September 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 5 
Cover Story

In full bloom

A conservatory's art exhibit helps rejuvenate a United States community

By the mid 1990s, one of Chicago's prized cultural assets, the Garfield Park Conservatory, had fallen into a state of disrepair. It was so bad that some local officials proposed closing the glass-roofed building, fearing that the early-20th-century structure was more hazardous than helpful to a community that had also fallen on hard times. More than 40 percent of the residents in the neighborhoods around the conservatory live in poverty, and unemployment lingers at nearly four times the national rate. But thanks to the creative thinkers in the city and the community and at Boeing, the conservatory has blossomed again. Its growth has started a renaissance on Chicago's West Side.

Though a multimillion-dollar restoration project started in 1994, the conservatory turned the corner in late 2001. That's when it presented its first major exhibition-"Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass," sponsored by Boeing-and started to draw people from not only the Chicago area but also points beyond.

The exhibition, featuring the work of renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly set among the conservatory's lush landscape, was planned as an innovative community-development project. Both Boeing and the Chicago Park District, which runs the conservatory, hoped to bring in more than 300,000 visitors, or double the normal visitor count. They also hoped to raise the additional $400,000 through admission fees to rebuild the main hall's glass roof.

The project exceeded everyone's expectations. It attracted more than 600,000 visitors, which generated more than enough funds to complete the roofing project and garnered national acclaim from the National Conference of Mayors, among other organizations. Today, the conservatory is leading a community-changing investment program that has launched a green market, a conservatory-centered community development program and an exhibition schedule that keeps the visitors coming.

Boeing has continued to invest in the community as well, sponsoring the conservatory's joint exhibition of African dinosaurs. The company has also supported the development and planning of an onsite gift shop that sells everything from honey made at the conservatory, light gardening equipment and art to exhibition-related items. Boeing and community partners saw the store as a way to create jobs as well as new revenue for the conservatory. After being open for less than a year, the store is an unqualified success, bringing in about $10,000 in revenue each month-which goes directly towards supporting conservatory programs.

What's next? Boeing is currently in talks with the conservatory, a local nonprofit community development organization and a nonprofit hospitality-training organization about the possibility of helping them open a restaurant on the site. The eatery would train homeless and unemployed residents of the West Side about working in a restaurant there while providing visitors to the conservatory a chance to dine.

-Jim Newcomb


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