Revisionist History

Celebrating its 150th anniversary, the Chicago Historical society has changed its name and hopes a $27.5-million overhaul and an unlikely new president will revive the city’s oldest cultural institution

 

photography: Nathan Kirkman
“I don’t know when I didn’t love history,” says attorney turned museum president Gary Johnson.

Despite the gloriously sunny Sunday morning beckoning outside, six muscular, tattooed Mexican American men in matching brown-and-gold t-shirts have gathered in the shadowy light of a garage on 57th Avenue in Cicero. The members of the Amistad Car Club, they don’t have time to revel in the return of spring; instead, they’re making history-literally. The Chicago History Museum has commissioned them to take a scruffy 1978 Chevy Monte Carlo and turn it into a shimmery blue lowrider, and their deadline is rapidly approaching. When the museum, formerly the Chicago Historical Society, celebrates its 150th anniversary by reopening its galleries to the public in September, after being closed for nine months for a $27.5-million, gutted-to-the-studs renovation, the car will be the first thing visitors see as they enter the lobby.

“I don’t know if we’re going to want to part with it when it’s done,” says the club’s president, Pedro Cisneros III, only half joking. Indeed, by the time the project is completed, the members of Amistad, a tight-knit group of family men ranging in age from 26 to 39, will have spent roughly 300 hours after work and on the weekends transforming the car into a showpiece.

With its chopped-down suspension, the car rides a mere three inches or so off the ground. A console of switches next to the driver’s seat control hydraulic pumps that can make the car suddenly pop up 20 inches, bounce from side to side, or, most impressively, rear up on three tires. The pumped-up sound system blasts music, while flashing neon lights outline the interior of the trunk in blue, green, and red. A mural to be painted atop the trunk lid will depict the members of Amistad, whose name is Spanish for “friendship”; one on the hood will re-create a black-and-white photo of fighters from the Mexican Revolution over the phrase “Ranflas Built Chingon.” Translation: “Lowriders Built Badass.”

The lowrider may rattle those who would prefer to see something like a turn-of-the-century mail-order car from Sears, Roebuck & Co. “What people expect is something that fits their idea of Chicago history,” says Peter Alter, a curator at the History Museum (see Meet the Curators). He points out that movie and music video portrayals of lowriders as the vehicle of choice for gangbangers have obscured the hobby car’s origins. Developed as a creative outlet for Chicano immigrants in Los Angeles during the 1930s and ’40s, the tradition eventually made its way to Chicago, where nearly a third of the population is Latino and the Chicago Lowrider Council counts 20 car clubs among its membership.

“Chicago is becoming an increasingly larger destination for Latinos, and the lowrider is part of a historical pattern of self-expression for Mexican American men,” Alter says. “We have a wooden Christmas decoration carved by a German immigrant in the 1880s that was donated by his descendants. For me as a historian, these things represent two different aspects of immigrant culture. For some people that’s a hard sell. People may walk in and say, ‘What the heck is this?’ They’ll read the labels, they’ll see the video [in the exhibit], and they still won’t be convinced. We have to accept that.”

Though other cultural institutions in town have gone through significant additions or renovations, none-at least that anyone can remember-has ever shut down entirely for such a complete overhaul. Seventy-five percent of the public areas have been renovated, giving the museum the space to display many more of its 22 million artifacts-a collection that is roughly the same size as that of the Field Museum.

The difference will be immediately apparent to visitors upon entering the lobby, which previously felt like an empty, drab space devoid of content. Now they will be greeted by a lively streetscape that incorporates the lowrider, old Chicago street signs, and an eight-foot-tall lighted “Gas for Less” sign that had to be craned in. The artifacts are part of the exhibit Treasures, which examines the emotional connection people have to objects that are sprinkled throughout the museum and is the first major exhibit to have bilingual signage, in English and Spanish. Until the museum’s planned American History Gallery is completed, Treasures will also include Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, returned from its loan to the new Lincoln museum in Springfield.

The first floor also will house a very low-tech exhibit beloved in the childhood memories of many Chicago adults: the dioramas. Built in 1932, some by WPA artists, they portray key moments in the city’s first 100 years. Seven of the eight dioramas will be back, newly cleaned, repaired, and repainted. (The Treaty of Greenville has been mothballed; it just wasn’t that interesting.) Mechanisms that have been broken for years have been fixed: once again the horses will circle the racetrack in Washington Park, and the Chicago Fire will flicker like an inferno. “It’s like going from watching a black-and-white film to the film being colorized,” says executive vice president and chief historian Russell Lewis. “It’s fairly dramatic.”

