An unused gravel lot at the DuSable Museum of African-American History will be converted into a revenue-generating “event space” for weddings and corporate events, thanks to a $582,440 makeover in the works.
With $500,000 from the city and $82,440 from the Chicago Park District, the city hopes to turn 15,000 square feet of dead space along the eastern edge of the Roundhouse building into a money-maker with potential to boost museum attendance in Washington Park.
Stairs at the Roundhouse basement will be rebuilt. Grass, flowers and permeable pavers will be installed. Ornamental fencing will be added along the south border.
The work started Monday and is expected to be completed in time for the Chicago Architectural Biennial in September, when the DuSable Museum is expected to serve as one of six “neighborhood anchor sites.”
Events are also scheduled to be held at the Beverly Arts Center, the DePaul Art Museum, the Hyde Park Art Center, the National Museum of Mexican Art and the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture.
The Winter Garden atop Harold Washington Library is a popular place for weddings and special events.
Movie mogul George Lucas married Chicago businesswoman Mellody Hobson at a star-studded wedding on Promontory Point that closed the park for a day, put the field house out of commission for a week and bent the rules in exchange for a $100,000 rental fee.
Lauren Markowitz, a spokesperson for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said the goal is to turn the new outdoor event space at the DuSable Museum into a similarly attractive space.
“There’s not a ton of similar space [in the area], particularly not in Washington Park,” Markowitz said Monday.
“If you’re having these big events there, it makes it more of an institution and a place that people know about. We can attract more people to the museum and turn, what is now gravel dead space into a revenue-generator. It seemed like a great solution to give the museum another beautiful” attraction.
In a press release announcing the renovation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the new space at the nation’s oldest African-American museum a “unique location to celebrate special occasions in Washington Park.”
Earlier this year, a shake-up on the board that oversees the DuSable Museum brought in Chicago super-star Chance the Rapper, his father, Ken Bennett and prominent physician Eric Whitaker, a close friend of former President Barack Obama.
The elder Bennett once served as Emanuel’s chief liaison to the black community. Ken Bennett currently serves as a senior advisor to the tourist agency known as Choose Chicago.
Located at 740 E. 56th Place, the DuSable Museum has struggled financially in recent years, but has attempted to turn the tide under the leadership of President and CEO Perri Irmer.
The outdoor events space is particularly well-timed.
Construction of the Obama Presidential Center in nearby Jackson Park is expected to have a spill-over effect.
The DuSable Museum was founded in the living room of artists Charles and Margaret Burroughs.
Since announcement of the presidential center, the DuSable Museum’s challenge has been its capacity to capitalize on the traffic and publicity sure to be drawn by an Obama library expected to attract some 800,000 visitors annually.
The DuSable Museum has an annual budget of $4.1 million annual. Like most small niche museums, it has faced declining revenues and government funding in recent years. It saw about 100,000 visitors in 2015, compared to nearly 118,500 in 2014.
It also has experienced transition pains, with a dispute over artistic direction erupting between new and older board members in 2015.
New trustee Theaster Gates proposed a committee that would oversee programming in tandem with nearby University of Chicago, where he is a professor. The museum’s old-school supporters, deeply distrusting of the university, cried foul.
However, the museum, deeply revered by Chicago’s black community for its unfiltered narrative of black history rarely found elsewhere, has held steady, and under Irmer achieved the prestigious status of Smithsonian Affiliation from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. last year.