Maggie’s Dream: A Children’s Museum at the Cultural Center?

It’s business as usual at the Cultural Center, that behemoth of a building at the corner of Randolph and Michigan. Earlier this summer, Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Lois “I Don’t Know Anything About Art” Weisberg was mulling the findings of her just-completed focus-group research about what to do with the building after the Chicago Public Library moves out in mid-1991. Those findings, if you remember, pretty much told Weisberg to go on doing the kind of diverse programming she has been doing at the center, only more of it. Enter Maggie Daley, the mayor’s wife. Maggie, it seems, has a dream. And Maggie’s dream, unlike those of others in this city, probably won’t be too difficult to realize if she really wants it to happen.

Several weeks ago Maggie convened a meeting of representatives from various city museums and other arts organizations. At that meeting, she revealed she was interested in transforming the Cultural Center into a children’s museum. The revelation did not go unnoted by Weisberg, who was present at the meeting, or by Dianne Sautter, executive director of Express-ways Children’s Museum, the organization that sources say may be invited to occupy the Cultural Center should Weisberg decide it’s time to make Maggie’s dream a reality.

The eight-year-old Express-ways Children’s Museum, which presents exhibits geared at kids from preschool through junior-high age, as well as various programs in schools and throughout the community, is presently housed in 21,000 square feet at North Pier, where the museum moved 18 months ago. Sautter, whom sources describe as ambitious and persistent, certainly isn’t hiding her interest in Maggie’s dream. “The Cultural Center is appealing to me with its wonderful central location,” she concedes, but she adds “we have a solid lease at North Pier, and we are looking at a number of possibilities for down the road.”

The notion of a children’s museum as the principal occupant of the Cultural Center isn’t as appealing to everyone as it is to Daley and Sautter. Some close to the situation say it would be a “travesty” if the mayor’s wife were to use her considerable clout to push through the scheme without due consideration of alternatives that might open up the building to a broader base of cultural interests. Eight months ago the League of Chicago Theatres, the Chicago Dance Coalition, the Chicago Artists’ Coalition, and the Chicago Music Alliance collectively wrote to Weisberg asking for time before any decision about the Cultural Center’s future is made to conduct their own feasibility study, to determine how the building might function as a site for performing arts groups. Two follow-up letters also were sent. The groups have as yet received no response to their repeated requests.

Weisberg claims that Maggie’s dream is far from being realized. “What we are going to do,” she says, “is further explore all the possibilities of what to do with the Cultural Center.” What she is about to do, in fact, is oversee another study. The Newberry Group, a local firm that specializes in strategic planning for not-for-profit organizations, is about to embark on a six-month look at the Cultural Center. Some suspicious sources speculate the Newberry report will wind up concluding–surprise!!–that it makes good sense for a children’s museum to move into that behemoth of a building at the corner of Randolph and Michigan.

But not to worry. Even though it’s Maggie’s dream on the line here, Weisberg insists the fate of the Cultural Center is not a top the priority in City Hall at moment. “You deal with things when you get a lot of public pressure,” explains Weisberg. “At the moment the Cultural Center doesn’t fall into that category.” So it looks as if it will be business as usual at the Cultural Center for the time being, at least until Daley and Sautter are ready to make their move.

The Squeezing of The Grapes

The Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s Tony Award-winning production of The Grapes of Wrath bids good-bye to Broadway next week. When the Steppenwolf crew got the word earlier this month that the $1.5 million-plus production was folding, it was almost like a bolt out of the blue–a bitter reminder that Broadway is about economics as much as artistic glory. Steppenwolf artistic director Randy Arney and Grapes director Frank Galati were auditioning for cast replacements when they were summoned to the offices of the Shubert Organization, one of the principal producers of the Broadway production. Arney and Galati were told that ticket sales beyond Labor Day looked grim–grim enough anyway to close the show some five and a half months after it opened. “The Shubert executives said September is a deadly time for ticket sales,” explains Arney. Grapes is expected to close with a loss of most of its substantial investment.

Quick Opening

Halsted Theatre Centre owner Michael Frazier doesn’t like a dark theater. When the Victory Gardens production of Beau Jest departed his main stage on August 12, Frazier didn’t waste a second coming up with a show to fill in for three dark weeks. His scouts had returned from Boston with a glowing report on Forbidden Broadway 1990, a long-running spoof of Broadway theater. Frazier called Forbidden Broadway creator Gerard Alessandrini and a deal was cut almost immediately to open a version of the show at the Halsted Theatre Centre. The cast, most of whom had originally appeared in the New York production of the show, arrived last Tuesday and opened the next night. “It was like doing four weeks of work in four days, notes Frazier. This version of Forbidden Broadway includes deliciously wicked ribbings of the big hits such as Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, and Jerome Robbins’s Broadway, the deadly dull dance retrospective. Frazier’s Forbidden Broadway even features a swipe at The Grapes of Wrath.

Rainy Days at Ravinia

A summer of rainy weekends hasn’t completely dampened the spirits of Ravinia Festival executives. Despite what seemed like constant downpours, the festival’s paid attendance for 51 performances through August 12 stood at 299,903, or 1,132 more than paid to attend the same number of performances last season. That amounts to an increase of less than 1 percent, but given the weather it could have been much worse. And two big draws are yet to come: the New York Philharmonic on Sunday, and next week the Chicago-area premiere of Edward Villella’s critically acclaimed Miami Ballet.

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