Last week, a large, shiny capsule titled Cloud Column arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The brainchild of British artist Sir Anish Kapoor, the artwork is an earlier cousin of Chicago's iconic Cloud Gate, aka "The Bean." The news ignited a battle royale between the Windy and Bayou cities when the Chicago Tribune ran a less-than-polite article dismissing "unoriginal" Houston as a "cultureless abyss." Fast forward one week, and newspapers are still fighting. The hot takes are still heating up.
Here at Houstonia, we think this conversation is silly, mainly because everything about these sculptures is a bit silly (a whole crew must swab down the Bean with a solution of water and liquid Tide thrice daily to keep the grime and fingerprints at bay).
Due to three of our editors' experience as ex-Chicagoans, we feel obliged to inform y'all this conversation is totally boring. Collectively, we've cohabited with the Bean for more than a decade, and we're here to say we're over it. Here's why:
Morgan Kinney: It’s hard to describe how exhausting it was to attend college within the cultural orbit of a massive, stainless-steel legume. A pilgrimage to the Bean’s Millennium Park home was a required part of freshman orientation, an expected stop on any visitor’s itinerary, and often a default winter date destination (the city’s most picturesque ice skating rink sits in a plaza below the sculpture).
In Houston, museum officials hope our own Kapoor sculpture will function as a unified gathering place—a cultural touchstone where every Houstonian will have their own selfie with the city's premier vertical capsule. And for a while that might be true, at least until Houston gets its fill.
All I know is that from my time in Chicago, I have seen a crowd of Santas (from the visiting SantaCon) dance around the sculpture like a maypole, I have admired quinceañeras taking photos in their poufy dresses, and I have watched sad clowns stand silently for hours under its arch. What I didn’t see a lot of? Actual denizens of the City of Broad Shoulders. They were elsewhere, probably at a Bears game or eating deep dish.
So, while writers use these beans as set pieces in a debate for the souls of our cities, I'd argue that actual Chicagoans (and now Houstonians) are going about their lives. Kapoor's sculptures hold a mirror up to their respective cities, but I caution against making too much of the reflections.
Nicki Koetting: What I miss about Chicago: My friends; the adorable neighborhood Andersonville, where I lived for three years; the feminist bookstore Women and Children First; the theater scene; being able to walk or take public transportation nearly everywhere; Lake Michigan.
What I don’t miss: Many things, but topping the list is the depressing, frigid cold—and the Bean.
Look, I love taking cute photos in reflective surfaces as much as the next millennial with a Snapchat. (Although having friends who visited me when I lived in Chicago insist on taking the requisite selfie with the Bean got old fast.) But the Bean is not the first thing, nor even the 10th or 50th thing, I would name about why Chicago is a great city (to visit). I would suggest a hundred more activities to visitors (See a Neo-Futurist show! Visit the Field Museum or the Art Institute! Eat deep dish pizza! Go to a Cubs game! Walk or bike along Lake Michigan! Drive down Lake Shore Drive while blasting Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago” and have a lot of feelings!)—before I even thought about visiting the Bean.
I admit that Cloud Gate is a beautiful piece of art. But it doesn’t exemplify Chicago’s spirit, and now that we have our own Bean here in Houston, it won’t capture why our city is great.
Laura Furr Mericas: I’m just as tired of the Bean as the next former Chicagoan. There was one month when I lived in that frigid city that I visited the Bean on a weekly basis, as visitor after visitor requested a photo opp. I have little to no desire to ever venture back to that mirrored chamber, but I have to say, I am pretty excited that Houston is getting a similar installation. Fresh off a week-long visit from family, and with a best friend’s trip to Texas only days away, I’m keenly aware of Houston’s tourist-y downfalls. I love this city, but it can be challenging to show off.
When travelers arrive at my doorstep, I usually usher them to my favorite taco joint or local brewery—two of my top five favorite things about Houston. (By the way, have you seen this month's feature?) I love our parks, but normally guests find our oppressive heat and humidity a bit intimidating, leaving us lingering from meal to meal, drink to drink, scrambling to think of what to do next. In Houston’s Cloud Column, I’m looking forward to something to show off and snap a photo of, a memorable moment and monument, a motivation to bop into some of the renowned air-conditioned museums surrounding it, and a jumping off point to discuss our city’s vibrant arts scene. Our Bean might not be better than Chicago’s. Have you seen it? It’s pretty much the same. But it will serve the same purpose, and I’m okay with that. Plus, you’ll never have to fight the wind chill to get there.