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Growing space: a business incubator for small arts groups

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It's a familiar script: A couple of energetic creative types (Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) have a great idea. They get together with a bunch of friends and say, "Gee! Let's put on a show!" The curtain goes up, the audience raves. Mickey and Judy skip offstage hand in hand to plot their next adventure.

What you don't see is the troubled producer sitting backstage, staring at a pile of castaway props and muttering, "How're we going to pay for all this?"

Enter Arts Bridge, a brand-new organization determined to help Chicago arts groups stay on their feet. The first "business incubator for the arts in the country," the four-month-old project, located in the Uptown National Bank Building, offers low-cost office space and management assistance to a number of decidedly talented, if struggling, performance, visual-arts, and literary enterprises.

"It is the dozens of arts groups operating from basements, apartments, and borrowed spaces which produce much of the art that has propelled Chicago to the forefront of the American arts scene," declares the executive summary of the Arts Bridge feasibility study, written by Scott Gelzer and Richard Friedman.

"Unfortunately," adds Gelzer, "we've seen case after case where groups are producing great art, but fold after a year or so because they don't have the long-range planning and technical help they need to survive."

After witnessing many such painful and apparently inevitable demises, Gelzer felt as frustrated and helpless as a nurse caring for a patient with a terminal disease. Gelzer is a partner in the four-year-old consulting firm Mgt Cornerstones, Inc., which has provided management advice to dozens of nonprofit organizations--chambers of commerce, city governments, social service groups. But perhaps the most challenging assignments were small arts groups.

"Usually we'd be asked to assist in one area of the organization, such as board development or fund-raising," he says. "So we'd fix that problem, only to have the group go out of business later anyway. We found we were seeing the same problems over and over: not enough money, a board that was interested but unable to find their focus, lack of a long-term plan. It was disconcerting. It wasn't that the people involved didn't care. If anything, they cared too much; most of these groups--we call them mom-and-pop groups--start because of one or two people who love their art, and want to do it well, but don't have the time or skills to run their theater, or whatever, like a business." Gelzer and one of his partners in Mgt, Patricia Wyzbinski, along with Carol Yamamoto (a dean at Columbia College) decided to do something about that.

Bearded and affable, Gelzer is as assertive and articulate as a young corporate exec, but with a laid-back, comfortable manner that speaks of years in the nonprofit sector (if life were a movie he'd be played by Richard Dreyfuss). He describes how Mgt Cornerstones decided they had to go beyond one-shot measures. What was really needed, they decided, was a means of nurturing these groups through their delicate infancies: an incubator for the arts.

The incubator concept is not new, Gelzer is quick to point out. In the past decade it's become a popular way for small businesses to cut start-up costs and overhead, enabling them to concentrate on crucial long-range activities, such as marketing and development. The idea is simple: set up a central area to provide all the business amenities--phone system, receptionist, copy machine, conference rooms. Surround it with office space, at reasonable rents.

With funds from the Chicago Department of Economic Development and the Joyce Foundation, Mgt conducted a feasibility study in 1986. Out of 55 arts-group respondents, 32 thought that such a setup would be of interest to them. Gelzer and partners then created the not-for-profit Corporation for Cultural ReInvestment (CCR), to manage Arts Bridge as its first project.

"The study showed us that most groups needed inexpensive office space more than rehearsal or performance space," says Gelzer. "First of all, they wanted a home. We also felt they needed technical assistance."

But something else made CCR pursue the incubator idea. "The single most beneficial source of information for these groups comes not from consultants, but from other organizations," says Gelzer. "People learn from their peers. The incubator concept puts people together with others who have a common need."

At the end of October 1987, Arts Bridge opened with three tenants: MinaSama-No, Chicago's only Asian-American theater company; the Oriana Singers, a classical six-member choral ensemble; and Wavelength, an improv comedy group that performs at student assemblies and teacher-training workshops.

"We're trying to get a balance of artistic and ethnic diversity," says project coordinator Liz Burke. Burke is friendly, efficient, and unpretentious, padding around the office in electric-blue-stockinged feet. She indicates offices where three more groups are scheduled to move in by February: Partners in Mime, a two-person touring company that performs mainly in schools; the American Medieval Players, who present music of the Middle Ages; and Kidworks Touring Theatre, which adapts literary classics for theatrical presentation to children. "We're looking for three more groups to fill our capacity of nine," says Burke. "We're heavy on performance right now, so we'd like a literary organization or something in the visual arts."

