Staff of Chicago's Peace Museum frustrated by escalating rent and taxes

July 14, 1991|By Charles M. Madigan | Charles M. Madigan,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Say it's many years ago and we're young and in New York with John and Yoko. John picks up a vintage Martin acoustic guitar, plays and sings "Give Peace a Chance."

They have that very guitar, said to be one of John Lennon's practice instruments, at the Peace Museum, a gift from Yoko Ono on the little institution's fifth anniversary, five years ago.

Ms. Ono came and sang "Happy Birthday" but made the tune short and, mercifully, stayed away from the primal-scream-and-moan interpretive school in her rendition of the traditional theme.

The story is told at the Peace Museum that people who grew up in the 1960s come in and actually ask whether they can touch the guitar, which is kept in a secure glass case, well out of reach of any visitors.

The answer, of course, is no.

But they did let people touch the Lennon guitar case during a road trip once, giving them access to what the Roman Catholic Church would call a second-class relic, something that actually rubbed against the genuine item back when there were still Beatles.

And that music filling the Peace Museum, isn't that . . . yes, it's Arlo Guthrie singing one of his early Watergate songs. Bet they have "Alice's Restaurant," too.

Isn't that poster over on the wall Woody Guthrie? Look, it's Peter, Paul and Mary, back when the guys still had some hair!

And there's a much younger Pete Seeger and pictures of Phil Ochs and Odetta and Joan Baez and a lot of the other anti-war musicians and performers.

And look here in the book section, Tom Hayden's memoirs.

And here at the sales desks, peace symbol key chains!

What they don't have at the Peace Museum these days is enough money to pay the rent. The situation is not yet dire, but museum officials are looking for an additional $200,000 by the end of the year to keep the museum open.

It might seem a plea just dripping with irony -- a peace museum seeking funds from a nation that proved over the past few months that it still has quite a taste for war.

The real culprit, according to the museum staff, is not a decline in support for peace. Attendance has risen gradually over the past few years.

Instead, it is the combination of a cutback in contributions during the recession, a temporary decline in some foundation money because of the way funds are distributed and a looming rent increase spawned by the success of the city's River North area.

Ticket sales supply about one-third of the museum's annual revenue, contributions from dependable supporters an additional third and foundation money the rest.

"With the decline and then the escalating rent, we figured, well, we better shop around," said Peter Ratajczak, executive director of the museum. "We'll spend the summer raising some money and shopping for suitable, affordable gallery space."

The rent problem has become so serious, he said, that the museum's board voted to close the gallery temporarily as of July 1, although the museum's offices remain open and its traveling road show continues.

The museum was founded in 1981 by Chicago artist Mark Rogovin and Marjorie Benton of Evanston, Ill., the U.S. ambassador to UNICEF and, with her husband, Charles, a longtime part-owner of Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corp.

It has developed a number of critically acclaimed exhibitions that have visited more than 100 cities around the world.

Ten years ago, when the museum had just opened and was still defining itself, the River North area was a collection of old factories that, at the time, awaited the Midas touch of modern investment.

f course, the investors came. Galleries full of modern art fill many of the old factories now, and there are some very up-market restaurants, including Oprah Winfrey's, in the neighborhood.

Mr. Ratajczak was one of the early investors. He has watched the neighborhood develop over the years and has watched rent and taxes climb as River North became popular. At this point, space in the building housing the museum rents for as much as $15 a square foot.

"Right now, what we're paying is $5 a square foot. That is in a neighborhood where the bargain-basement price is $6.50. . . . We've been going month to month, but to sign a lease we are going to have to sign at a higher rental rate," Mr. Ratajczak said.

It might be nice, he added, to have a Peace Museum on an avenue where people actually walk by as part of their daily routine.

"No one walks down the street and says: 'Oh, look. The Peace Museum. Let's walk in there.' We're still the destination. Erie Street is pretty quiet," Mr. Ratajczak said.

A visit to the Peace Museum calls up a lot of old ghosts, particularly for baby boomers who might have brushed up against the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s.

Anti-war fervor played out in some unusual ways.

Buttons, for example. Political parties and social groups had buttons before the Vietnam War. But the peace movement spawned about every button variant anyone could imagine, everything from "Peace Now" to "Aging Hippies for Peace."

It wasn't hard forming a peace movement in the late 1960s, when public support for the Vietnam War had collapsed and college-age youths were looking the draft right in the eye.

But it's not so easy singing anti-war tunes or pushing the anti-war message when eight out of 10 respondents in recent polls said the United States was doing the right thing in waging war in Kuwait and Iraq.

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