The heart of the new CHM resides on the second floor: the Exelon Chicago History Galleries, funded by a $1.5-million grant from Exelon Corporation that includes a $150,000 personal donation from the company’s chairman, president, and CEO, John Rowe, and his wife, Jeanne. (Rowe is also the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees.) Last renovated in 1978, the Chicago history galleries have been more than doubled in size, to 16,000 square feet. With dynamic, colorful murals as a backdrop, a lively audio tour written with and narrated by members of the Second City staff, and lots of interactive technology, the six galleries here promise to be much more engaging than the old galleries, which felt dark and dated.

The highlight here is “L” Car No. 1, the first el car brought in for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, on what is essentially permanent loan from the Chicago Transit Authority. “We thought it was a great iconic emblem of Chicago,” CHM chief curator Olivia Mahoney says. “It goes to all the different neighborhoods; people from all walks of life ride it, from all social classes, all races, colors, and creeds. The fact that it’s the first car made it all the more special.”

Perhaps more than any other artifact on display, the lowrider symbolizes the enormous effort by the city’s oldest cultural institution to rebrand itself as a hip, vibrant, interactive place that will draw a diverse audience to see-not to mention hear, touch, and, yes, smell-the stories of all Chicagoans, not just those of a wealthy white elite.

The public reshaping of the museum began last February, with the announcement that “historical society” was being jettisoned from the institution’s name. “People didn’t get that it was a museum at all,” says Gary Johnson, the museum’s brilliant and down-to-earth president of one year. “They guessed this was a club or one of those societies where middle-aged men fall asleep in leather chairs. The new name just doesn’t need any explaining.” Making a name change is one thing. Turning around a struggling institution is another matter entirely.

When Johnson came on in August 2005, morale at the museum was bleak. Attendance had been declining for several years, dipping 17 percent in 2003 and 9 percent in 2004, before plummeting 53 percent in 2005, due to the phased-in shutdown for renovations that began in March. That same month, the museum’s charismatic president, Lonnie Bunch, announced he was leaving to become founding director of the Smithsonian’s new African American history museum. Two months later, in May, 17 employees were laid off because of a $1.3-million deficit in the operating budget. The layoffs were particularly hard for employees to take, given that $10 million, the result of a years-long capital campaign, was just waiting to be tapped for the renovations.

As the institution’s first leader with no experience as either a historian or a museum manager, Johnson is, on first glance, a surprising choice for the job. An attorney, Johnson had previously spent 28 years practicing corporate and trial law as a partner at two of the largest law firms in the world, first Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, then Jones Day. He had no connections to anyone on the board of trustees or staff, and sent in his résumé over the transom only after reading in the newspaper that Bunch was leaving.

“I’m thinking, Oh, boy, a lawyer who thinks he wants to head up a nonprofit,” recalls Linda Heagy, managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles, the executive recruiting firm hired by the museum to screen candidates. “But several people knew him and thought I needed to talk to him. I thought it was just going to be a courtesy.” Heagy set aside a half hour for the interview. She ended up canceling lunch and other appointments; after two and a half hours with Johnson she was convinced he deserved to make the final cut.

Part of what won her over was Johnson’s passion for Chicago history. Since 2002 he has had his own Web site (at gryjhnsn.tripod

.com/chicagohistory) devoted to giving family and friends a tour of his favorite historical reference points throughout the city. Besides walking visitors through a mix of famous and not-so-famous sites, such as the Street of Forty Doors in the 3800 block of Alta Vista Terrace, he pauses to express concern that the history of everyday people not be overlooked. “Are we doing enough to preserve the stories of today’s families in Chicago, including the immigrants who do not have English as their first language?” he writes. “When the time comes to examine their lives and times, will the right resources be available so that their stories can be told?”

Johnson, 56, grew up in Park Ridge and is the first native Chicagoan to lead the institution since 1926. He counts eight direct ancestors who lived in the city during the Great Chicago Fire (all survived-including a great-grandmother, who was in utero). His office walls are lined with family memorabilia, such as an 1859 letter written by his great-great-grandfather Svale Staaleson, a Norwegian immigrant who settled here in 1853; a photo of his great-grandmother and her sisters on the porch of their Lincoln Square home around 1910; and his Swedish grandfather’s eighth-grade report card from the Linné School, on the Northwest Side.

