What This City Needs Is a $500 Million Performing Arts Center?

It’s dream time once again in the wonderful City of Wind. A blue-chip committee of corporate executives, along with representatives from city and state government, have announced that they intend to explore the feasibility of building a Chicago performing arts center that could cost as much as $500 million. Headed by Sara Lee chairman and CEO John Bryan, the committee expects to keep its focus narrow and deliver its findings within a year. Explains Bryan: “We want to look at how much such a center could cost and whether we could find the support to do it.” This is not the first go-round for the idea of a performing arts center in Chicago. Five years ago another local corporate chieftain, Bernard Weissbourd, floated a plan to build such a complex in Illinois Center. That grand scheme thrashed around for a few months and promptly disappeared–as do so many thrilling ideas in Chicago.

Sara Lee’s Bryan seems to be a nice man who genuinely wants to contribute something monumental to the arts in Chicago. (Coincidentally, no doubt, his company announced only this week that it would close its bakery in Deerfield and shift the work to plants in other states, a move that will cost the Chicago area some 500 jobs.) Bryan believes–rightly so–that a new performing arts center would showcase two of our city’s and the world’s cultural gems, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera. Both institutions are repeatedly lauded for their artistic excellence, and recently the CSO’s executive director, Henry Fogel, and Lyric’s general director, Ardis Krainik, were cited by Business Week as being among the nation’s best cultural managers. As one CSO executive said last week, “Timing is everything,” and Bryan believes the time is right to resurrect the idea of building a performing arts center in Chicago.

But is it? There are those who would gladly elevate Chicago to the status of a world-class city that deserves a world-class performing arts center, but such claims sadly ignore the fact that we are in essence a quite livable, perfectly pleasant American city with predominantly American tastes and sensibilities, and it may be too late in history to change that. Chicago does not have the kind of global mentality or sophistication that pervades New York or London (or even Washington, D.C., for that matter). Nor is our city yet the tourist mecca it would like to become. A regular stream of well-heeled tourists would help fill seats in a massive performing arts center, but those tourists aren’t streaming through Chicago the way they do New York or Washington or even Los Angeles. While Lyric and the CSO may have their large contingents of ardent admirers, it would be dangerously presumptuous to conclude that culture is deeply imbedded in the souls of the vast majority of Chicagoans. The local theater industry has been aggressively seeking to expand its audience base here for more than a decade, with–one hastens to add–markedly little new audience to show for it. The world-class attractions that can and do fill up performing arts centers elsewhere no longer automatically make a beeline for Chicago. Certainly not in recent years, as touring costs have risen astronomically, along with doubts in presenters’ minds about the audience here for such events.

Furthermore, John Bryan and his fellow arts patrons must confront the sobering fact that monuments to the arts elsewhere have begun to sink in swirling seas of red ink. The new chairman of the board of the Kennedy Center only recently announced that the nation’s performing arts center immediately needs a whopping $45 million infusion to cover a $15 million deficit and $30 million in needed repairs. The federal government will more than likely have to cough up that lump sum. But will Chicago’s aldermen or the state government come to the rescue of a performing arts center in Chicago, should that ever be necessary? These governmental bodies have not been lavish in their support of the arts. New York’s Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center were conceived of more than 20 years ago, when the arts were not caught up in quite so vicious a funding bind as they are today.

Numerous other issues will have to be dealt with, among them the matter of what happens to the Civic Center for Performing Arts, the Auditorium Theatre, and the Chicago Theatre. All instantly would become obsolete were a performing arts center to open. Do we demolish these old facilities, or what? Finally, Bryan and his crew are going to have to ask themselves if this performing arts center idea hasn’t become an embarrassing example of “we too”-ism. Every other city has one, the thinking seems to be going, why shouldn’t Chicago? The brutal truth, it seems, is that Chicago lacked the vision and support to make such a facility happen years ago when it might have made more sense as a cultural and economic boost to the city. If Bryan thinks a performing arts center can happen now in Chicago, he and his colleagues are going to have to work long and hard to come up with some convincing evidence. It doesn’t seem to be there.

Restaurateur Returns

Mel Markon is back in the restaurant business. The creator of a Lincoln Park restaurant that was quite popular in the late 70s and early 80s (he sold it in 1984 and then watched it go under), he’s now opening a southern barbecue joint called the Dixie Que at 2001 W. Fullerton. Scheduled to open late this month, Markon’s new spot was inspired by the barbecue restaurants he frequented when visiting his son in Memphis. Though it trades on quaint southern traditions, the Dixie Que will be high-concept. Jeff Aimes of the architectural design firm of Aumiller & Youngquist has devised a 125-seat restaurant that resembles a roadside filling station with rooms haphazardly added on to the original structure. Markon is right in line with the current trend toward low-ball menu pricing. Nightly dinner specials will start at $7.95.

Shirley Valentine Meets Hot Lips Houlihan

It isn’t curtains yet, apparently, for the Cullen-Henaghan-Platt production of Shirley Valentine. Though ads for the show have been announcing its final weeks for some time now, and weekly box-office grosses have dipped recently as low as $26,000 (out of a potential $100,000), the producers are bringing in actress Loretta Swit of M.A.S.H. fame starting July 8, to see if she can boost sales. Will a new star save the day? Stay tuned.

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