10:27 AM CDT, July 6, 2012
When it comes to show business — and all admission-charging cultural attractions are, whether they like to admit it or not, in the business of show — people don't keep coming back to see a building. Their return, or the lack thereof, will always depend on what's going on inside.
The authors of the new University of Chicago study "Set in Stone" don't actually come right out and say that, but it's an inescapable conclusion. The study by the Cultural Policy Center details the hubristic downside of the cultural building boom between 1994 and 2008 — the one that gave us the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and most of the planning and construction for the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing, among others. The dollar-spraying boom hardly was limited to big cities. Been to Appleton, Wis., recently? The huge Fox Cities Performing Arts Center takes up half the downtown. Whether there will be anything there you want to see is another matter.
The study is exhaustive when it comes to detailing all the bad reasons that cultural organizations (such as theaters, museums, arts centers) build themselves splashy additions or new homes: merely to keep up with the competition, to claim some untested notion that it will transform a depressed downtown neighborhood economically or attract new tourists, to bring prestige to executives, to create a vehicle for egotistical donors, and so on.
But the study is much less revealing in regard to when arts organizations should build and what they should be building. It suggests that these new projects, which invariably go over budget, should be undertaken only when they are realistic, well-planned and led, and "the project's motivation was comprised of both the organization's sense of its artistic mission and by organizational need." Yet plenty of the projects of which the study is critical were (in their own minds) following those dictates, because the mission and need are usually determined by the organization doing the building. If you want some spiffy new digs, it's not hard to align that with your "mission" and order up a friendly consultant's study to reveal some need or other.
The study also doesn't have much to say about one of the other relevant truths of show business: Cultural institutions don't have as much control over their own programming as they like to claim. Popular, high-class Broadway shows have to tour before the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center can sell out the orchestra seats, and that business has declined precipitously in quality and quantity since the days of "Phantom of the Opera" rolling into a smallish town with multiple trucks. The Field Museum can't create enough blockbuster exhibits all by itself; those visitor-magnet tours of diamonds, gold, mummies or whatever (and they're no different, really, from shows) have to be available and affordable, and they have to want to come at a viable price.
This is really why so many of these buildings don't meet their rosy projections: It's not so much about deviating from mission as being unable to find the right product to fill the new space. It's much easier to find a donor to name a building, or a wing, than to find someone to subsidize programming.
It's a temporal problem: The arts are about the moment; philanthropy usually is about a quest for permanence. What this study should have said is that someone needs to find a way to bridge that gap. Take a look at the situation at the Harris this past weekend, when the Paris Opera Ballet sold out virtually all its shows. Which was the worthier and more visceral endeavor? Building the walls or putting the dancers in the same room as Chicagoans?
In the middle of the building boom identified in the U. of C. study came Chicago's Millennium Park, surely the most phenomenally successful cultural building project of the decade, not just in Chicago but in the entire Midwest (and beyond). Millennium Park not only has established itself as a massive tourist draw (in a city that, several studies say, suffers from the perception that there is not enough for multiday tourists to do), but the dazzling quality of the interactions it offers its visitors is clear to anyone who has, even for a moment, witnessed all the fun to be had at the Cloud Gate sculpture, aka The Bean. Millennium Park has proved to be immune from the problems that have afflicted the hubristic arts builders, because Millennium Park brilliantly blurs the distinction between building and content.
Here's a piece of cultural construction where people do keep coming back for the building, even if the walls are fountains and the floors green. It's not about mission; it's about joyful usability. You can interact with this site in multiple ways: lightly, intensely, indoors, outdoors, intelligently, playfully, stupidly. Even when one part of the place is empty, another always is teeming with life. Go down this afternoon. You'll see what I mean.
The two next major cultural building projects in Chicago are the retooling of Navy Pier and the expansion of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. There are cautionary tales aplenty in the U. of C. study, but a model in Millennium Park. Navy Pier has to have a more populist orientation: It must work for families, youngsters and folks of all income ranges. It must be unpretentious. But like Millennium Park, whatever emerges can't be set in stone. The attractions and what contains them must be indistinguishably irresistible. Steppenwolf, of course, shouldn't be a lakeside amusement park. But there are multiple ways for people to interact with serious theater buildings too: They can eat there, drink there, shop there, listen to music, hang out in a lobby, imbibe a creative atmosphere, and forget where the building ends and the show begins.