“There were a lot of colorful stories about family members, and I was always curious about that,” Johnson says, recalling his childhood. “I don’t know when I didn’t love history.” His wife of 28 years, Susan, whom he met when they were both seventh graders at Lincoln Junior High in Park Ridge, agrees. “In AP European History [in high school],” she says, “I remember hearing the teacher tell his parents, ‘He’s lapped the field.’”

Johnson went on to graduate summa cum laude from Yale with a dual major in history and political science, then became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, where he earned an MA in history. He got his law degree from Harvard in 1977.

Museum president Gary Johnson.

Over the years, Johnson developed a rock-solid record of civic leadership and outreach to diverse communities, most notably as cochair of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the most important civil rights groups in the country, and as president of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Greater Chicago, the city’s largest provider of legal services for the poor. Johnson’s ability to bring in large donations was honed during his 1994-2001 stint as fundraising chair for the Lawyers’ Committee, where he led the creation of an annual dinner that now raises $2 million a year for the organization’s work.

Despite his high-powered credentials, Johnson comes across as unhurried, low key, and distinctly lacking in ego. Last fall, after an enjoyable experience as principal for a day at Ebinger Elementary School in Edison Park, his mother’s alma mater, he quietly decided to make weekly visits to third-grade classrooms throughout various Chicago public schools-not the usual territory of museum presidents. He didn’t even mention his outreach plan to the publicity department, and it was several months before they found out what he was up to.

During a visit to a half-dozen classrooms at Kinzie Elementary near Midway Airport, Johnson mentioned being president of CHM exactly once-and that was only when a boy, clearly trying to puzzle out how this man was able to get his hands on actual Chicago Fire artifacts for students to pass around, asked twice if he owned the museum. The teacher’s eyebrows shot up in surprise when he heard Johnson’s title.

Heagy believes Johnson possesses key leadership qualities described by Jim Collins in his 2001 bestseller Good to Great. “He profiled a number of companies that were going along at the same rate when suddenly one of the companies just takes off at a vector way up and to the right,” she says. “His theory about leadership is that many of these companies had noncharismatic, quiet, self-effacing leaders who transformed these companies by being good leaders of teams and allowing other people to come forward and take leadership roles. Gary is of that cloth. He’s not your hogging-the-spotlight-and-microphone kind of guy.”

In the end, the trustees were won over by Johnson’s combination of experience and passion. “We thought Gary touched more bases [than other candidates],” says John Rowe. “We wanted a lot of energy. He has that. We wanted a real commitment to continue Lonnie [Bunch]’s outreach [to diverse communities]. He has that. We wanted proven experience in budgets and financial management. He has that. We wanted proven fundraising experience. He has that. We had people from five or six major museums that would have liked this job, but it was the package and how he struck ten people [on the search committee].”

Reaching out to employees was Johnson’s top priority in the early weeks of his presidency. He won points not by cultivating connections at the top of the organizational chart as one might expect, but at the bottom. “The very first person [visitors] meet is not the president but the coat check guy, Michael Glass,” Johnson says. “I wanted to sit on his side of the counter and see what it’s like.” His afternoon with Glass yielded the discovery that many visitors asked to be directed to the Devil in the White City exhibit, referring to Erik Larson’s bestselling book about the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893. Only trouble was, the museum didn’t have a world’s fair exhibit-and wasn’t planning one, either.

Though Johnson mainly took a hands-off approach to the renovations, which were already set by the time he came on board, the visitors’ questions prompted him to decide that the museum’s portrait gallery could be put to better use. “It had wonderful portraits of just who you’d expect to be there: dead white males and dead white females,” Johnson says. “We decided that rather than rehang those portraits, we’d create a world’s fair gallery, which is going to be more fun, more interesting.”

Johnson has endeared himself to his employees in other ways as well. When he was given box seats for a Cubs game last fall, rather than use them to wine and dine potential donors, he held a drawing to give them to staff members. And on Christmas Day, when he received a call that the museum’s roof had sprung a leak, Johnson interrupted his own family dinner to go down and move boxes of artifacts out of harm’s way.

Besides building connections with the staff, Johnson’s other priority has been shoring up the institution’s shaky finances, which took a precipitous downturn during Bunch’s tenure, which began in January 2001. Indeed, all the major cultural institutions in town took hits during the economic aftermath of 9/11: attendance figures dropped, the value of endowments sank with the stock market, and funding sources became much scarcer. Subsidies to CHS from the Chicago Park District declined by $400,000 as the park district went through its own budget crunch.

