News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

Has the Museum of Broadcast Communications finally found its frequency?

Visitors are scarce and the vast archives aren't digitized, but founder Bruce DuMont hopes a new exhibit will help get people tuned in.


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Stay tuned, folks!

Just a little longer.

Because according to its ever-optimistic president, Bruce DuMont, the Museum of Broadcast Communications he opened 28 years ago in the River City condos, ran for a decade in the Chicago Cultural Center, and in 2012 managed to move into its own building on State Street is finally about to come fully into focus.

This weekend the museum will host the gala opening of a new exhibit, "A Salute to Advertising's Greatest Icons." On display May 9 through October 31, it'll explore the creation and evolution of ten high-profile characters, including Tony the Tiger, the Keebler elves, and Mr. Clean. Hatched in the fertile offices of Chicago's Mad Men-era advertising agencies, these are "30-second stars" who've proved to be more indelible than many of the shows they sponsored.

The exhibit should be a crowd-pleaser. But that's only part of the strategy behind it. DuMont, producer and broadcaster of the 35-year-old syndicated show Beyond the Beltway (recently dropped by WLS but available through other outlets), says the financially pinched MBC is aiming for "greater awareness of who we are with the major consumer brand companies." He's hoping some of them will decide to put an executive on the museum's board.

To that end, on Friday, May 8, there'll be a VIP reception for the exhibit in the museum's new Paul M. Lisnek Gallery, on the building's third floor. Lisnek, a Comcast talk show host and political analyst for WGN television, "made a very generous donation to the museum," DuMont says. As a result, "a portion of that gallery will be dedicated to Paul's career, but the vast majority will be for rotating exhibits, the first of which is the ad icon show."

So, yes, if you've got a broadcast history, and money to back it up, you have a shot at getting yourself memorialized at MBC.

DuMont's also talking up a just-about-sealed deal that'll bring an innovative performance project to the building during the evening hours when the museum is closed. Writer-producer (and onetime Chicago magazine editor) Hillel Levin is slated to bring his show Assassination Theater, a four-actor multimedia exploration of the role of the Chicago mob in the killing of President John F. Kennedy, to a revamped stage on the second floor of the MBC building in August.

DuMont says Assassination Theater is just one of the added attractions in progress. STK, a "high-end" steak house with locations worldwide, is scheduled to open this summer in the first-floor space on the Kinzie Street side of the building (sold by MBC for about $3 million to help pay off its construction debt, which currently stands at just under $2.7 million). The museum's "penthouse," a fourth-floor special-events space, continues to be operated by Blue Plate catering. DuMont says weddings and other parties there are proving to be a strong source of income for MBC.

But it's been a long slog. After DuMont moved the museum out of the Cultural Center in 2003, he fought for years to get a total of nearly $10 million in state funding for the $25 million facility, only to find himself saddled with another set of challenges after its 2012 opening. Attendance dropped drastically, from 225,000 annual visitors when MBC was at the Cultural Center and free to 7,300 last year at the current entrance fee of $12. Then in 2013, what DuMont describes as a "server crash" destroyed access to the 10 percent of the museum's archive of radio and television programming that had been digitized and made available to the public for free.

That 85,000-hour archive is the major asset of the museum's collection, and DuMont says MBC is getting ready to resume digitizing it. But after what public records show as a $700,000 operating loss in 2013 and a smaller one the year before, his staff—projected to consist of 19 positions when the museum was applying for a state jobs grant—now consists of only three full-time employees and three part-timers. As "volunteer president," DuMont says, he hasn't drawn a salary from MBC since late 2010.

He's hoping that its "three-year track record of survival" will attract significant donors. "There are still some major naming opportunities here," he notes ($3 million will get your name on the fourth-floor event space; $8 million will put it on the building). In the meantime, he's turning up the volume.  v


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