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Introducing CACE - Contemporary Arts Center Elgin

28 April 2006 The Elginite 6 Comments

Right now my favorite half-baked idea is the Contemporary Arts Center Elgin (CACE).

Obviously CACE is a play on case, since the complex is the old Illinois Watch Case Company factory, otherwise known as the watch case factory (though these days usually referred to as the Simpson Electric building). Since we destroyed the watch factory, we should try to preserve this complex, since it too is a part of the same Watch City heritage. When I say preserve, I mean preserve, not refurbish into luxury condos. I think it’s important that it retain its industrial-age ambience.

So what is CACE and what is the model for it? CACE, as I see it, would be the midwest’s premier contemporary art museum. It may include artists’ residences, studios, galleries, museum, and businesses that are in the new media, communications or other art-related or creative industries. At 250,000 square feet, it would probably be the largest contemporary art museum in the Midwest. The problem with Chicago’s MCA is that it’s too pretty. It works for modern art, but isn’t ideal for contemporary art, which demands a grittier venue and much larger spaces.

The model for CACE is Mass MoCA, the nation’s largest contemporary art museum (300,000 square feet, I think). Mass MoCA is new (opened 1999) and very successful. It certainly makes me want to visit North Adams!

In 1986, just a year after Sprague’s closing, the business and political leaders of North Adams were seeking ways to creatively re-use the vast Sprague complex. Williams College Museum of Art director Thomas Krens, who would later become Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, was looking for space to exhibit large works of contemporary art that would not fit in conventional museum galleries. When Mayor John Barrett III suggested the vast Marshall Street complex as a possible exhibition site, the idea of creating a contemporary arts center in North Adams began to take shape.

Joseph C. Thompson, Krens’ colleague at the Williams College Museum of Art, was named founding director of MASS MoCA and spearheaded the project’s launch. Thompson led the campaign to build political and community support for the proposed institution, which would serve as a platform for the creation and presentation of contemporary art, and develop links to the region’s myriad cultural institutions. The Massachusetts legislature announced its support for the project in 1988. Subsequent economic upheaval in Massachusetts threatened the project, but broad-based support from the community and the private sector, which pledged more than $8 million, ensured that it continued to move forward.

The feasibility study for MASS MoCA was led by renowned architects Simeon Bruner of Bruner/ Cott & Associates, Frank Gehry, Robert Venturi, and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Bruner/Cott was named project architect in 1992 and, in 1995, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm completed the master plan and final designs. They proposed exploiting the unparalleled scale and versatility of the complex’s industrial spaces, while establishing a dialogue between the facility’s past and the new life it would have as the country’s largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts.

As designs for the complex developed, so did the articulation of MASS MoCA’s mission. Originally conceived as an institution for the display of contemporary visual arts, MASS MoCA evolved, under Thompson’s leadership, into a center that would both present and catalyze the creation of works that chart new creative territory. MASS MoCA celebrated its opening in 1999, marking the site’s launch into its third century and the continuation of a long history of innovation and experimentation. (source: Mass MoCA website)

The establishment of CACE would require a similar level of effort, buy-in and participation as was required for the establishment of Mass MoCA. Ideally, the City of Elgin, Kane County, and the State of Illinois would all share in the initial funding along with private and corporate donors. However, the City of Elgin could probably finance the project on its own. Art faculty from Chicago-area colleges would need to be involved. NENA and other neighborhood groups would need to be on board.

It’s a lot of work, but it will save the complex from destruction or debasement. And of course it would generate a tremendous amount of buzz for Elgin. Elgin would become a serious cultural center. Artists would move in. Since it’s a contemporary art museum, it would generate a lot of positive externalities or side effects. Artists would want to be nearby. People or businesses that follow artists would establish themselves in Elgin. Elgin would suddenly become an attractive place for creative businesses to locate.

What do you think would have a greater impact on Elgin, CACE or a new concert hall? I think CACE would have a bigger impact, because the concert hall is for an orchestra that already exists. The ESO is already here and whatever extra benefits from having a new concert hall are likely to be marginal, especially since in all likelihood they will choose a ho-hum design by a third-rate architect.

In my view, CACE would be a better investment. For one thing, it would be cheaper to “construct.” It doesn’t need to be fancy, especially since the idea is to preserve its industrial-age atmosphere. The other thing–the bigger thing–is that it would extend Elgin’s cultural dimensions into the realm of visual art. It’s great that we have an orchestra, but we also need an art museum, and here’s a way to do it.

I think a contemporary art museum has greater potential for generating positive externalities than any other kind of art museum. The fact that the art on display is by living artists makes it much more likely that living artists will inhabit the community. When artists inhabit a community, positive things happen: Galleries open, followed by restaurants and stores, and so on. Artistic types–creative people–would love Elgin’s historic districts with its gorgeous Victorians and the downtown with its unique mix of old commercial, industrial and religious buildings. They would be excited by the ethnic and socio-economic diversity that characterizes Elgin. CACE will bring them here.

If we want Elgin to be a creative city, a vital and thriving community we can all be proud of, I think this is an option we’re obligated to explore.

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6 Responses to “Introducing CACE - Contemporary Arts Center Elgin”

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  1. gringcolo says:

    You have my vote!

  2. I worked at Simpson Electric in 1978!

    IMHO, they would have to do some HEAVY mitigation of carcinogens. You could contract cancer just from walking in and taking a long, deep breath, what with all the Prop. 65 chemicals they used to use there!

    Remember how much earth had to be removed from the old Elgin National Watch Factory site before Richard Gromer could build his “dream” supermarket? Same difference!


  3. RS says:

    I’d never thought about the carcinogens. That’s good to know. I guess it will be pretty expensive to clean it up, but whatever project they do there, I don’t think the cleanup can be avoided.

  4. Mikey says:

    I love the idea for CACE. While some people may cringe at the thought of “artists” inhabiting Elgin, it would certainly help the struggling downtown businesses. A space for artists(visual,theatrical,musical,anything) to be able to live, practice, and show their art may be the best decision Elgin could make. If Chicago is “The Second City”(while I love the name, I personally think New York is just a dirtier and more expensive Chicago), Elgin could certainly become “The Third City.” Artists already live in and love Elgin, why not try and expand on that?

    Love the idea, now let’s all figure out where to get the money!

  5. When I first heard about the ArtSpace project being proposed this is the building that came to mind. I drive by it every day and visualize what a cool arts complex it could become with studios, galleries, rehearsal spaces, arts retail stores, and performance spaces (yes, we have the Hemmens, but where can one put on a smaller scale show seating between 200 and 300 guests that’s still in a nice theater?).

    I have so much hope that the ArtSpace project will come to fruition and I agree that this old factory could be the perfect space to house it!

  6. Scott says:

    Info from June, 2010 City Council Artspace Presentation. Interesting stuff starts on page 28.