How exactly does Chicago clean ‘the Bean?’

the Bean
The sculpture known as "the Bean" pictured in Chicago's Millennium Park. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
the Bean
The sculpture known as "the Bean" pictured in Chicago's Millennium Park. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

How exactly does Chicago clean ‘the Bean?’

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Tim Garibay tells us he’s lived in Chicago for four years now and in that time he’s gotten used to visitors of his insisting on seeing the Bean in Millennium Park. Posing for silly pictures, he says, is not quite his thing, but he’s intrigued by what happens to the grime that tourists deposit on the 120-ton structure. So, it made sense that he asked Curious City: 

How do they clean the Bean in Millennium Park?

Well, let’s clarify something first. The six-year-old sculpture that Chicagoans so affectionately call “the Bean” is actually named Cloud Gate, inspired by the vision of London-based artist Anish Kapoor. After finding the answer to Tim’s question, I would suggest that Kapoor could have named it “Germ Gate” or maybe “Grime Gate.” 

According to Ed Uhlir, Executive Director of Millenium Park, Inc., Kapoor envisioned an interactive, inviting structure, which in turn would require regular maintenance. Since the dirt factor was on the Park’s radar long before Cloud Gate actually made its downtown debut, donors recommended surrounding it with a fence  to reduce the costs of daily wear and tear. But Kapoor rejected the idea because he wanted people to play with it.

Well, Kapoor got his wish — a touchable Bean. But with all the traffic it’s attracted, his masterpiece has also become a seriously molested Bean. Everyday, thousands of oil and sweat-laden hands smear the polished surface, and that’s not to mention the dirt-encrusted shoes used for photo-ops. The structure — striking as it is — can fairly be likened to a cool, shiny, people magnet topped with a crown of bird poop.

But, getting at Tim’s question of exactly how the Bean’s cleaned, it should be pointed out that cash plays a big role, as labor and materials keep the yearly maintenance costs anywhere between $35,000 and $50,000. Millennium Park pays this through an unrestricted endowment and, according to Uhlir, no tax dollars are used.

The application of elbow grease happens year-round but, depending on the season, the Bean is mopped down two or three times each day with microfiber cloth and a solution of water and liquid Tide. 

Additionally, twice each year it undergoes two power washes that are followed by vigorous waxings. Lucky for Curious City (and for Tim, who now gets a more comprehensive answer), one of these washes happened to be scheduled for the first week of October. So we decided to join in on the fun — video cameras and coffee in hand.

According to Bob Swenie, managing director of Stuart Dean (the company that pulls off the bi-annual Bean wash), the greatest challenge is that the work’s done in the middle of the night, outside visitor hours. 

On the first night I was surprised to find only two guys — Paul Dickens and Deon Reed — at the Bean-cleaning party. Dickens, who’s been at this for five years, assured me that this more intimate gathering is best.

“There’s only one outlet for the power hose anyway,” Dickens explained as he started to build the temporary scaffold. “Plus no one knows the Bean like me.”

I saw the Bean lit by moonlight at 1:00 a.m. and that, combined with my watery eyes, made the sculpture look like a huge whale emerging and submerging into silver water, with the hose’s spray squirting water like a whale spout.

On the third and final night, I watched the Bean get buffed to enhance its mirror finish. The product used is Midas Touch wax, which you can find at any Home Depot. 

The washing and buffing had their intended effect, with the work teasing out more and more luster. But just when I thought Cloud Gate couldn’t get any shinier, I saw the sun rise and reveal the sculpture’s pristine finish. Call it the Bean or “Germ Gate” or whatever, a newly-cleaned Cloud Gate is a sight to see — and one that’s lost as soon as the next eager tourist plants greasy palms or a kiss.