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By Scott Jacobs

bryan In a world that divides between people who see the glass as half empty and those who see it as half full, John Bryan is a pitcher of optimism.

After a long winter of dreary cold and a spring filled with rain, I caught up with Bryan in the park for which he raised $250 million across the street from the newly opened Modern Wing of the Art Institute (for which he raised another $450 million) on a sunny day, the kind of day that brings thousands of tourists to Millennium Park. The first thing that catches his eye is a cracked tile in the sidewalk. “We’re going to have to get that fixed,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing I notice.”

Bryan, 73, is both the head of the Millennium Park Committee and the chairman of the board of the Art Institute. He is here to talk about another civic project he is spearheading this year: the construction of two pavilions in the park to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan for Chicago. But first he wants to detour over to a newly planted garden behind the Crown Fountain to see how the morning shade falls on the plantings. Along the way, he reminisces on how the son of a Mississippi meatpacking executive came to love Chicago.

“The first time I ever came to Chicago I was 15 years old. I was going to summer camp in Wisconsin. I came in on the train. We were met by a bus, and they took us to the top of the Prudential Tower . . . the tallest building I’d ever seen. It had just been built and I was looking down-––probably at a railroad yard––with no idea that someday I’d be involved in the conversion of that railroad yard into this park.”

Following in his father’s footsteps, Bryan went back to Mississippi to take over his father’s company Bryan Foods in 1960. Eight years later, when the company was sold to Consolidated Foods in Chicago, he took a job running one of its divisions. In 1974, “they invited me to come to Chicago to run the firm.” He was 37 years old and “the firm” –– as he calls it –– is what would become under his leadership the Sara Lee Corporation.

In the South, Bryan had been an ardent early supporter of the civil rights movement, but in Chicago, he kept his public eye on the business even as he privately cultivated his personal interest in art, architecture and gardening. Inevitably, Sara Lee’s prominence in the Chicago business community, and Bryan’s own passion for the arts, drew him into various civic ventures, especially after he struck up a friendship in 1989 with the new mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley.

It was at a planning meeting for the 1996 Democratic Convention that Daley enlisted Bryan for his first major public project. They were in a conference room at the Standard Oil building (now the Aon Tower). “He called me over to the window, and we looked down, and he told me his idea of building an underground garage using the revenue bonds to put a park on top on it. I thought it was a terrific idea.”

Millennium Park

Two years later, Daley was laying out the blueprints for the park with Adrian Smith, then an architect with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill,  and they were looking for someone who could raise private money to put a few sculptures in it.  The first person they called was John Bryan.

“He (Mayor Daley) asked me if I would be interested in working with the private sector to do something, and I said ‘how much?’ He said ’30 million’ and that didn’t sound like very much to me, so I said ‘sure.’”

The construction of Millennium Park did not go as planned. One reason was that Bryan instantly raised over $100 million for park “amenities.” The Pritzker family underwrote construction of a outdoor music pavilion with a $15 million gift. The Irving Harris family gave $15 million for a performing arts center. Ann Lurie contributed $10 million for a formal garden. And Henry Crown’s foundation donated another $10 million for construction of a multimedia fountain that is now an interactive playground where kids cavort under periodic sprays of water from the digitized faces of ordinary Chicagoans.

As Mayor Daley would soon learn, John Bryan didn’t raise money by asking school children to collect pop-tops to name a sculpture after their favorite Illinois hero. He went after the big money, promising big things –– a first class park at the center of downtown that would make Chicago a world class city.

In the end, Bryan would raise not $30 million but $250 million. When the park was  two years behind schedule and costs escalated from $175 million to more than $300 million, that put him in the bull’s eye of reporters wanting to know what went wrong?

While public officials ducked the question, Bryan invited the press into his office to give his answer. “The press’s role is, to a large extent, to catch the politicians. They get their prizes for catching them, not for praising them,” he says. So with his disarming southern drawl and good-natured optimism, he seized on the new price tag as a sign of how much progress they’d made.

“Gosh, I hope it costs more than $300 million. I don’t want to be involved in something cheap,” he told them. When the final costs were totaled, the price would reach $475 million. Private contributions covered more than half, and the initial $175 million revenue bonds were rolled over into a sale of the parking garage to private interests in exchange for an annual contribution to the city budget.

