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World renowned Chicago sculptor Richard Hunt, dies at 88

Richard Hunt. Credit: Sandro

Richard Howard Hunt, a pioneering sculptor and beloved figure in the art world, passed away peacefully at the age of 88 on Saturday, December 16, 2023, at his home in Chicago. Born on September 12, 1935, in the city where he would leave an indelible mark, Hunt’s remarkable career spanned nearly seven decades.

Hunt, a descendant of slaves, grew up on Chicago’s South Side, immersing himself in the city’s cultural richness through art lessons at the South Side Community Art Center and the Junior School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Despite the challenges faced by African-American artists in his time, Hunt’s dedication to his craft resulted in over 150 solo exhibitions and representation in more than 100 public museums worldwide.

Inspired by the landmark exhibition “Sculpture of the Twentieth Century” in 1953 and deeply affected by the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till in Chicago, Hunt embarked on a journey of artistic expression. Teaching himself to weld, he gained national recognition when the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired his sculpture, Arachne, only two years later.

Hunt’s commitment to civil rights was evident when, at the age of 19, he desegregated the Woolworth’s lunch counter in San Antonio, Texas, during his military service. In 1968, he became the first African American visual artist to serve on the National Council on the Arts, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Throughout his illustrious career, Hunt created over 160 public sculptures, honoring figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Jesse Owens, and Ida B. Wells. His monumental works, including Swing Low and Hero Construction, stand as tributes to African-American history and the struggle for freedom.

Hunt’s artistic impact extended beyond his sculptures. In 2022, Barack Obama commissioned him to create “Book Bird,” the first artwork for the Obama Presidential Center. A major monograph, “Richard Hunt,” published in the same year, became the definitive survey of his work, while the Getty Research Institute acquired the Richard Hunt Archive, recognizing his central role in African American art history.

Artistic freedom was paramount to Hunt, who received 18 honorary degrees and held numerous professorships and artist residencies at prestigious institutions. His influence reached beyond art, as he served on boards, committees, and councils, including the National Museum of American Art.

In acknowledgment of his lifetime achievements, April 24, 2023, was declared “Richard Hunt Day” by Illinois First Lady MK Pritzker. Hunt, survived by his daughter Cecilia and sister Marian, recently completed the sculptural model for “Hero Ascending,” a monument to Emmett Till, reflecting his commitment to both art and civil rights.

Hunt may be best known for his “Hero Construction” sculpture, which resides at Chicago’s Art Institute. He was also renowned not only for his sculptures but also for breaking barriers through his art, Richard Hunt’s legacy will endure. A private funeral service will be held in Chicago, with a public celebration of his life and art planned for spring 2024.

Mayor Brandon Johnson expressed deep sorrow, highlighting Hunt’s profound impact on the city and the world in this statement released Saturday, December 16, 2023.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Richard Hunt, visionary Chicago sculptor and activist. A lifelong Chicagoan, his extraordinary career spanning 70 years leaves an indelible impact on our city and our world. 

“With more than 160 works across the United States, Chicago is home to many of Hunt’s monumental pieces, including “Flight Forms” at Midway Airport, “Jacob’s Ladder” at the Woodson Regional Library, and the 2021 Ida B. Wells Memorial in Bronzeville. In 2014, Hunt was celebrated with a career retrospective, “Richard Hunt: 60 Years of Sculpture,” at the Chicago Cultural Center and with featured works at the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

“We extend our sincere condolences to his family, friends and the cultural community. Richard’s legacy will live on for generations to come.”

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