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The Museum That Works

The Chicago Architecture Foundation has big plans for expansion, but it'll be hard to improve on the exhibit at its doorstep.


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It was wall-to-wall bodies at the Chicago Architecture Foundation's longtime digs in the Santa Fe Building last week, for the opening of its "Shanghai Transforming" exhibit—which prompted some thoughts about the upcoming transformation of the CAF itself, which has been growing like Shanghai. Last month its board got the final results of a feasibility study for a bricks-and-mortar Chicago Architecture Center, expected to be the first of its kind in the country. The study gave the idea a green light, and the board approved a plan entailing a capital campaign.

Then the bottom fell out of the economy.

"I must say, things look a lot different from when we approved this in September," CAF president Lynn Osmond says. "I think we were feeling a lot more bullish and excited." The global financial meltdown is "making us very realistic, very mindful of the economic situation before we get ourselves into some long-term arrangement."

But they're going ahead anyway. In fact, the John Buck Company has been on the job since February, exploring "real estate options." The initial goal was 70,000 square feet in an "architecturally significant building" within the area bounded by Michigan, State, Wacker, and Jackson. Osmond now says they'll settle for 50,000 square feet.

Founded in 1966 to save Glessner House (which became its first home) and then transformed into an educational organization, the CAF has been renting in the Santa Fe, 224 S. Michigan, since 1992. "It's a fabulous location," Osmond says, but "we're bursting at the seams."

They currently fill 20,000 square feet in the century-old building with their popular gift shop, two exhibit spaces (including one in the building's atmospheric atrium), a lecture hall, a docent library, offices, and a single classroom. "We're a lot more than a boat tour," Osmond says, adding that many people don't know that the CAF has educational programs for both elementary and high school students, or that it conducts teacher training workshops nearly every weekend.

The CAF, which now has an annual budget of $11 million, serves 465,000 people annually with 110 public programs as well as 80 different tours. It earns a remarkable 79 percent of that budget, thanks mostly to the river cruise and the gift shop. But it has no endowment and gets little financial help from the city it promotes so vigorously. "We get a total of $7,500 from the city," Osmond says. "We are not a museum in the park. We have to earn our way."

According to Osmond, who will talk about the CAF's plans in a lecture called "Why Architecture Matters" sponsored by the City Club, on November 6, the "perfect option would be to buy a stand-alone space or a commercial condominium in a building. But because our [boundaries are] very defined, we have to be flexible." They haven't ruled out staying in the Santa Fe, but would need a major hunk of space adjacent to what they now have. Their lease expires in March 2011; they hope to have their plans nailed down long before then, probably within the next six to eight months.

The state kicked in $50,000 toward the study two years ago because "they recognize that architecture is a major tourism draw for Illinois," Osmond says. Completed after a hiatus during which the CAF worked up a new comprehensive strategic plan, the study came back "extremely positive" about both the idea and its financial viability.

Osmond notes that although there's nothing in this country on the scale they're planning, "Beijing and Shanghai have renowned urban centers, and we're seeing a lot of centers for the built environment and architecture in Europe." Unlike museums, these centers are not collection-based. They feature scale models, programs, and exhibits that explore architecture and urban planning issues. Osmond expects the CAF to kick-start the trend in the U.S. "We know that Chicago is a center for architecture and urban innovation, we know that people from around the world come to Chicago to see our architecture, so we have a chance to lead or to follow. We believe that Chicago, being the city of architecture, should lead. As a 42-year-old institution, talking about architecture and design in the city, we have that mandate."

I'm a fan of the CAF, which so brilliantly identified the city's architecture as a great draw and so ingeniously saw that highly trained volunteers could be its workforce. But the new strategic plan has added the notion of being a "destination" to its longtime goal of educating the public about architecture. That will require an expanded focus on exhibits, and exhibits have always seemed to me to be the CAF's greatest weakness.

"Shanghai Transforming," for example, consists of a half-dozen panels featuring giant blowups of charts and repetitive photos from a book of the same title by architect Iker Gil. And the four picture-and-text kiosks that comprise a concurrent exhibit, "Boom Towns"—curated by Reader architecture contributor Lynn Becker—seemed, on the night of the opening, to be adrift in the atrium's twilight zone of globe lamps and polished marble.

Part of the problem is the limitations of the space: Osmond says there's only one electrical plug in the atrium. But the great thing about the CAF is that the city is its museum—a vibrant, evolving, constantly expanding collection of exhibits that outshines any photo, video, or model. The CAF should get more classroom and lecture space, but it'd be a shame for it to lose sight of what the real destination is.

The Power of Black Art

"Even in Chicago, we might have to remind people that there was an artistic counterpart to the 1960s black power movement," says former Chicagoan Margo Crawford, now a professor of African-American studies at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and coeditor of the book New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement. Crawford will interview her father, photographer Bob Crawford, about his part in that arts movement—which, in Chicago, also included poets Haki R. Madhubuti and Gwendolyn Brooks and the group of painters known as AfriCobra, who created the Wall of Respect.

Cosponsored by AREA Chicago and the University of Chicago's "Looks Like Freedom" exhibit, the "intergenerational dialogue" is free and scheduled for Thursday, October 23, at 7 PM at the South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan. Information at

Museums Help One of Their Own

On September 19 a fire of unknown origin broke out in the building at 238 W. 23rd that houses the three-year-old Chinese-American Museum of Chicago. Board president Dr. Kim Tee says the fire was contained to the top two floors of the four-story structure, but there was extensive water and smoke damage on the lower floors as well.

Among the many losses was the museum's diorama collection, a legacy from the Wentworth Avenue Ling Long Museum, which closed in the 1970s. Twenty-three of the large, one-of-a-kind works depicting ancient Chinese stories were destroyed, along with 150 boxes of artifacts from previous exhibitions. Black water saturated silks, documents, photographs, art works, and other artifacts.

Tee says he's been touched by the response. The Field and Chicago History museums offered immediate rescue and recovery help, and worked with volunteers to salvage what they could. The National Museum of Mexican Art formed a committee of 28 Chicago museums and cultural institutions, and organized a benefit that will feature a Chinese and Mexican dinner and traditional Chinese music and dance. It's Wednesday, October 29, 6 PM, at the NMMA, 1852 W. 19th. Tickets are $50; call 312-433-3909 for reservations. Everything's been donated, so every dollar will go toward rebuilding.v

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