Gehry and Piano

john_bryan_gehryPausing at the edge of the Pritzker music pavilion, Bryan muses on what might have been.  The architect chosen to design it was Frank Gehry whose Bilboa museum in Spain was architecture’s hot property at the end of the 1990’s. But Gehry was reticent about bringing that same boldness back to America.

“He went through all kinds of designs––one of them was even a nod to Mies van der Rohe––and we just sort of laughed. I mean it was a ‘less is more’ minimalist design. We said no, no. We wanted something that looked like a Frank Gehry – and we got it.”

“What’s remarkable is the trellis,” he notes. “The trellis gives the space a wall, a definition. It also serves as a place to hang the speakers so it’s the best outdoor sound system in the world.”

The Gehry music pavilion and Renzo Piano’s new modern wing of the Art Institute sit opposite each other for no reason other than John Bryan wanted them to.  As chief fundraiser for both, Bryan was in a unique position to both choose the architects and determine how their buildings would be situated.

“Frank and Renzo are very good friends,” Bryan goes on. “When Renzo saw what Frank was doing, he lined his building up to within a millimeter of Frank’s. So they are really facing off. This (The Gehry pavilion) is chaotic architecture of the highest order. It defines what happened to architecture at the end of the 20th century when the computer came along and let people forget about straight lines, and do anything they wanted to. But that (Piano’s modern wing) is about showing art, about light.

“The Gehry is about listening to music. It’s about theater, and the Piano is about serenity. Part of its greatness comes from its simplicity, and its restraint, and its vocabulary of materials. To see those simple plain oak floors, the painted steel and glass, it’s really pretty remarkable. But it doesn’t overpower the art. Too many swirls and complicated bits of architecture would compete with the art. This doesn’t.”

The Bean

The Bean is another Millennium Park landmark that comes with a long story. Originally, Bryan’s committee asked two sculptors to submit plans for the park. Anish Kapoor, of London, proposed a reflective chrome orb he dubbed Cloudgate for the park’s Lurie Garden; and Jeffrey Koons, a modernist from New York, was asked for a piece to face the park entrance on Michigan Avenue.

Koons’ submission didn’t impress anyone, but Kapoor’s Cloudgate was a hit – and a dilemma.  “It was too big to put in a flower garden,” Bryan says. So the two commissions were combined into one, and Cloudgate-––quickly re-dubbed in Chicagoese “The Bean”––was moved to its current location above the McCormick Skating Rink.

beanKapoor designed The Bean without any clear plans on how to build it. He put the committee in touch with a San Francisco metal fabricator who had done earlier work for him. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, everyone began making elaborate plans for the unveiling. Once completed, the sculpture would be shipped by boat through the Panama Canal and off loaded at Queen’s Landing near Buckingham Fountain, where it would ceremoniously be rolled into place.

As the piece came together, a few problems cropped up. The fabricating company ran over-budget and teetered on the edge of bankruptcy; and structural engineers calculated the piece was so heavy that rolling it across the park might crush the roofs of the underground garages below.

“It became much more difficult to build than we ever imagined,” Bryan recalls. “The budget for it was $9 million. We were two years late finishing it, and it cost $23 million.  If the city had been building it, we would have been tarred and feathered. But it was just one of those things. We had a tiger by the tail. We couldn’t turn loose and we couldn’t keep going. But we did keep going. And we stuck with it, and we got it finished.”

The construction problems were resolved when the pieces were shipped to Chicago and assembled on site under a temporary tent. For the park opening in 2004, the tent was removed to display The Bean with the welded seams still showing. Then it went back under wraps for another 18 months for a final polish.

“It’s a magnificent piece . . . and I think its safe to say no one will ever replicate it,” Bryan laughs.

Are You The Mayor?

As Bryan walks through the park, a tourist group from Toronto, Ohio, comes by. Bryan falls in step with them, a photographer snapping his picture all the way.

john_bryan_w_tour2“Welcome to Chicago!” he says. “How do you like it?”

“It’s a beautiful city,” one woman says. “This is the first time I’ve been to Chicago.”

