Column: There’s a space crunch coming for performing arts in Chicago. Here’s a fix.

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read

As artistic Chicago peeks its collective (and hopefully vaccinated) head out from the pandemic, two striking changes are visible.

One is the loss of cultural venues. Just in the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen the pending sale for redevelopment of the Royal George Theatre, a Lincoln Park workhorse when it comes to commercial live entertainment, and the re-purposing of Stage 773, a four-theater complex for decades, now becoming a single space. Those losses were added to those that came earlier in the pandemic, such as the closed iO Theater.

There has been news of resilience, thanks in part to Save Our Stages and other public funding: the Mercury Theater on Southport Avenue in Lakeview is reopening in the fall and the Greenhouse Theater Center in Lincoln Park plans to reopen Sept. 1., says owner William Spatz. Still, several other venues have unresolved futures. And as theater, dance and music all return in the fall, a lot of local performers itching to work creatively are chasing a diminished portfolio of affordable artistic spaces. A vibrant cultural city requires not just talented humans ready to work, but also the physical places in which to do so.

The other visible change as a difficult spring blossoms into a summer of relief, is a wider availability of raw and vacant real estate.

________

Columns are opinion content that reflect the views of the writers.

________

America’s great cities now will need to figure out their new role in an economy that seems likely to demand far less office space as many workers either remain home or pursue newly hybrid arrangements. And, of course, the decline in retail is obvious to anyone traversing Michigan Avenue, which looks quite different from a year ago.

Chicago is hardly alone here. On a visit to Midtown Manhattan last weekend, I was stunned by the lack of people, cars and activity on the streets. It was possible, in the middle of a Saturday morning, to walk along 42nd Street and cross over all of Manhattan’s great avenues without breaking a stride. No traffic was in the way.

That experience, surely, was temporary and was reflective of the particular segment of New York City that is most reliant on tourists and other visitors and has thus felt the bulk of the impact of the pandemic ban on international travel.

Still, if fewer workers, and fewer shoppers, will be coming into a city on a daily basis, and that change proves to be systemic, then that will precipitate an economic need to both restore and elevate the cultural sector (which to my mind includes restaurants and other entertainment options).

Culture has been a potent driver of Chicago for decades, of course, but this still is a unique moment, especially with the new availability of federal money.

Hence it’s high time to develop some new cultural spaces and both the private and the public sectors will need to get involved. This change of emphasis, which seems to me inevitable, could be a win-win situation, creating jobs and restoring the vibrancy of the city.

Take, for example, the forthcoming (and massive) Lincoln Yards development on Chicago’s North Side, likely to gather post-pandemic speed. In anti-capitalist circles, the project often is seen as a poster child of gentrification and public giveaways and/or problematic acquiescence to private developers. Such a case can be made. But some pragmatism also is demanded, since that development will be going ahead either way.

What will it offer to the culture of the city? Will there be theaters, cabarets, public-facing gallery spaces and music venues? Will the developers offer up creative homes for artists from all neighborhoods of Chicago?

This, too, is a complex issue, especially for anyone with a rival venue and those who argue equity demands such amenities go to needier areas of the city. Those opportunities also need to be pursued and with renewed vigor.

But it’s not a zero-sum game. And now is the time to pay attention to the possibilities and to start bargaining for these amenities at Lincoln Yards. There could be Chicago’s version of New York’s Lincoln Center, or The Shed, a major new home for an arts group, or, perhaps more usefully, a rentable multiplex of spaces for cultural use. Developers here and elsewhere could be asked to provide private-sector versions of the supportive deals that helped Chicago Shakespeare Theater gain its home on Navy Pier and the Lookingglass Theatre take up rent-free residence at the Water Tower Water Works.

Once the recovery takes off, few things will be as valuable to artists and nonprofit companies as rent-free space convenient for an audience. And that’s not merely a philanthropic argument since the economic benefits they bring are proven.

Another building that could be reanimated in the pandemic recovery is the Chicago Cultural Center, a giant structure with a variety of cultural spaces that, obviously, have been sitting fallow. Along with city programming, a renewed effort could be made to find ways to turn the former public library into a vibrant, pulsing place, which just happens to have some frontage on needy Michigan Avenue.

As venues like the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, England, proved long ago, it’s perfectly possible to build a fabulous arts space without destroying historic buildings, or even touching the walls.

Commercial producers will have needs, too, especially mid-size entrepreneurs. Private developments of venues that could replace, or improve upon, the Royal George should be encouraged. Here, stakeholder organizations like the Magnificent Mile Association and the Chicago Loop Alliance could become involved. The cultural sector is among the easiest and most beneficial adaptive re-uses of former retail spaces, since it maintains foot traffic, draws crowds in the evenings, making it safer to be out, and sparks economic activity.

Retail is not likely to return precisely in its pandemic form: this is a crucial moment for the city to think about all of its spaces and how best to bring them roaring to life.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com