Bears to Field Museum: Take a Walk

The Chicago Bears are pathetic on the field, but they’re pretty good at butting in line to get what they want. When the Field Museum went to Springfield last fall to seek funding for its carefully planned, much-needed expansion, the Bears bumped the museum out of the legislative lineup so they could go first. They wanted more than $380 million to drop a new stadium on top of their old one, and they knew the best way to assure victory was to clear the field. “At the time,” says Field Museum president John McCarter, “nobody knew how the Soldier Field thing would go. The feeling was that this [the museum plan] would add to the complexity of getting it done. And so we stepped aside.”

The operative rule was the one we all learned at the grade-school drinking fountain: the big guy goes first. The museum, like any sensible lightweight, got out of the way, and the Bears got their cash. In the rush of it all, they didn’t dwell on the fact that the road they’ll be putting in east of Lake Shore Drive, right where we spent $90 million fives years ago to get rid of a road, will make the museum’s west entrance–its only school-bus and handicap-accessible entrance–unusable. Now the Field Museum is in position again, ready to make a request in Springfield for its $50 million expansion, plus a $10 million new entrance necessitated by the changes at Soldier Field. But since the Bears got their big score, the economic environment has taken a turn for the worse: the museum is playing in tougher conditions.

The museum’s plan would open more exhibit space, rehab galleries that were state-of-the-art in 1930, and create climate-controlled underground storage for much of the Field’s 21-million-piece collection. It was ready for Springfield a year ago, but the Park District benched it. “They said, ‘This looks great, but we would really like you to wait until the Soldier Field plan comes to fruition. Let’s do the whole thing at the same time,'” McCarter recalls. The museum sat on its plan, hoping it would go to the legislature in a single package with the Bears project. “But we basically were never in,” McCarter says. When the legislature met in special session last November, the Field’s people were making their pitch on their own, a little bit of debris on the playing field.

Attempts to block the Soldier Field project at this point look as feeble as the Bears’ offense. The stadium was built as the result of two public referenda–one in 1920, and another in 1924, when the first bunch of money ran out. But a referendum petition that would have let voters decide on the current project in this month’s election was thrown out by the Board of Election Commissioners. An appeal by the petition’s author, former state treasurer Pat Quinn, was dismissed by circuit court judge Raymond Jagielski earlier this month. Quinn says the soonest this “bum deal for the taxpayer” could appear on a ballot now will be March 2002. The nonprofit Friends of the Parks is asking the Chicago Plan Commission to withhold approval of the “gargantuan commercial stadium,” which will tower “five stories higher than the historic colonnades,” on the grounds that it violates the city’s Lakefront Protection Ordinance. Friends director Erma Tranter says, “People do not know the monstrosity that will be built there to accommodate the Bears on ten game days a year. They’ll be going around asking, ‘How did this happen?'” The Plan Commission will hold a public hearing on the stadium at 7 PM Wednesday, February 28, at the Chicago Cultural Center.

The Park District says the stadium will be rented out for events in addition to NFL games. Tranter says that’s bunk. “They’ll say anything to get this done, but the reality is it will not be used, because who can use it? The Grateful Dead? The Rolling Stones? Who else could fill it?” And if the stadium did turn out to be a popular rental venue, there’d be a different downside. On Bears game days museum attendance “plummets,” says McCarter. Besides the daunting traffic, parking is $25. “But,” adds the resilient McCarter, “that all happened in 1921 and 1923. That’s the deck we’re workin’ with.” As for the museum’s chances of success in Springfield, “We’ve had some encouragement, but you’ve got this overall question of the state of the economy and the fact that there’s been a very ambitious program [Build Illinois] put in place. People are saying things are a lot tighter this year than they were the prior two or three years, so who knows.” If the Bears scored in the last seconds and the museum gets shut out? “You just hunker down. That’s life.”

Words From Their Sponsors

The stadium isn’t the only commercial project under way on the lakefront. Jane Rodriguez, who stepped in as executive director of Museum Campus Chicago at the end of January, says her immediate goal is to build the campus’s corporate sponsorship program. Museum Campus Chicago was created in 1997 by the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium to manage events and services on their common ground and to promote the campus as a single destination. Up to now its primary contribution has been the trolleys that circulate on weekends and in the summer from the parking lots to the buildings. A museum campus Web site will be up in March, followed by new information kiosks on the grounds. On the drawing board: outdoor activities for kids. Rodriguez, a seven-year veteran of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, is pondering how to get corporate dollars for all this without infringing on each museum’s own fund-raising. “What’s ‘for sale’ right now would be the Web site, trolleys, and kiosks,” she says. “Sponsors will get their name and logo on the campus brochure too.”

Final Curtain

Another one bites the dust: Center Theater Ensemble is closing its doors March 1. The company, founded 17 years ago by Dan LaMorte, produced only three shows in the past two seasons. Although the facility at 1346 W. Devon has been rented to other groups and housed the theater’s school, the Training Center for Actors, Directors, and Playwrights, the company couldn’t pay its bills. Its lighting and sound equipment, set pieces, costumes, risers, chairs, and other possessions are being sold to pay off debt (former board president Charlie Frankel, 773-528-8624, is handling this sorry task), and the landlord is looking for another theater group to take the space. Over its lifetime, CTE produced more than 90 plays, including 20 new works, and sponsored an annual playwriting competition. Beth Henley was a resident playwright. Memorable CTE productions included a revival of the 1950s jazz musical version of Archy and Mehitabel and Dale Calandra’s Lysistrata 2411 AD. Calandra, Peter Toran, and Robin Witt of the Training Center are working on plans for a new school.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.