Mooooove over. A herd of cows invaded Chicago this summer. The fiberglass bovines marked the 20th anniversary of a popular art installation—one that inspired additional sculptures from hearts to lobsters in other cities. But the exhibit’s lasting effect goes beyond quirky statues.
Peter Hanig owns a store on Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue. Over 20 years ago, Hanig saw decorated cows dotting the city of Zürich, Switzerland. He found the cow concept “interesting.” But what really impressed him was “that people were stopping and looking and sort of communicating with each other.” For Hanig, the point wasn’t the art. It was the human interaction that it prompted.
Hanig approached Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs with an idea: Get local businesses and artists to sponsor and create cow art. “Cows on Parade” was born. The summer of 1999, 334 life-sized cows showed up on city sidewalks and in public gathering places. The cows sported flowers, baseball caps, Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, ladybug wings, and more. One clever brown bovine featured the word “HOW” on one side and “NOW” on the other.
Even in that pre-selfie era, folks took pictures with the cows. Tours sprang up. People voted for favorites. Chicago officials estimate the cows earned the city about $150 million in tourism dollars. Income from selling the sculptures exceeded $3 million. Chicago Tribune writer Louise Kiernan noted that the cows were probably “the most popular use of fiberglass since the invention of the hot tub.”
Why were the decorated cows so popular? Some credit the do-it-yourself and /crafting movement. Others say city pride. Still more praise the allure of everyone’s favorite farm animal. Then-Mayor Richard Daley’s take was simple. “People sometimes, in public art, are afraid to admit they don’t know what it is. Here they know what it is.”
Other cities began copying Chicago. There were buffalos in (you guessed it) Buffalo and cats in Catskill—both in New York. Juneau, Alaska, had whales, and Jacksonville, Florida, had manatees. There were roosters, angels, guitars, horses, peanuts, corn cobs, penguins, tulips, and oh, so many bears.
This summer, Chicago commemorated those first cows with a month-long exhibit called “Cows Come Home.” Some 20 original cows were on display in a park on Michigan Avenue.
Chicagoans welcomed the return of the cows. Hanig, who owns some of the original statues, isn’t surprised about the cow craze he started. “I saw something happening,” he says. “It was changing the dynamic of people of the street, the aloneness.” And that goes beyond art or animals.