March 27, 2017
By: MARK GUARINO
Chicago blues will soon have a downtown museum dedicated to telling its story. The Chicago Blues Experience, a privately run 50,000-square-foot facility, is slated to open in spring 2019 near Millennium Park.
A lease for the facility was signed last week, said Sona Wang, managing director and co-founder of the Blues Experience. The building, at 25 E. Washington St., is owned by Trump Group, an Aventura, Fla.-based private investment firm not affiliated with President Donald Trump.
An original plan to open a blues museum in a 56,000-square-foot space at Navy Pier was rejected last April when Pier authorities opted to sign a lease for a hotel development instead. The new location is slightly smaller but will involve three subterranean levels with a grand entrance at street level. A lounge accommodating 150 will be open nightly and will feature a small plates menu plus live blues by a house band. The museum is in a bustling cultural district that includes many nearby live theaters, the Chicago Cultural Center and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion one block to the east.
Mark Kelly, commissioner of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs & Special Events, said he is thrilled with the announcement and characterized it as a first step in his vision to promote Chicago blues throughout the city. “The black music tradition of Chicago has shaped world music, yet we haven’t honored it, we haven’t celebrated it, we haven’t focused on it,” he said. “This gives us an opportunity to do that.”
The Chicago Blues Experience is in the process of raising $25 million in equity capital with a projected budget of $30 million. The privately held group previously had raised about $40 million for the Navy Pier site, but those commitments expired last year when a lease was not signed. Wang said she expects many of the prior investors will recommit to the new site along with new investors.
Helping advise the project are Terry Stewart, a former president of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, and Bob Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Both said the Chicago Blues Experience will have artifacts related to the music’s long history, but the main thrust of the museum will be providing an interactive experience that will tell the music’s story through displays and immersive settings.
Stewart, who plans to move to Chicago from Cleveland to assume the role as museum president, said the multiple levels will move visitors through the music’s West African roots, its journey into the American South and its eventual travel north to Chicago via the Great Migration in the early 20th century. There will be re-creations of Maxwell Street, Chess Studios, an exploration of the British Invasion and how the blues is reflected in contemporary music.
Stewart said Chicago’s lack of a museum dedicated to the blues represented the “unfulfilled cultural promise of Chicago.” He added, “So many people come to Chicago thinking of a blues experience. There’s a pent-up demand for this. Once it’s open, people will wonder why it took so long.”
The museum’s design will be handled by BRC Imagination Arts in Los Angeles, which produced immersive designs for installations at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., and the National Museums of Liverpool, England, among other sites.
While the museum will be for-profit, an associated foundation will create community-based programs for city neighborhoods and curriculum for teachers to bring into their classrooms. An advisory committee of teachers will be tasked with bringing educational ideas to incorporate into exhibits, said Santelli. “Even though kids are learning the blues and about the artists, they’ll also be learning to think critically. These are all things that make for a good museum and a great city,” he said.
Santelli’s involvement also helped make the Chicago Blues Experience a Grammy Museum Affiliate, one of only five institutions that benefit from having access to Grammy Museum exhibitions, research programs, technical support and curriculum. The four other affiliates are the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla., the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, Jamaica, the Beatles Story in Liverpool and the National Blues Museum in St. Louis. Like at the Grammy Museum, the performance space will be used for special events like talks with performers and discussions with authors and other guests.
Local blues scholars have complained for years that no one has stepped up to provide some kind of recognition, not just of the music’s history but of its living artists. James Porter, a blues journalist and DJ in Chicago whose book on black rock ‘n’ rollers will be published next year by Northwestern University Press, said that while the blues experienced a revival in the 1980s and early 1990s thanks to the success of “The Blues Brothers” film and creation of the Chicago Blues Festival, popular interest has waned in the digital age. “A blues museum could restore blues to that kind of prominence. The more people know about it, the more they will want to see it live in the clubs,” he said.
Stewart said once it is open, the museum will support 110 jobs downtown. There are several hundred construction jobs expected. A 2015 economic impact study commissioned by the museum concluded the museum will contribute a little over $99 million of increased revenue to the city year over year. The study estimates that the museum will receive 750,000 visitors annually. About 15 percent of those visitors will travel to Chicago specifically to visit the museum, it projects.
The announcement of the Chicago Blues Experience comes two months after news broke that the Chicago Blues Festival is moving in June from Grant Park to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, considered a more prominent location. The effort, said Kelly, is to move the city away from “a more generic tourism message to one that has a priority on music and theater.”
“My goal is if you come to Chicago and you didn’t go to a music club or one of our theaters, you’ll feel you have failed. In New Orleans or Austin (Texas), you feel you have to do it because it’s in the culture,” he said. “We have to push for something greater and create a new culture, and the Chicago Blues Experience just gives a big push in that direction.”