The Chicago Blues Experience, a proposed 50,000-square-foot museum that had been hoping for a sweet home on Navy Pier, will instead be setting up shop in the Loop.
Aiming for a spring 2019 opening at 25 E. Washington St., a block west of the Cultural Center and two blocks west of Millennium Park, the private, for-profit institution aims to satisfy “the unfulfilled promise, culturally, of Chicago,” said Terry Stewart, the former Rock and Roll Hall of Fame leader who will run the museum. “Anybody you talk to already assumes there is a blues museum.”
In addition to an “immersive” museum that includes the story of how Chicago became the home of the blues and presents live music throughout the day, Chicago Blues Experience will have a 150-seat lounge offering performances nightly. Plans call for a street-level entrance on Washington, across from the southeast entrance of Macy’s State Street store, and three floors underground built out in what used to be a health club and, before that, the Marshall Field’s men’s store.
“Think about Chicago, that great shaper of the music of the world,” said Mark Kelly, the city’s cultural commissioner. “And yet we’ve never been centered in the city with a location that celebrates that. Now, with the Blues Experience, with the professional team they’re bringing in, I’m confident we’re going to have this incredible, living experience.”
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“We’re pretty confident that things are just the way they’re supposed to be,” said Lincoln “Chicago Beau” Beauchamp, the blues musician and Chicago Blues Experience co-founder credited with getting the idea off the ground. “I thought, ‘This has to be recognized as more than just something that happens in bars. It has to be recognized as something that has deep political and social roots and cultural roots.'”
Although city funds are not involved, “the city’s been helpful, and I’m going to continue to be helpful,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “The blues is a distinct, unique, American musical form, the foundational piece of rock and roll. No city can claim it like Chicago.”
And the museum will be part of a blues tapestry here, he added: “I want this to be a destination. It’s one thing to go to the clubs. It’s one thing to have the blues festival — even better. Now to have the museum that can be an intellectual hub…”
Getting the museum to this point has been a journey. In late 2015, the museum announced plans to locate on Navy Pier and said it had $40 million in investor funding committed to the project. Last April, however, Pier officials pulled the plug on negotiations, saying that instead a hotel project would occupy the space planned for the museum, according to Sona Wang, the local venture capitalist who is managing director and co-founder of the blues museum.
“Obviously that was hugely disappointing,” she said. “We picked ourselves back up” and found the new location.
She said the museum expects to execute a lease on the Washington Street space Monday or Tuesday. And with that in hand, she said, “we are beginning the process of refreshing old (financial) commitments and talking to new investors.”
She is confident she will be able to raise the $30 million the project needs. What her backers have in common, she said, is financial sophistication and “a deep caring for the city.”
Wang is a blues fan whose first date with her husband was at a Lincoln Park blues club, she said, but “I came to this with financial investor discipline and seeing a gaping hole in the marketplace. Here we have an internationally recognized brand”: Chicago blues. “People come here with the expectation of having some memorable, impactful experience with the blues. Today, there are limited options of how you get that. It just kind of strikes you in the face.”
There are multiple blues clubs, yes, but those don’t serve the family audience, and they are episodic rather than encyclopedic. They let you experience blues music, but not necessarily the story of the music.
While Cleveland had to convince the rest of the nation that it was the right place for the rock hall of fame, Chicago will have no such problem, said Stewart, who ran the Cleveland facility for 14 years.
“I first want it to be the must-see cultural attraction of Chicago, which is a very bold statement,” he said. St. Louis has the National Blues Museum, but Chicago Blues Experience officials are confident music tourism isn’t an either/or proposition.
The team here includes some of the founders of the rock hall, including, as an adviser, Bob Santelli, who was blues adviser to the Cleveland museum and has since helped start the Experience Music Project in Seattle and the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.
“We’re actually bringing the old band back together,” said Wang.
BRC Imagination Arts, of Los Angeles, will handle design of a museum that will include artifacts and a way for visitors to put themselves in, for instance, the Chess Records studio where Muddy Waters recorded, officials said. BRC’s credits include Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum & Library, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam.
Indeed, said Wang, it was the Heineken concept of giving visitors a taste of beer at the end that led to the proposal to include tastings of live music at Chicago Blues Experience, something unique among American music museums.
A rough outline of the museum plan includes, said Stewart, “the passage from Africa, the migration north, the electrification of the music in Chicago and the impact and influence it has on modern music and today’s culture.”
Said Beauchamp: “You’re going to have not just a high-tech experience, buttons to push, but you’re going to be able to immerse yourself in the blues experience and in all the offshoots of the blues. It’s going to be a journey.”
While some may contend that the more fitting location for such a museum would be in the city’s African-American neighborhoods, Beauchamp said having it downtown is proper.
“The South Side or the West Side are definitely the rootland,” he said. “That’s where it happened. But you want the place to be centrally located, absolutely. The blues is so central to Chicago culture.”