When it comes to show business — and all admission-charging cultural attractions are, whether they like to admit it or not, in the business of show — people don't keep coming back to see a building. Their return, or the lack thereof, will always depend on what's going on inside.
The authors of the new
The study is exhaustive when it comes to detailing all the bad reasons that cultural organizations (such as theaters, museums, arts centers) build themselves splashy additions or new homes: merely to keep up with the competition, to claim some untested notion that it will transform a depressed downtown neighborhood economically or attract new tourists, to bring prestige to executives, to create a vehicle for egotistical donors, and so on.
But the study is much less revealing in regard to when arts organizations should build and what they should be building. It suggests that these new projects, which invariably go over budget, should be undertaken only when they are realistic, well-planned and led, and "the project's motivation was comprised of both the organization's sense of its artistic mission and by organizational need." Yet plenty of the projects of which the study is critical were (in their own minds) following those dictates, because the mission and need are usually determined by the organization doing the building. If you want some spiffy new digs, it's not hard to align that with your "mission" and order up a friendly consultant's study to reveal some need or other.
The study also doesn't have much to say about one of the other relevant truths of show business: Cultural institutions don't have as much control over their own programming as they like to claim. Popular, high-class Broadway shows have to tour before the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center can sell out the orchestra seats, and that business has declined precipitously in quality and quantity since the days of "Phantom of the Opera" rolling into a smallish town with multiple trucks. The
This is really why so many of these buildings don't meet their rosy projections: It's not so much about deviating from mission as being unable to find the right product to fill the new space. It's much easier to find a donor to name a building, or a wing, than to find someone to subsidize programming.
It's a temporal problem: The arts are about the moment; philanthropy usually is about a quest for permanence. What this study should have said is that someone needs to find a way to bridge that gap. Take a look at the situation at the Harris this past weekend, when the Paris Opera Ballet sold out virtually all its shows. Which was the worthier and more visceral endeavor? Building the walls or putting the dancers in the same room as Chicagoans?
In the middle of the building boom identified in the U. of C. study came Chicago's
Here's a piece of cultural construction where people do keep coming back for the building, even if the walls are fountains and the floors green. It's not about mission; it's about joyful usability. You can interact with this site in multiple ways: lightly, intensely, indoors, outdoors, intelligently, playfully, stupidly. Even when one part of the place is empty, another always is teeming with life. Go down this afternoon. You'll see what I mean.
The two next major cultural building projects in Chicago are the retooling of