But there was also the sense that Bunch wasn’t minding the store at a time when fiscal responsibility was critical. A widely respected historian, he was focused instead on creating acclaimed programs that broadened CHS’s reach, such as Teen Chicago, an intergenerational project that trained teenagers to collect oral histories, and Out at CHS, a series of events exploring lesbian, gay, and transgendered history.

“Lonnie was a big dreamer, idea guy, and that’s good,” says Russell Lewis, the museum’s chief historian. “But if you do that you need a strong, hardheaded sort of money person to say, ‘We can’t do that,’ or ‘Here’s the reality.’ I don’t think he had that. He lacked the balance.”

“I think Gary will prove to be a better financial manager,” says John Rowe, chairman of the CHM trustees. “Lonnie was a wonderful historian and human being, but he was not strong [on the business side].”

Bunch takes issue with that characterization. “People get to comment on what their perceptions are,” he says. “Did I know how to manage? I think so. My goal was to create an institution people really cared about, and I think I did that.” Would he change anything about how he handled his fiscal responsibilities? “There are always things you can do to improve,” Bunch says. “But on the whole, no.”

Johnson diplomatically avoids any assignment of personal blame for the budget shortfall, saying instead, “The basic reason for the deficit is a reason a lot of museums share: they didn’t have a business plan that supported the operations.”

He’s found ways to trim the budget-for instance, taking a pay cut from Bunch’s salary, which had grown from $175,000 in 2001 to $220,000 by the time he left. “Lonnie’s shtick was that he was a career museum manager,” says an employee who asked not to be named. “The more money he made, the more prestige he had. This is a retirement career [for Johnson]; he has his own wealth.”

Johnson declines to say by how much the president’s salary has been slashed, and he appears embarrassed when confirming the cut as well as his request that trustees not give him a raise this year, quickly adding, “That doesn’t make me a hero. I’m still the highest-paid guy around here. But I knew the sacrifice the rest of the staff had been making.”

He has persuaded his former firm Jones Day, as well as Sidley Austin, to provide all the institution’s legal services pro bono, saving CHM nearly $170,000 over 2004, the last year for which figures are available. He also fired the institution’s Washington-based lobbyist, whose purpose, he says, was unclear, despite the fact that the organization’s spending on lobbying had climbed from $48,500 in 2001 to $220,000 in 2004.

The deficit has been chipped down to less than $900,000, and Johnson and the trustees expect the institution to be back in the black by the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2007. But trimming expenses won’t be enough to keep finances in line over the long haul. “The real issue is, can Gary and Russell and their colleagues find enough programs to make the museum stable on an operational basis?” Rowe says. “Cost cutting is easy; any damn fool knows how to do it. The challenge here is to take all these exciting things we have and tell stories that excite people.”

One of CHM’s big challenges is trying to get the thousands of schoolchildren who visit on field trips to come back with their parents; though 150,000 visitors pass through the doors each year, only 30,000 of them are paid admissions. The hope is that the state-of-the-art Children’s Gallery will be a big draw for families. “Children are the decision-makers on the weekends,” says Lynn McRainey, CHM’s director of education as well as the project director of the Children’s Gallery. “They’re our best word of mouth.”

The museum is also wrestling with how to draw a more diverse audience. A study conducted by the Joyce Foundation in conjunction with the University of Chicago found that visitors to a dozen of the city’s cultural venues-including the Chicago History Museum, the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Field Museum-tend to be white, wealthy, and educated. Highest attendance rates, the study found, were among residents of the North Shore, Hyde Park, and the city’s north lakefront; the lowest, from the predominantly African American areas on the West and South sides, as well as the racially mixed south, west, and northwest suburbs. “You want to be infinitely more powerful for African American and Hispanic school kids,” Rowe says. But, he adds, the museum wants to attract all comers and more of them.

CHM unlocks the doors on September 30th in a grand reopening that includes a performance by Jeff Tweedy, the first in a new series of monthly concerts cosponsored by CHM and WXRT on Uihlein Plaza on the east side of the building. The members of Amistad, the car club, plan to be there for the unveiling of their work, which Pedro Cisneros hopes will have an appeal that crosses ethnic boundaries. “I think it will especially bring in the youth,” Cisneros says. “The youth is very important, not just Latino, but black and white too. We’re trying to open new doors.”

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