The cafe at the new and improved Chicago History Museum was closed when I arrived an hour early for the annual members’ meeting last Thursday afternoon. I’d planned to grab a late lunch in the bow-windowed corner once occupied by the Big Shoulders Cafe, but made my way instead across the street to Michael’s, which used to be Mitchell’s, and is at least still open round the clock. The History Cafe, as it’s now called, is run by Wolfgang Puck and serves the same Chinois chicken salad that made him famous on the west coast. Pick some up after checking out the lowrider that’s been given the place of honor in the museum’s lobby and you might as well be in LA.
The museum reopened two months ago after being closed almost a year for a $27.8 million makeover that included removing structural support columns to create a continuous 157-foot rental hall. The amount of exhibit space is about the same and includes those charming soporific Chicago history dioramas, a touchy-feely children’s section (climb into a hot dog bun, play “sniff and guess,” e-mail yourself a postcard), and a long-overdue gallery dedicated to the museum’s 55,000-piece costume collection. Its opening show, on view through the end of May, features the puffed skirts and pinched waists of Dior’s 1947 “New Look,” a diversion for women booted from the post-World War II workforce. The gallery’s dimmer than the back of your closet (and, despite donor support, there’s no free exhibit guide), but the take away’s clear: Chicago dance diva Ruth Page had a great figure and a clothing budget that would’ve fed all the immigrant families pictured on the main floor’s multiculti gallery walls.
Upstairs, aside from the elegant private party room overlooking Lincoln Park, the main attraction is “Chicago: Crossroads of America,” a 16,000-square-foot collection of the city’s greatest historical hits, brought to you by Exelon. Here in bite-size nuggets are the Native Americans, the traders, the settlers, the entrepreneurs, industrialists, and gangsters, along with the fire, the fairs, the riots, and the neighborhoods–pictures, stories, and artifacts chockablock under glass. At the center of this conglomeration stand two hulking lumps of nonworking machinery: a historically significant steam locomotive and “L Car No. 1,” which will never be as interesting as it was on the day it was hoisted into the building. There’s a miniprimer on Chicago roots music and, in a separate area, an exhibit on the life and work of Ed Paschke that includes 40 of his pieces, a video interview, and an attempted re-creation of his studio.
As for last week’s meeting, the 150 members who braved winter storm warnings to attend were greeted with coffee, cookies, and the annual report, in which museum treasurer David Bolger wrote that fiscal 2006, which ended this June, was “another challenging year.” But president Gary Johnson, taking the podium after an introduction by Exelon president and board chair John Rowe, was decidedly upbeat. He stressed that the operating deficit, budgeted at $1.1 million, had actually been kept to $486,000, a nice decline from the $1 million deficit of the previous year. He didn’t mention that operating expenses were up more than $3 million to $13.9 million, and no one asked about the museum’s $23.5 million increase in long-term debt (30-year bonds issued to cover construction costs). He reported that the capital campaign for the renovation has raised $26.5 million and will continue through this year (though it’s “essentially complete”), and that membership had increased from 5,500 to 6,800 “even though the doors were closed.” From here on his focus is fund-raising for exhibitions, but don’t look for flashy traveling shows: he wants homegrown exhibits that draw on the museum’s own collection of 22 million objects.
Right now “we’re in great shape,” Johnson says. Twenty-eight events have already been held since October 1 in the new party space, which rents for $5,250 and up, and museum attendance has been “spectacular.” Paid attendance the first month after the reopening was 5,990. “But,” he notes, “we’re still in the zone where there’s initial excitement over the novelty. At some point it’ll settle in at a level that we hope will be substantially above older levels.” That should be a piece of cake: in 2004, the last normal year of operation, paid attendance (which does not include school groups) was only 29,000. But if Johnson really wants to goose that figure he could take a second look at the price of admission, which was only $5 when the museum closed but has now jumped to $12 ($10 for seniors and students 13-22). The revamped museum is more handsome, navigable, and digestible than it used to be, but it’s still mostly tchotchkes under glass. There are no dinosaurs or giant octopuses, no Monets or Rembrandts: it shouldn’t be priced like the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, or the Art Institute. And it could use more live people. Johnson says docents are now getting improv training from Second City–a great idea, but why stop there? How about a security guard in a Dior gown (even if it has to be a copy) in the costume gallery, some live Chicago blues in the nightclub, and a real hot dog (or pizza or elotes) vendor in the cafe? For that matter, isn’t this the one museum in the city that could justify a McDonald’s franchise?
Pilsen’s National Museum
Another Chicago institution has rethought its moniker. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum announced this week, on the cusp of its 20th anniversary, that it has become the National Museum of Mexican Art. President Carlos Tortolero says the new name reflects the museum’s expanded role as the largest Latino cultural organization in the U.S. and a leading example of “how to do an art museum in the community and how to do a museum on a culture that’s not the dominant one.” Tortolero says the museum, with an annual budget of $5.4 million and 200,000 visitors yearly, is adding national trustees and programming, receiving donations of artwork from across the country, and aiming to make itself a national museum-education center. “Not all art has to be downtown,” he says, “and not all national museums have to be in Washington, D.C.”