Butt-Ugly Booklet

A $6 million campaign to attract culture vultures to Chicago over the next three years was unveiled last week, but its ultimate impact may be less than what city, state, and corporate officials planned. The initiative, dubbed “Cultural Chicago,” is the handiwork of the Illinois and Chicago bureaus of tourism and the American Express Company. Mayor Daley, for one, was optimistic: “This aggressive marketing campaign will elevate the city’s leadership in tourism promotion.”

But what exactly is being promoted? The campaign’s centerpiece is a 24-page booklet that provides a slight overview of what Chicago offers in the way of theater, dance, music, mu-seums, art, shopping, and restaurants. Beginning next month the booklet will be inserted into the New York Times Magazine, Food & Wine, and Travel & Leisure; it will also be mailed to thousands of would-be visitors who have requested information about the city’s cultural attractions. Judging from the cover of the bro-chure, the forces behind Cultural Chicago don’t trust the art to sell itself. A large color photo of Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte graces the cover, but large portions of the painting are blocked by the backsides of two baseball players–Frank Thomas of the White Sox and Sammy Sosa of the Cubs. Though the pair are supposedly studying the pointillist painting, their images are obviously superimposed on the photo.

Chicago cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg takes full responsibility for the cover art. “It was my idea, and I think it shows that everybody in Chicago is interested in culture.” Well, it depends on how broadly you define culture. Other arts executives were confused by the bro-chure–who exactly is it trying to reach? One underwhelmed spokesperson for a major arts institution opined, “If they were going to put butts on the cover, at least they could have come up with better butts.” Another baffled arts executive asked, “If the cover was intended to show that everyone is interested in the arts, why couldn’t they at least get the baseball players to come in and actually pose in front of the painting?” For the record, Art Institute spokesperson Eileen Harakal liked what she saw. “I think it’s lighthearted and wonderful.”

Even if the booklet attracts a few more free-spending visitors, the initiative raises the vexing question of why the city and state are willing to spend big bucks to market Chicago culture when they can’t seem to find more money to assist its many cash-starved arts groups. Weisberg says the city gives out about $1.3 million annually in arts grants, and that figure has remained unchanged since 1993. “We’re trying to find ways to creatively increase the amount we have to give,” explains Weisberg, who says she’s looking at innovative funding methods in other cities and states. Missouri, for example, supports the arts through an entertainment tax, and Los Angeles does it through a tax on private construction. Recently a bill was introduced in Illinois to funnel gambling taxes into arts funding, but its chances for passage are slim.

It’s telling that only one Chicago arts organi-zation–the Art Institute–advertised in the Cultural Chicago booklet. The cost of an ad ranged from $12,500 for one-sixth of a page to $75,000 for a full page, a ridiculous rate for a booklet intended to promote a cultural community primarily composed of not-for-profits. League of Chicago Theatres marketing director Michael Pauken says his group was approached about advertising, but it quickly bowed out because the cost was too high for its member theaters. Pauken says some local theaters might advertise in the publications where the booklet will be included, but as of last week the league hadn’t been told when the insert would appear. The Art Institute’s Harakal says the museum paid for its full-page ad with a state tourism grant. The Ravinia Festival in Highland Park is the only other arts institution with an ad in the booklet. “We felt it was an important initiative to support,” says Ravinia’s Jean Oelrich. Her organization’s advertisement was also paid for in part with state tourism dollars.

Ben Pao, Then and Now

Lettuce Entertain You built its reputation with high-concept eateries. But one year after starting its first Chinese restaurant, the chain found it had to rethink its original vision. When Ben Pao opened at Illinois and Dearborn in January 1996, critics found fault with its somewhat bland take on Chinese cuisine, and many customers didn’t like its stark, black-and-gray decor. “They complained the space was dark and uninviting,” says Ben Pao supervisor Ed Culleeney. Even the restaurant’s feng shui consultant was put off by the interior when he visited Ben Pao in mid-1996. “He said there was too much yang and not enough yin,” Culleeney says.

So Lettuce management asked its design team to lighten up the establishment. Over the last couple months, the restaurant’s walls have been painted gold or green. Columns are a soft shade of red, and new cone-shaped ceiling fixtures shed considerably more light on diners.

Ben Pao has also dropped its tea bar (“something Chicagoans didn’t cotton to,” according to Culleeney) in favor of a satay bar. The menu has been revised as well. Some of the exotic items have been replaced with more traditional Chinese fare, blander preparations have given way to familiar spices, and obscure dishes are now explained on the menu. Culleeney says complaints about the food have lessened considerably in recent months.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cultural Chicago guide booklet cover.