Last September, the Obama Presidential Center, the future landmark to Barack Obama, the country’s first African American president, broke down in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side.
The 19-acre campus, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Interactive Designs Architects (IDEA), will consist of Obama’s presidential library and a museum focused on his administration, as well as a new branch of the Chicago Public Library and an outdoor recreation space featuring public art.
Since 2017, Louise Bernard has served as the director of the OPC’s museum. She previously worked on the project team that advised the inaugural displays for the National Museum of African American History in Washington, DC, and was briefly the director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library, before she joined the OPC.
While the OPC is still very much in formation, ARTnews checked in with Bernard to learn more about how the forthcoming institution is coming along.
ARTnews: In the five years since the architects for the Barack Obama’s forthcoming library were chosen in 2016, the museum has had several opening dates, including 2020. What’s the latest update on when we can expect it to open its door?
Louise Bernard: We are building the Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago. It is an incredibly visionary and ambitious project. We needed to do full due diligence. Once we had accounted for the city, the state, and the federal review process, we were able to break ground in September 2021. The center is now scheduled to open in the late fall of 2025.
What are the next steps in terms of architecture and design?
The 19-acre campus consists of the Museum building, which is a vertical structure; the Forum building, which is where all the multipurpose programming spaces will be; and a branch of the Chicago Public Library. The construction will take place holistically at once. Except for our athletic facility, whose timeline is little bit later. And there is all the landscaping work that will commence once the construction is further along. The vision of what the center will be firmly understood. The drawings are complete and ready to be executed upon. The concrete work will be the next phase. People will begin to see the construction coming out of the ground beginning in the summer.
What other cities could have been home to the Obama Presidential Center?
New York submitted interest, as did the state of Hawaii, which had connections to the President’s home. But I think there is nowhere like Chicago. It’s where Mrs. Obama was born and raised, on the South Side, and where the President really found his political footing. The city has a long, rich history of civic engagement. Because of its connection to the Great Migration, Chicago was perhaps the only place where the nation’s first African American president could have emerged.
What will the museum look like?
The core exhibition will go across four levels of the museum building. The first one (going upward) takes us from a deeply rooted understanding of American democracy to election night. The next level, for now called “Working for the Common Good,” tells the story of the Obama administration across two terms, focusing on both foreign and domestic—health care, immigration, education—policies. Then comes “The Life of the White House,” which will host a replica of the Oval Office. The final section, “We the People,” continues some of the storytelling around the Administration’s work, especially for science, innovation, and climate change, and concentrates on the ongoing work of the Foundation through the story of the President’s  farwell address in Chicago. At the top of the museum building is a space that we loosely call the Sky Room, a beautiful contemplative place with a magnificent view.
What will the core exhibit galleries consist of?
We work collaboratively with NARA (the National Archives and Records Administration) to collect object, buttons, banners, T-shirts, posters related to the 2008 presidential campaign. We want to help build upon that story from either side of the White House years, tracking back to President and Mrs. Obama’s formative years and forward from their post–White House years and the ongoing work of the Foundation. They are both incredibly active. Mrs. Obama’s memoir [Becoming Michelle Obama] was a huge phenomenon. We are collecting the book manuscript material, garments that she wore from her [book] tour because of her engagement with fashion as art. Regarding the pre–White House years, President Obama wants the story that we tell at the museum not just to be about him but about the people who made his presidency possible.
Besides NARA, what other institutions have you partnered with already?
Most recently with the Art Institute of Chicago. The Obama portraits began the first stop of their tour from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. We leveraged our community partnerships to make sure that people would receive free tickets for the opening week. As I understand it, the museum definitely saw the impact of the numbers of visitors who were coming, some for the first time, from the South and West South Sides [of Chicago]. We did a [fundraising] event at the Stony Island Arts Bank, which is part of artist Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation. In Honolulu we partnered with the Bishop Museum, which the President had frequented as a child. It was a lovely backdrop to meet people who were bringing their materials to us.
How do you select those artifacts?
