From library to cultural center in Chicago

Image:    Chris Smith   , CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Image: Chris Smith, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Over the course of several days last September, a block-long Beaux Arts building across from Chicago's Millenium Park hosted, among other things, a performance by a Mongolian band, a design exhibition showcasing a sandcastle maker, and a livestream of an indoor blimp flight.

The latter formed part of Paul Catanese's 11.5-week artist residency in the building. Between maneuvering the camera-wielding blimp and creating large-scale mylar-and-foam drawings for it to record, he happily fielded questions from audience members ranging from art-world veterans to confused-looking tourists. (Total visitor count: 34,404.) “That's my gift,” he told me. “The gift of the artist is the gift of confusion.”

It was a fairly typical week at the Chicago Cultural Center, a City-run institution that hosts a wide array of free public programming throughout the year. But the Cultural Center itself is far from typical. Billed as “the nation's first and most comprehensive free municipal cultural venue,” its history offers insight into the shifting relationships between culture, politics, and money over time in the United States' third-largest city.

Early days

“As cities in the US go, Chicago was the brash young outsider that sprang out of nowhere in the 19th century,” Tim Samuelson, the city's official cultural historian, told me. The nation's westward expansion turned “what was basically a glorified swamp which had maybe 50 people in 1830” into a vital transportation hub: the “perfect place for anyone or anything to get anywhere.”

The city grew rapidly. By the late 1800s, Samuelson said, “Chicago was realizing it was a major metropolis in resources and in population, but it was almost self-conscious about showing the world that it was also a place of substance and culture.” 

Besting the established East Coast centers to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was a major step in this direction. The fledgling Art Institute of Chicago moved into a building constructed for the fair later that year; the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, University of Chicago, and Newberry research library also date from this period.

World's Columbian Exhibition Image: Public domain

World's Columbian Exhibition
Image: Public domain

The Chicago Public Library, founded in 1872, set itself apart from this group in many ways, wrote historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in her book Culture and the City: Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago from the 1880s to 1917. Organizations like the Art Institute were founded by well-traveled members of the financial elite who wanted their hometown to be more than just the world's hog butcher and freight handler.

But these institutions weren’t meant for everyone. Although Chicago's population consisted largely of working-class immigrants, the wealthy men behind these efforts were largely interested in influencing their peers to think about more than just money.

The public library, on the other hand, aimed to serve the average Chicagoan. Most of its collection consisted of fictional works that were held in low regard by the elites but proved extremely popular with the masses.

Its politically appointed board defended this model against suggestions that it should offer more edifying fare. “This is a Public library, supported by public taxation, and every person in the community, however humble, or lacking in literary culture, has a right to be supplied with books adapted to his taste and mental capacity,” it wrote in an early annual report.

The library’s commitment to the public at large extended beyond book selection. It created distribution stations throughout the city, partnered with schools, offered titles in users’ native languages, and scheduled open hours to suit their availability.

By the 1890s, Chicago had the nation's largest public library system, but lacked a central library building. The organization's leadership in this era was more sympathetic to the approach of institutions like the Newberry and the Art Institute: it decided that educating and inspiring Chicagoans by exposing them to prestigious works of art should also be part of the public library's mission. To this end, they decided that the library’s new permanent home should not be a utilitarian structure in a working-class neighborhood, but rather an elegant showcase in the city center.

The resulting building, financed by a 1% tax levied by City Council, opened to the public in September 1897. Designed by the Boston architects responsible for the Art Institute of Chicago, it boasted “more mosaics of fine glass and marble than had been used since the thirteenth century,” wrote Lefkowitz Horowitz. Tens of thousands of visitors turned out to see the new library in its first days of operation.

The library building in 2012.    Victorgrigas   ,    CC BY-SA 3.0

The library building in 2012. Victorgrigas, CC BY-SA 3.0

For Samuelson, the building represented a powerful expression of the library’s commitment to the average Chicagoan. By welcoming the public at large it greatly differentiated itself from its peers. “In a greatly polarized city in terms of race and cultures, this is one facility that the doors were open to everybody,” he told me. “Whoever walked through the door, no matter what your circumstances, you were in a really special, palatial, beautiful place.”

But the $2 million construction cost also hurt the library's ability to carry out its primary mission of lending books to the masses, according to Lefkowitz Horowitz. After it opened the city government cut its funding, believing it had fulfilled its obligation. The library board was forced to temporarily reduce service in working-class neighborhoods and halt book-buying.

The drab gray fortress

As the city grew rapidly over the next few decades, the main library building proved unable to keep up with demand. Plans for expansion were discussed but never carried out.

By the 1960s it had joined the ranks of aging Chicago structures threatened with demolition. “Regard for the intrinsic value of the building reached a low ebb in the early 1960s, with such epithets hurled by newspaper writers and other critics that the structure was “a Gothic horror of unused space,” a “drab gray fortress,” a “monstrosity,” etc.,” wrote Charles Staples, a school social worker who led a volunteer campaign to save the building.

Meanwhile, Mayor Richard J. Daley's administration saw it as a wasted opportunity. “I think the City’s idea was that that was a valuable piece of real estate that probably could be useful for somebody’s commercial high-rise,” Staples told me.