“So who are you?” another asks. “The Mayor?”

“No, I just work for him,” Bryan says.

“We love this city,” another woman in the group says, “It’s so clean.”

“Well why not make it clean?” Bryan responds. Then he notices something odd in a nearby flowerbed, and he stops to take it in. “I can’t believe we’ve still got tulips this late in May. Do you get tulips this late in May?”

The group keeps walking apace. “Thank you so much,” Bryan’s new friend calls out.

“Well, thank you for coming,” he answers.

The Fountain

We have been walking around the park for nearly 20 minutes and Bryan still has not reached the flowerbeds he wants to inspect. And he won’t anytime soon. This time, his eye is drawn to four Chinese sculptures that have been temporarily installed in the Boeing Gallery on the Chase Promenade. (Have you noticed how every piece of the park seems to have a corporate sponsor?)

The first sculpture is a red dinosaur made out of wrought iron with MADE IN CHINA branded across its chest. “That’s my favorite. The crafting on it is superb,” he says. “The funny thing is, the other day, this woman’s four-year-old kid climbed to the top of it, if you can believe that, so we had to put these stanchions up. The first ones I didn’t like. These are much more minimalist, and they look quite good, don’t you think?”

The Boeing Gallery offers some insight into how Bryan himself sees the city planning process. In the initial park plan, the promenade was a open walkway a tier higher than the popular Crown Fountain. It’s a perfect spot to take in the chaos of all the children running under the water, but few park goers ever made it there.

After the park was completed, Bryan convinced Boeing to give $5 million for rotating exhibits on the promenade. Foot traffic now flows evenly on both levels. The lesson: even grand plans are not set in stone. You have to be open to learning from, and adapting to the serendipity of people’s whims.

crownThat was brought home to Bryan when the fountain first opened. The designer, Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, wowed the park committee with his plan for two almost Miesian glass towers, 200 feet apart, staring at one another as book ends. Each features a huge video screen of revolving facial close-ups set against the turn of the century buildings that line Michigan Ave. They are connected by a black granite basin meant to catch the water that periodically spits out of the mouths of the pictures.

“I talked about it for a long time,” Bryan recalls. “But I tell you, no one ever imagined that people were going to get in it. We just never thought about it. And, of course, the interactive quality of it is what makes it so appealing and attractive to everybody.”

The New Burnham

On the centennial of Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan, there’s a good amount of speculation about who is the next Burnham. Mayor Daley, after 20 years in office, certainly has a claim to the title. He reconfigured Lake Shore Drive to create a museum campus; built a new Comiskey Park and Soldier Field; set out on a course of replacing decrepit public housing high rises with mixed-income developments; completed Millennium Park; turned Meigs Field into Northerly Island; remade Midway Airport; paved the way for more runways at O’Hare; and, of course, is staking his legacy on winning the 2016 Olympics for Chicago.

Bryan’s scope is more narrow. “If you have some particular area of interest, its better to focus on that, and not to spread yourself too thin,” he says. But he is more like Burnham because he wields a different kind of power: the power of persuasion.

“I love raising money,” he says. “It’s the most challenging thing in the world, and it’s a way to be most useful. Most people just want to offer advice. If you offer money, you can actually make things happen.  And it’s a great strategic challenge, a great mental challenge to figure out how to sell people on the idea of being a part of creating Millennium Park, or the Modern Wing at the Art Institute, or a Children’s Museum.”

“I’m just a businessman who as an extra-curricular activity decided to get involved and I’ve chosen the cultural scene as a place to try to have a small impact,” he adds. “Business people are supposed to understand how to make things happen, and that’s what it’s all about.  You’ve got to get other people to do things. You’ve got to have the right strategy, to keep your eye focused intently on the money – you know, have more than you spend. . . People lead in a lot of different ways. But you’ve got to have some leadership there to do it.”

On the last leg of our walk in the park, we go up the bridge that connects Millennium Park to the new art institute wing. At the top, Bryan pauses to look down at the last remaining rail lines that split the new wing of the art institute from the old.

“The mayor wants to cover this, but it’s a big chunk of change,” he says. “I think we’ll have to leave that for another generation.”


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