Every week we meet as a collections curatorial group to review what has been brought to us for consideration. We are careful about the number of objects that we take in, so that we are not over duplicating materials, although some [objects] meant to be rotated need duplicates. Then we try to think about preservation considerations: if something is in very poor condition, it may not be the best investment. We would rarely discard anything. We try to think about prosperity. A button may have greater meaning in the future.
Do they all come via donations or are you actively purchasing as well?
For the most part, but we do some acquisitions through auction houses. eBay is a wonderful resource but, for the most part, we do acquire through donations. We offer people the opportunity to lend materials. And there is also the idea of a promised gift—someone may not be ready to let go of an object now, but they could consider gifting it to us in the future.
Are you planning to host temporary exhibitions?
Absolutely. There will be a 5,000-square-foot special exhibits gallery on the lowest level of the museum building. We imagine that’s where we will delve into topics that we only touch upon in the core exhibit. It will be an opportunity to either take an exhibition that has been on view somewhere else or just continue borrowing objects from various institutions over time. In the same way that we will lend out our materials. We do imagine that it will be a relatively conservative number of programs per year, one to two shows at least to start with.
Last February the Center announced the first commissioned piece of art by Richard Hunt for the its Reading Garden. Will the museum also have commissioned art inside?
There will be an amazing installation in the atrium space, which we are looking forward to announcing in the upcoming weeks. It is part of a set of six signature commissions at the Center. It is not by a Chicago artist but by someone who is close to President and Mrs. Obama and who means a lot to them.
The Obamas are patrons of the arts. Will works from their personal collection feature in the museum?
There will be a replica of the Oval Office in the museum. Any artwork the President hung in that space there will be a reproduction, not the original. But there will be other pieces on display over time separate from the commissions.
How has it been working with the Obamas so far? How often do you talk or meet to discuss plans for the museum?
They are very engaged with the work of the foundation and the building of the Obama Presidential Center. Mrs. Obama’s focus is mainly attached to the Girls Opportunity Alliance. The President is interested in all aspects of the design, in the art commissions, in our selection of artifacts. We are working with White House speech writers, among other experts, but the President who is a writer himself will obviously be reviewing the [texts] that will live in the museum. We would meet periodically in person pre-Covid. That switched to virtual meetings. Not necessarily every week but there is a regular cadence to the meetings.
What are you proud of in regards to the Center’s progress so far?
We are proud of every single day. Having worked on the team that mapped out the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington has been helpful for me to understand what it means to build a social and cultural institution from the ground up. As the founding director of this particular museum, I have the incredible opportunity to craft a vision that helps to build on the legacy of all the work the Obamas did while in office. I have to take responsibility to move a project forward but I don’t do it single-handedly. Knowing that releases some of the pressure.
Looking toward 2025, what do you hope visitors to the Obama Presidential Center take away when visiting?
As visitors come to the Obama Presidential Center, we hope they see themselves in the stories we are telling: the inspiring story of President and Mrs. Obama, of the work they did while at the White House, and the lasting impact they had on our country; the interwoven narrative of their legacy of passing the baton and inspiring young people to change their communities and the world; and the stories of global and domestic leaders changing their communities over time. We hope that visitors, in finding themselves in these stories, feel empowered to take steps—big or small—to make change in their community, and join a global network of changemakers looking to change the world. Opening day will just be the beginning. The other critical thing about this project being its ever-dynamic, timely quality. As a platform for engagement, it will continue to grow and evolve, encouraging repeat visitorship—for 2025 and beyond.
Why is a project like this so important?
The Obama Presidential Center campus on the South Side of Chicago will be a destination for visitors from all over the world, but also a convening space for local residents. This project represents an important investment in the South Side, and should serve as an example for other developments in Chicago: through our workforce development initiative, we are creating jobs and working with community members to build the Center, which will turn spark economic growth in the community, and unlock the potential that has always existed on the South Side. It will be a campus for the community, built in partnership with the community.
The project also underscores the importance of museums and cultural institutions writ large. Visitors will find a space that is immersive and participatory – connected both to history and the power of art (the visual arts but also music and performance) as well as the importance of fact-based information. In the spirit of conviviality, visitors will be invited to explore the myriad ways in which we can, together, imagine the world anew.