Sending mail art to an art museum

The Art Institute of Chicago is welcoming people to send them mail art in the form of postcards. If you were to send some mail art to the Art Institute, what would you send? I’m mulling this over.

Rewinding two decades, an idea popped into my mind during a visit to the Art Institute’s shop: purchasing postcards and altering them to appear as if mishandled by the postal service. Yet, these marks of wear—scratches, smudges, folds—wouldn’t be mere signs of damage but deliberate, artful enhancements. Imagine a scratch encircling a figure in a painting, imbuing it with an ethereal halo, or an ink smudge, seemingly accidental, shaping itself into a brooding cloud over a landscape. This concept of intentional imperfection breathes new life into the canvas of correspondence.

A search for “postcard” in the Art Institute collection reveals 170 items. One of my favorites is this Paul Klee postcard.

The Bright Aspect (Postcard for the Bauhaus Exhibition)” by Paul Klee, 1923

Where postcards are stored at the Art Institute of Chicago

Does the Art Institute own more than 170 art postcards? Beyond the 170, they also collect postcards for archival significance and educational resources. Their article, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Correspondence Art” points out

The Art Institute’s mail art collection is extensive, and lives in several places, including the museum’s permanent collection, the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries’ special collections, and the Art Institute Archives. When it comes to collection and display, mail art is a complicated genre. It exists somewhere in between being an art object—think paintings, sculptures, prints, and so forth—and being an archival object—think exhibition catalogs, provenance records, or any materials that bring historical and researchable context to an artwork (like artist correspondence). The School of the Art Institute’s Flaxman library also has a robust collection of artist-designed postcards and stamps

Thus, the Art Institute stores mail art in three places:

  1. As an art object. Hence, one of the 170 items in the museum’s collection.
  2. As an archival object. The Ryerson and Burnham Libraries’ special collections and the Art Institute Archives.
  3. As an artist-designed postcard. I’m not sure what the distinction is between “art object” and “artist-designed postcard”. But the latter is stored in the School of the Art Institute’s Flaxman library.

Can your postcard make it into one of these three places?

They straight-out say:

To make an appointment to view some of the mail art in the Ryerson and Burnham collection, contact us via our email, Or take a spin through our digital collections.

Or even better—send us a postcard.

—Sofia Canale-Parola, Ray Johnson Project Cataloger, Art Institute of Chicago Archives

P. Jones / S. Canale-Parola
Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60603

Certainly, they are having fun with ending their article with an invite to send postcards. But they actually list their address. They are serious about people sending in art postcards.

If you use this address to mail an art postcard, one can’t help but speculate on the fate of these mailed treasures. Would a piece from an unknown artist be tucked away in a desk drawer or, perhaps more dishearteningly, meet its end in recycling? Regardless, the ephemeral nature of mail art, akin to a fleeting thought or a passing cloud, underscores its purpose: to connect, to communicate, and to momentarily capture the recipient’s imagination.

This open call from the Art Institute not only revives the tangible art of correspondence but also invites us to reflect on the mechanisms of artistic recognition and the journey of art from the creator’s hands to the hallowed halls of museums. It beckons a broader discourse on the essence of art, its preservation, and its legacy.

What will send?

When I send something, I’ll make a new post on

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Tom Saaristo
Tom Saaristo
4 months ago

Crushing on this hard!

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