What should we do with the Cultural Center? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

What should we do with the Cultural Center? 

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Supposedly the idea came to Mayor Daley one day last summer, while he was thinking about the Museum of Contemporary Art's long-delayed plans to move to a new location.

Hey, Daley thought, why not have the museum move to the Cultural Center? It will be more than half empty after the library moves its fiction collection to its new south Loop building in 1991. If the MCA moved in, it would be right down the street from the Art Institute. Not to mention that the MCA board would take over from the city most of the landmark building's costly maintenance bills.

It seemed like such a good idea that Daley passed it on to a buddy connected with the MCA, who chewed it over with other museum officials, who let it slip to a reporter for the Lerner papers, which ran an article on it several weeks ago. Suddenly all hell broke loose. Daley's simple little suggestion has stirred the wrath of local artists, who view the Cultural Center as the "people's palace," a one-of-a-kind resource where obscure and emerging artists can display their work in a central location. The suggestion may also have led to the departure of Joan Harris, Daley's former commissioner of Cultural Affairs.

"Getting rid of the Cultural Center has to be one of the dumbest ideas I've ever seen come out of this city--and I've lived here all of my life," says Arlene Rakoncay, executive director of the Chicago Artists' Coalition, a not-for-profit association of local artists. "We're absolutely unique among cities in that we have a vital arts center downtown where artists can show their work. The MCA is great, but it's a private museum. You have to pay to get in there. And they don't concentrate on Chicago artists. The Cultural Center is a free place. It's where an office worker in the Loop can slip away for 20 minutes on his lunch break to look at an exhibition or hear a concert, and now they want to just throw it all away."

Administration officials plead for calm.

"First of all, the proposal to move the MCA there is only a proposal; the MCA doesn't even know if they want to do it. They have to see how much it would cost," says Avis LaVelle, press secretary to the mayor. "If they do move there, we are confident that a lot of what happens in the Cultural Center will have a natural home in the new Harold Washington Library. So I would advise the artists who are so upset to stop screaming."

Only a decade ago it seemed no one wanted anything to do with the Cultural Center building. Built in 1897, it was the city's original downtown library. By the late 1960s, however, the library's collection had outgrown the space. So city officials decided to "temporarily" shelve most of the collection in a warehouse behind the Tribune Tower--a temporary move that lasted 15 years, by the way--and convert most of the old building into exhibition and concert halls.

A few academic types protested the loss of a central library, but no one in power listened to them. Besides, in time the Cultural Center turned out to be a nice idea. Remodeled at a cost of about $20 million, it features four galleries, a Civil War museum, a gorgeous reception hall, and plenty of room for daily lunchtime lectures, concerts, and recitals.

On its walls hung the works of all kinds of artists, heralded as well as undiscovered. The Cultural Center is an "Equal Opportunity Exhibitor of the highest sort," said the New Art Examiner in 1987. "Free from aesthetic tokenism the Cultural Center has sought out and exhibited art by blacks, Latinos and Native American artists that have succeeded in broadening our perception of what constitutes contemporary art. We are very grateful for that."

Still, city officials worried about what would become of the building when the library collection moves south. The building costs as much as $5 million a year to secure, heat, and maintain, according to some estimates. Officials feared an outcry once the public learned that so many tax dollars were being spent on a building used only for art.

"In a perfect world, we would support the Cultural Center, but this is not a perfect world," says LaVelle. "While I don't know the dollar upkeep, it would be a lot of money. This is a time of federal cutbacks, and we have a lot of pressing needs all over the city."

To assuage such concerns, Joan Harris, who'd been appointed by Harold Washington to head the Department of Cultural Affairs, prepared a report on how the building could be put to productive and cost-effective use after the library's departure. It was part of her idea to expand the city's "art industry."

"When times are poor we should be subsidizing the arts," says one City Hall arts partisan who asks for anonymity. "People want the arts; look at the demand that the schools provide art and music teachers. There's also an economic component. The art industry is very important to Chicago. Look at the real estate boom in the gallery district--that started when artists moved there. The Cultural Center should be helping to develop and expose talent; it should be a part of all that."

