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Popular Exhibit Boosts Struggling Chicago Cultural Facility - 2002-10-04

One of the most popular art exhibits in Chicago this year has been on display for more than 10 months in what had been one of the city's least-visited cultural facilities. An exhibit of handmade glass works by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly has attracted several hundred thousand people, is helping renovate a century-old conservatory and might help change the image of one Chicago neighborhood.

A short, six-kilometer ride west of downtown Chicago, on the city's elevated train line, puts you just outside the door of the Garfield Park Conservatory. Inside, a huge collection of trees and flowering plants is joined this year by dozens of colorful glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly. Katherine Anderson, of suburban Chicago, is among the half-million people to see the show since it opened last November. "It is fascinating. I am just blown away. Between the glass and the plants, I do not know what to look at first," she says.

The idea for Dale Chihuly to create an exhibit for Chicago came after he made some sculptures for the city's millennium celebration. Chicago Parks District Director of Conservatories Lisa Roberts says the idea to put the show in Garfield Park instead of the more upscale, though smaller, Lincoln Park Conservatory was an effort by the city to do something unexpected. "It was a really great opportunity to have a major exhibition off the lakefront. Traditionally, many of the big exhibitions are at the big, lakefront museums. [It was an opportunity] to have something in a neighborhood, and in a neighborhood that is really starting to turn around [improve]," she says.

The area surrounding Garfield Park has seen better days. The neighborhood's white families and many of its businesses fled during the 1960's. Race riots in Chicago in 1968 left behind vacant lots where homes and stores used to be. The area's population has declined by two-thirds since 1960. Fewer people came to the park and its conservatory, which fell into disrepair.

Ms. Roberts says the facility's low point came on a cold January day in 1995. "There was a big freeze here which really brought to light a lot of the problems with this facility. It just hadn't been maintained well for many years," she says. "One of the rooms froze, actually, and we lost about 80-percent of one of the plant collections."

That freeze turned out to be among the best things to happen to the Garfield Park Conservatory. The city spent several million dollars to repair the building. A group called the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance was formed to work with the city to promote programs at and awareness of the conservatory.

Alliance director Eunita Rushing says saving the conservatory has also helped the surrounding neighborhood. "The West Side is just like any other large, urban community," she says. "We have our challenges and problems but, hey, we are people just like anyone else. We want good schools for our children. We want decent housing, and we want jobs."

The Chihuly exhibit has done what almost nothing else has done for the Garfield Park neighborhood in decades, bring people in. Last year, 160,000 people visited the conservatory. By late September of this year, more than 510,000 people had driven or taken the train to its brand new stop outside the conservatory to see the exhibit.

Ed Smith, the neighborhood's City Council representative says "never had any idea it was going to generate this kind of interest. It has really been just a phenomenal asset for our community."

It has also been good for the conservatory itself. For decades, the building's original glass ceiling has been covered with corrugated fiberglass. Ms. Roberts says the money from visitors' admissions this year will help pay to restore the building to its original appearance next year. "When you approach the conservatory from the outside, that is what you see: this big hulking hunk of fiberglass," she says. "So, to restore it back to glass is something that everybody has wanted for a long time. It is a very expensive thing to pull off [accomplish], but it will turn us back into a crystal palace again, which is what these places were called in the 19th century."

The effort to restore Garfield Park has been a catalyst for neighborhood redevelopment. Alderman Smith says new housing has been built for middle-class families for the first time in decades. "Now, the West Side of Chicago is beginning to be seen as an integral part of the city. Prior to this, people just did not want to come to the West Side," he says.

Ms. Rushing, who lives just a few minutes away from the conservatory, says the Chihuly show might or might not have a lasting effect on the surrounding neighborhood, but she will be happy if, for now, it just encourages people to come back to the facility's future programs. "If we can reintroduce the conservatory to some people who have said they grew up in this area and haven't been back for a visit for many years," she says. "There are Chicagoans who do not know that the conservatory exists. We are having a fun time introducing people for the first time to us and reacquainting people who have lived in the West Side before."

The Chihuly exhibit has been so popular, it has been extended twice. It is scheduled to close for good in November.