Friday, June 6, 2008

Chicago performing arts museum--why not?

Posted By on 06.06.08 at 12:05 PM

Why doesn't Chicago have a theater and dance museum? Or, if not a full-fledged museum, at least an archive and gallery?

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center offers a comprehensive archive along with exhibitions and public programs. But the closest Chicago has come is the Chicago Theater Collection at the Harold Washington Library Center. Squirreled away in a small reading room on the library's top floor, the collection comprises materials donated by individuals (like the late Warren Casey, who coauthored Grease) and local companies ranging from the Goodman and Steppenwolf to defunct troupes such as Hull House Theater, Body Politic, and David Mamet's St. Nicholas. Among those materials are programs, posters, production histories, review clippings, budget sheets, box office reports, correspondence, and even bathroom duty rosters. All these holdings are on reserve.

The collection also contains videos documenting memorable productions by the ensembles that have helped define Chicago theater (including one of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in Steppenwolf 's True West). These videos can only be seen in a small viewing room down the hall from the reading room, during the Special Collections Department's limited business hours.

I don't mean to belittle the collection. It's a valuable resource for researchers, and the librarians who run it are wise and dedicated public servants. But it doesn't begin to reflect the richness and diversity of Chicago theater, and it's inconveniently located at the opposite end of the Loop from our ballyhooed Randolph Street theater district, home to both big commercial houses and intimate nonprofit auditoriums.

Retired critic Richard Christiansen made a pitch for a performing arts museum last March, in a long piece for the Tribune Sunday magazine. "I got excellent reader 'great idea' response via phone and e-mails," he says in an e-mail, "but not a word from anyone able to say, 'Let's do it.'"

It is indeed a great idea just waiting for cultural, political, and philanthropic leaders of vision and determination to make it a priority.

I hereby join Christiansen's call for the creation of a Chicago Museum of the Performing Arts in the Randolph Street Theatre District--an institution worthy of our city's vibrant, internationally renowned theater, dance, and music scenes. Can't the Department of Cultural Affairs team up with the Chicago Public Library to move the theater collection into the Cultural Center? Can't the library's reserve collection of archival materials be augmented by public exhibitions of theater memorabilia? Can't theaters around town be persuaded to place a sampling of their photos and posters on the walls of a Cultural Center gallery, so that tourists can check them out before the Wednesday matinee of Wicked?

A Chicago performing arts museum would also be the perfect venue for theater-related programming. How about a series of talks modeled on Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, featuring interviews with local notables and visiting celebrities? These interviews--perhaps cosponsored by the League of Chicago Theatres, the Jefferson Awards Committee, or Broadway in Chicago--could be taped for broadcast or webcast. The museum could also host the annual Equity and non-Equity Jeff Award ceremonies as well as the annual League of Chicago Theatres gala and other public events. Of course, the world of dance should be represented too, and also perhaps opera and classical music.

Any ideas how to set things in motion?

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