In effect, Harris and others justify art subsidies as an investment in the city's economic and cultural growth. It's the same rationale economic planners give for subsidizing manufacturing and real estate development. Sometimes it seems that there's not a developer around who's willing to build without some kind of handout. The city and state are spending millions to build a new White Sox stadium on the grounds that it will attract suburban tax dollars and preserve Chicago's reputation as a major cultural center.

True, most of our major museums--like the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry--receive funds from the Park District, which owns the land they sit on. But the money spent to cultivate, develop, and display local artistic talent is minuscule. And Daley's across-the-board budget cuts forced Cultural Affairs to sever $150,000 from its grants-to-artists program. (Although it should be said in Daley's defense that the decision to cut the grants program was Harris's. According to administration officials, she could have taken the money from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which unlike emerging artists has many wealthy patrons who could have made up the difference.)

When members of the arts community heard that Harris wanted to preserve the Cultural Center after the library's move, they were excited.

"I knew about Joan Harris's plan, and I asked to see a copy of it," says Rakoncay. "But she said I couldn't see it until after Mayor Daley had a chance to review it."

According to Rakoncay, Harris submitted her plan to Daley in June. After that the plan was never heard of again. Then sometime this summer, Harris heard on the grapevine about Daley's proposal to move the MCA to the Cultural Center.

"She must have really been hurt because Daley didn't even have the decency to tell Harris to her face that he wasn't approving her plan," says Rakoncay. "Joan and her husband [businessman Irving Harris] gave Daley lots of campaign contributions, too. It must have been one hell of a slap in the face."

Harris will not comment on the matter. But through friends she has let it be known that she opposes plans to move the MCA into the Cultural Center. And in an interview with television reporter Andy Shaw, she denounced the $150,000 budget cut as unfair "to small and emerging arts organizations."

Apparently, Daley has little tolerance for such independence. The day after Halloween, one of his top aides visited Harris in her office and asked her to "get with the team" or resign, according to City Hall officials. Harris chose to resign. A few days later, Lois Weisberg, who was director of Special Events under Harold Washington, was named as her replacement.

"I understand Joan's frustrations," says LaVelle. "I didn't see her report, but I understand it called for $18 million to renovate the Cultural Center and move her department there. It was going to be a palace that she could use for all the cultural arts. In a perfect world that would be nice. But we just can't justify spending all of that money."

With Harris gone, the focus now shifts to whether MCA wants to move to the Cultural Center at all. That they must move somewhere is beyond dispute. They outgrew their current quarters on East Ontario years ago. "We're so incredibly cramped that we have to shut down between exhibitions," says Maureen King, press liaison for the museum. "And we very rarely get to show our regular collections."

In 1987, the MCA announced plans to acquire and demolish the vacant state-owned armory at Chicago and Michigan avenues, and build a new gallery there with privately raised money. But the state has dillydallied on negotiations. Museum trustees felt Daley's suggestion deserved a closer look.

"Moving to the Cultural Center probably won't save us any capital expenses," says one MCA insider. "But you have to love the location. We could do great on Chicago Avenue; it's an affluent area. But very few people from the south or west sides would be able to make it there. If we moved to the Cultural Center, we'd be exposing modern art to people who had never experienced it. And that would be great for the city."

Most likely, however, MCA won't make the move, particularly if it means catching flak from local artists. In addition, moving to the Cultural Center would require City Council approval; certain aldermen can be counted on to demand that MCA officials toe the line on the city ordinance banning "desecration" of the flag.

"I don't know if we want to be censored by the City Council," says the above-quoted MCA insider. "Beyond that, we're in a box. If we move to the Cultural Center, they'll say we're kicking out the artists. If we move to Chicago Avenue ten years from now they'll say we're not making our art accessible to the poor. We can't win."

One way out is for Weisberg to operate the Cultural Center with private donations, like the Art Institute or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Perhaps all the hotshots who have made millions here with the help of tax cuts could form a group called "Patrons of the Cultural Center" and throw a once-a-year $10,000-a-plate formal dinner, with only the rich and influential invited. That would pay the building's bills without a problem.

Arlene Rakoncay isn't holding her breath. "If we were talking about building a sports stadium, we would have an abundance of government and private support," she says. "But we're talking about the arts and culture. And in Chicago, when you talk about arts and culture, all they want to do is throw a parade."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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