Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor is a huge draw at Millennium Park.
Which is the biggest tourist attraction in the Midwest? For years, that honor has gone to Navy Pier with about 9 million visitors a year. On Travel & Leisure’s 2014 list of America’s most-visited attractions, Navy Pier landed at No. 19, behind the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (thank God for the union), but nicely ahead of Pier 39 in San Francisco.
Recently, though, came word that the cultural and entertainment space known as Millennium Park has, for the first time, eclipsed that number with a heady 12.9 million visitors in the second half of 2016 alone. Unlike the owners of a skyscraper just pipped for the world’s tallest, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was happy to trumpet the sudden ascendancy of Millennium Park over Navy Pier because Chicago lays claim to both. In an amusing statement so carefully worded that you could almost taste the internal debates, Navy Pier offered politically judicious congratulations.
Does any of this matter?
Well, as Steve Johnson reported in the Tribune, the big increase in the Millennium Park numbers has come after new and more sophisticated counting methods were applied to the park (Navy Pier, Johnson reported, was stuck with the old ones). So that makes the whole comparison a tad ridiculous. And you can bet your life that new and more sophisticated counting methods that show smaller numbers are not quite as enthusiastically embraced as those that purport to count every last wanderer.
Moreover, neither methodology reflects the different level of effort it takes to visit some cultural attractions over others (and the fun-loving wharf known as Navy Pier takes a lot more effort to embrace than Millennium Park on Michigan Avenue). Take for example, the numbers (10 million or so) claimed by the Pike Place Market in Seattle. Many of those folks are coming to see the famous performing fishmongers; some, though, are surely just out-of-towners who fancy a piece of fresh salmon to cook up in their Airbnb. And nowhere do these numbers reflect quality — some of the best attractions in the world (Stonehenge, the Galapagos Islands) intentionally limit numbers to ensure a good visitor experience. And preservation.
So the question of which has more visitors is all pretty meaningless (although a good distraction from the overall decline in international tourism). But I would not apply the word meaningless to the unimpeachable growth of Millennium Park.
I’ve written about the park for years. But it’s never been clearer than right now the growth really is mostly attributable to two of the most astoundingly successful pieces of public art in American history — the Crown Fountain, now spluttering for another year, and, most especially, Cloud Gate, or the piece of shiny Anish Kapoor sculpture popularly known as The Bean. They come in their millions — counted! counted! — to touch its gleaming surface.
Millennium Park invites visitors to play with hands-on installations such as "Cloud Gate" and the Crown Fountain, Lurie Garden, the Great Lawn at Pritzker Pavilion, the BP Bridge over Columbus Drive and the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink.
Of all its many achievements, The Bean has turned out to be the perfect piece of sculpture for the age of social media — the core of so many a Snapchat story now (varying by occasion and the weather), and documentable from myriad angles. That’s because The Bean is not just looked at from afar but most always touched. Unlike most public art, wherein the artist wants to make a personal statement for the ages, The Bean is a cipher, a mirror that reflects its changing visitors, both in metaphor and actuality. I bet Kapoor wishes he’d made a deal tied to the number of punters of all stripes that his work has brought into the park.
There is no question that the quest to popularize Millennium Park, to subtly change its orientation from higher-end culture to the less stuffy host of populist events for all Chicagoans, is beginning to pay off. Mark Kelly, commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, has been, and I think will continue to be, an effective force in that direction, which is the right direction for the city.
But there’s something else significant that was not mentioned at the news conferences, and that you’re unlikely to hear anywhere shouted anywhere near Michigan Avenue: the precipitous decline this year of traditional retail, as popularly blamed on the rise of Amazon and typified by the decision, announced this month, of Ralph Lauren to close its flagship Polo store on the now-prohibitively costly Fifth Avenue in New York City.
The sudden collapse of retail (Payless, Sports Authority, H.H. Gregg) has been truly eye-popping in recent weeks. Many of the reasons are obvious. Amazon’s raging dominance (it sold $80 billion worth of stuff last year) and astonishing growth in sales had to come from somewhere. And you also have the aforementioned decline in international visitors due to the strong dollar and new Trumpian restrictions. Some analysts also have been pointing to the truth that, by any viable global measure of viability, America has far too many stores (much as Britain had too many pubs, until some of the weaker ones threw in the towel).
But writing in The Atlantic this month, Derek Thompson adds a few observations to the obvious. Simply put, he argues that people have shifted their activities from going shopping to going out for dinner or drinks with friends; food and dining revenue thrives even as retail revenue falls off a cliff. Why? Thompson argues that it has everything to do with social media.
Everybody in the cultural business has become accustomed to the benefits of providing interactive opportunities for consumers or audience members to do their social media thing (although it can be tricky at that symphony concert or stand-up comedy show). But what far fewer people yet have realized is how much the opportunity for a good post actually is driving the choice of cultural activity, especially among with young. And you buying something you don’t really need, and that carries no real excitement, doesn’t generally cut it for your feed; even unmitigated materialists prefer to look like forces for social justice on Facebook. But your piece of farmhouse aged cheese? Your heirloom Parisian tomato? Sure. You can spin that narratively, and still enjoy the humble brag.
If you look at the writing about Michigan Avenue over recent years, you’ll mostly read of the strength of the upper reaches of the avenue, with its dominant retail powerhouses and vertical malls, and the longtime weakness of the stretch below the Chicago River, much more the province of experiences (museums, parks, festivals, concerts) than A-list buying.
But this past week’s Millennium Park numbers are just another piece of data about how much and how fast that is changing. The energy is moving south apace.
And there is a lot of evidence that the stretch of the Magnificent Mile that runs north would be wise to start diversifying from so much reliance on retail. And to do so fast, before too many dominoes start falling.
That should be good for the Lookingglass Theatre, located in a prime spot, and the few restaurants that can afford the rent, but you can see the Amazonian storm clouds gathering for most everyone else.
Millennium Park, and the restaurants that are growing in its environs, simply are much better positioned to provide those sought-after Snapchat experiences. All 12.9 million of them, apparently, give or take the odd Luddite.
Then there’s the attraction-like flagship Apple Store, coming soon and brilliantly positioned right on the Chicago River, taking cagey advantage of the shopping prestige that lies to the north but with its glassy self very much looking south, toward where The Bean poses daily for millions of photographers, and all the dials are moving in the right direction.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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