern Wing, and tried to track down someone who might know more about the outdoor sculptures. After speaking with someone at the Ticket area, I got directed to the Information booth.

There, I talked to a woman and explained how I had arrived there: poetry, Google, and an old blog post. Though she knew vaguely of the fountain in back, she admitted that most staffers were less familiar with the artwork outside of the building. In a large reference binder, she found a mention of the fountain… but not much more information beyond the artist’s name, and the year it was dedicated.

As we talked more, another woman came by and tried to help me look up information on her computer. As I was spelling out the artist’s name, she exclaimed “Oh! I love Noguchi! I didn’t realize we had a fountain of his here!” She was so taken aback that she covered her mouth with her hand. I learned that she had just returned from New York, and had visited the Noguchi Museum there. I found this to be a wonderful bit of serendipity.

In talking with both women, I learned that they usually came in through the West or North entrances, and seldom walked along the Columbus sidewalk where the fountain is located. They also told me that I was the first person that had ever really inquired about the fountain. As we continued talking, they were unsure whether it was still working or not.

One theory they had was related to the location – they weren’t sure if the monument was commissioned by the Art Institute, or the adjoining school. Though I didn’t know if the fountain was still operational or not, I did end up getting a few clues as to where I might investigate next – the name of the New York museum, and a few departments within the Art Institute that I could call.

Even though I didn’t get specific answers, I greatly enjoyed the exchange. There was an odd bit of excitement in our conversation, and I felt like the three of us were doing a bit of detective work. It was pretty cool.

On going back outside, I decided to take a few more photos.

I’m unsure if this entire area is meant to be under water, when the fountain is running. But as there was no water around, I was able to walk up very close.

I had really missed this second element, as I was just fixed on the horizontal piece. But this also looked like it was part of the monument.

At the base, pretty dry. I saw a few cobwebs, and got the sense that there hadn’t been much water here in a long while.

As I was taking another round of photos, I happened to see one of the groundskeepers setting up a sprinkler. I walked over to him, and asked if he might know anything about the monument. Did he also tend to the sculptures outside?

He shook his head no, and told me he just cut the grass. But as we stood there talking, I realized something – I asked him how long he had been working there, and he told me a few hours. I clarified, and asked him if he had worked in the area for more than a day and he said he’d been tending the grounds for over 3 years. I asked if he had ever seen the fountain working, and he immediately replied “Oh yes, definitely.”

I learned from the groundskeeper that the fountains were turned off, due to construction happening at the school nearby. But he said the fountain should get turned on sometime next month. When I asked about the taller monument, he said that that was also a fountain, and water ran all along thee sides.

On hearing this news, I was totally excited. The fountain hadn’t been neglected all this time after all, and was just “on hold” until nearby construction completed.

I’m really happy that I decided to walk outside during my lunch break, and to explore the area around me. I love that a poem made me curious about an artist, and that curiosity led me to the web, and to a hidden part of the museum that most visitors (and even some of the staff) don’t see all that often.

Good poems teach you to look at the world in a new way, showing you ordinary things from a point of view you hadn’t considered before. Though I don’t believe this is the fountain from Glenn’s poem, I think better understand her descriptions now that I’ve seen one of Noguchi’s fountains in person.

Hopefully in a month or so, I’ll be back here to photograph the fountain again, water and all.

Photographs of the Art Institute, Taken 119 Years Apart (1893 – 2012)
Lunch with Liz, Fountain at the Art Institute
I Propose Marriage and Liz Says Yes: We’re Engaged!

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