The preservationists' fight lasted for almost 10 years. “A highlight, and perhaps a turning point, was the decision of the WMAQ editorial director in 1972, after our consultation, to run a 5-step editorial “blitz” at intervals over a two-week period, with a strong call for preservation,” Staples wrote almost 4 decades later. “He asked viewers to send their letters to him en masse to be delivered to City Hall. Some 5,000 letters were received, and seemingly had a persuasive effect.” Soon after, Mayor Daley put together a committee of prominent Chicagoans to determine the building's fate.

In the spring of 1973, the City announced that it would be saved and turned into the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center. 

From library to cultural center

After three years of renovations, the building reopened in 1977. Some library functions remained, but others were moved to a warehouse, leaving vast rooms available for visual art, theater, and music.

The new entity soon gained a reputation for supporting cultural producers and audiences that were largely overlooked by other major institutions in the city. In the first instance, this included people of color and local artists, among others; in the second, those unable or unwilling to pay admission. 

The two streams came together in events like the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts, a weekly classical music series that began in 1977 and continues today. Its founder, businessman Al Booth, was inspired by the example of Myra Hess, a renowned pianist who organized low-cost concerts to boost public morale in London during World War II.

When he decided to start a concert series spotlighting early-career classical musicians in Chicago, the library's cultural center was the obvious place to turn, for both aesthetic and economic reasons. “One of the driving forces for him was that high-quality music should be freely available to people, and that they shouldn’t be excluded because they didn’t have the price of a high-end ticket,” said Ann Murray, who joined Booth's International Music Foundation in 1989 and now serves as its executive director. “One of the many beauties of that building is that if you’re doing public programming that’s free and accessible to everybody, then you get it at no cost. So that was a win–win situation for the building and for us.”

The People's Movement

But by the end of the 1980s, the center's future was once again in question. Booth got an inkling of trouble ahead when a municipal official hinted that the Dame Myra Hess concerts might need a new home. “There had been a big department store [nearby] and it had closed,” said Marta Nicholas, who, like Booth, fought to save the building for a second time. “The administration representative said to him, “Al, why don’t you go down and look at that empty store to see if you would like to put on your concerts there?” And he said, “Why? It’s perfectly fine where we are.” And then he started to realize, “What the hell’s going on here?””

With the last remaining library collections scheduled to move to a new central branch then under construction, some in the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley (son of former mayor Richard J.) raised concerns that the financial burden of the current arrangement outweighed its benefits. “The building costs as much as $5 million a year to secure, heat, and maintain, according to some estimates,” journalist Ben Joravsky wrote in 1989. “Officials feared an outcry once the public learned that so many tax dollars were being spent on a building used only for art.”

In response to these concerns, Joravsky wrote, then-cultural affairs commissioner Joan Harris issued a report arguing that the center's public-service mandate was good for the city's cultural industries, and therefore for the economy as a whole. But Daley was unmoved. Informed that he was still considering turning the building (and its bills) over to the Museum of Contemporary Art despite her concerns, Harris resigned.

She was not the only one upset by the proposal. A local radio station broadcast the news on a day in 1989 when many in Chicago's art community were gathered in the library building for a conference on cultural diversity. Within hours, two attendees, Nicholas, a longtime world music radio DJ, along with anthropology student Eve Pinsker, had drafted a petition to preserve it as a free public art center.

The Museum of Contemporary Art eventually made it clear that it wasn't interested in the building, making its fate even less certain. Demolition again seemed like a real possibility.

Nicholas believes that the core of the problem was that Mayor Daley, like his father before him, saw the matter primarily in terms of real estate. “In both cases [the mayor's goal] was to give the space, which is a very good location, to a friend to do as he pleased with it,” she told me.

She and a core group of four others with deep roots in the city's art scene—Booth, former Chicago cultural commissioner Fred Fine, Chicago Artists' Coalition leader Arlene Rakoncay, and curator Hedy Landman—fought to save the center, collecting signatures and organizing events. In addition to preserving the building itself, the group was committed to keeping it as accessible and accountable to the public as possible. “It really was a People's Movement,” Nicholas wrote me in an email.

Asked what lay behind the decision to fight for free, diverse programming in addition to the physical building itself, she said that the campaign's social and political orientation was a natural fit for the personalities involved. Fred Fine had been a member of the American communist party and Al Booth had supported Chicago's anti-Vietnam movement. Bratislava-born Hedy Landman had escaped Nazi persecution by moving to Sweden as a teenager. For her own part, Nicholas said that growing up in the only Jewish family in a small Indiana town taught her “that everyone's way of doing things is interesting and acceptable.”

After the group and its supporters had campaigned for several years, the City announced that it would preserve the building and keep it as a home for free public art. In 1991 the library moved the last of its equipment to the newly completed Harold Washington Library Center, and the building was officially renamed the Chicago Cultural Center.

Curatorial cultures and the Cultural Center

Today, in addition to its wide range of regularly changing (and always free) programming, the building provides space for organizations like the Chicago Children's Choir and houses the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

For Tim Samuelson, the center's programming still reflects its unique history. “When you have a formal museum like, say, the Art Institute, there are certain cultures of how museums operate and how far they're willing to go to break out of curatorial rules and conventions,” he said. “This is a place that could do art exhibits in creative venues but wasn't bound by that. So you could do all kinds of things here. You could do some really edgy exhibits here that a place like the Art Institute wouldn't touch.” 

I asked him if similar facilities existed in other North American cities. “Not that I'm aware of,” he said. “They kind of had to invent this place from scratch, out of necessity of, what do you do with a big old empty library?”

Published in Soft City in January 2017.
Soft City was a personal project exploring the relationship between cities and culture.