You might know how the leopard got his spots and how the camel got his hump, but do you know how Chicago’s most creative meeting venue got the name Catalyst Ranch?  According to legend, Eva Niewiadomski, Czarina of Catalyst Ranch, wanted a name that would express that we are a physical location (a meeting and event venue) and what our purpose is (to inspire new ways of thinking.)  After hours of brainstorming, Eva had a long list of words like catapult and catalyst and a list of physical spaces, but not the perfect name for her new business.   Not long after that, a friend of a friend of Eva’s blurted out “Catalyst Ranch” at lunch one day.  Catalyst Ranch is a bit of play on words with Cadillac Ranch, the unexpected art installation along Route 66 in Texas.  The name Catalyst Ranch fit.  As Cadillac Ranch juxtaposes a bewildering art piece against a desert landscape, Catalyst Ranch is a surprising “Ranch” hidden in the middle of a city.

Cadillac Ranch 1

Cadillac Ranch. Photo: David Bowser for The New York Times

Cadillac Ranch was commissioned by the flamboyant oil and gas heir, Stanley Marsh 3.  Marsh, who passed away earlier this month, commissioned San Francisco art collective called The Ant Farm to create a piece of public art that would “baffle the locals.”   The Ant Farm artists came up with the idea of ten vintage Cadillacs partially buried nose down in one of Marsh’s fields near his hometown of Amarillo, Texas.  The Caddies, which range from the 1949 to 1963 model and all featured stylish tailfins, were installed in the ground at an angle that corresponds to that of the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt.  Not knowing Cadillac Ranch would become one of the most visited and photographed monuments in America, Marsh thought he’d have the cars removed at the end of the summer.  However, many people visited and continue to visit Cadillac Ranch from all over the world.  Some tourists have defaced the cars or stolen car parts as souvenirs.  The Ant Farm and Marsh accepted the deconstruction and graffiti, and Cadillac Ranch evolved as a piece of public art.

Stan Marsh 3 was an interesting character.  He was successful banker and television executive in addition to being an “art for art’s sake” enthusiast.   He had dozens of fake traffic signs put up around Amarillo with bizarre or humorous messages such as “You Will Never Be the Same” and “Ostrich X-ing.”    In his New York Times article, Bruce Weber describes Marsh as “an arts patron and a celebrated personality in Texas generally and in Amarillo particularly. He was the third in a line of Stanley Marshes but called himself Stanley Marsh 3 instead of Stanley Marsh III because he felt that Roman numerals were pretentious.”

Stan Marsh in 1984.  Photo: Evans Caglage/The Dallas Morning News, via Associated Press

Stan Marsh in 1984. Photo: Evans Caglage/The Dallas Morning News, via Associated Press

In a 1978 interview, Marsh stated, “Art should be two things: surprising and hidden from people.  Art should get you out of your mental rut.”  If you’ve ever visited Catalyst Ranch, you can see that escaping a mental rut is certainly one of the objectives here at the Ranch.  As you enter the Haymarket Building, it may look and feel like many other historic West Loop loft buildings, but when the elevator opens at Catalyst Ranch, you’ll find a meeting space that is anything but ordinary, a place that is as unimaginable and unique as Cadillac Ranch.  Marsh liked to shake people up in playful and unexpected ways.  The environment at the Ranch seeks to do the same.  Our goal is to help our clients shake up their thinking, enabling them to come up with new products, solutions, and ideas within the walls of our eclectic meeting rooms.

Public art abounds in Chicago.  What piece of public art is most inspiring to you?  Sound off in the comments!