Criteria for choosing tenants--or participants, as Burke prefers to call them--are fairly loose. "Naturally, an organization has to be financially stable enough to make a one-year commitment to paying the [monthly] participation fee, which ranges from $250 to $350," according to Burke. "But they have to be new enough to benefit from the managerial help we offer. The offices are small, so they can't have a staff of more than one or two people, and probably if they're bigger than that they don't need the support of Arts Bridge anyway." Generally, a prime candidate would have been founded in the past five years, would not currently rent office space, and would have a budget of less than $50,000 per year.

The monthly fee includes 24-hour access to a private office ("good for artists who have to work day jobs," says Burke), use of a spacious conference room overlooking the Lawrence Avenue el station, computer facilities, phone service, utilities, janitorial service, a group purchasing plan, and a receptionist named Roger.

"The only things added to the fee are long-distance calls and charges for the copy machine--and that's only four cents a copy," Burke adds. "We wanted to make it so that no one has to leave the office to get something done."

To accomplish that, though, Burke had to do a lot of work herself. While tax-exempt status qualified Arts Bridge for corporate donations and subsidies, they sometimes were a mixed blessing. "We were able to get donated telephones, which was wonderful," she says, "except that they needed a special kind of cable that had to be pulled through the wall. Finally we found a retired phone installer who agreed to do the work; still, I think we ended up spending about $2,000 on the system."

The Uptown National Bank contributed $40,000 to renovate a series of old dentists' offices, creating Arts Bridge's suite of gray-walled, carpeted rooms; the bank is also subsidizing 30 percent of the rental costs, savings to be passed along to participants. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the E-II Foundation, and the Department of Cultural Affairs provided $33,950 worth of start-up funding; desks, shelves, and file cabinets were donated by the Jim Beam Corporation, Corporate Management Assistance Program, and IPA: The Editing House. "Even the art on the walls was donated," says Burke. "It's truly a cooperative project."

That extends to the working atmosphere, as Gelzer hoped it would. "There's a sense of companionship developing," according to Burke. "Basically, when you've been one person working out of your basement, you can tend to feel pretty isolated, as if you're the only person in the world struggling with these problems of audience development or funding."

Arts Bridge tenants cite the advantages of the space: computer facilities they'd never be able to afford on their own; the luxury of "not spending an hour on the el traveling to Kinko's for copies." Even the water cooler and a microwave oven in the tidy kitchen are pointed out with something close to reverence.

Gelzer, a good salesman, points out there's more: "Each participant gets a personal organization plan that will help them achieve their long-term goals," he says. "They agree to meet with Mgt to review their policies and procedures. Then we develop a one-year technical-assistance plan, covering anything from board development to devising a subscription campaign, and Mgt meets with the group each month to monitor their progress."

And although Mgt, with CCR, is the sole "contractor" for these services, its interest is not in creating a captive client base. Thanks to a $25,000 grant from the E-II Foundation, the firm's expertise is included in the monthly fee--a pretty sweet deal when you consider they normally charge from $500 to $30,000 for a consulting job.

For Alexandra Nelson, executive director of the nine-year-old Oriana Singers, the benefits of the incubator far outweigh the trauma of the move. "It was a difficult decision to make because of the financial commitment," she says. "We had to take money out of my salary in order to meet the rent. But it's been worth the investment. I was surprised at how my productivity has increased. There's a seriousness to the job now that wasn't there when our office was in my home. I'm not distracted by dirty dishes, my friends know that I'm really at work, and I like being around people who see me as a businesswoman. I'm never going back to my bedroom again."

Funders now take Oriana more seriously, too. "We had to go through a screening process with CCR in order to participate," Nelson explains. "That established a new level of our accountability." A case in point: Nelson had lobbied for four years for assistance from Business Volunteers for the Arts, with no results. "When I told them we were part of Arts Bridge, we had two people here the next day."

Jim Winter, president of Wavelength, also took some initial winning over. "At first it was hard to give up the sense of control you feel you have in your own home. There was some concern over the consulting part of the agreement, too. Here we'd been doing fine for eight years--who were these guys to come in and tell us how to run our business?

"But . . . there were a lot of things in our administrative structure that were kind of loosey-goosey. Mgt set up a financial reporting system that makes me feel less on the hook. We found that our trepidation about moving was just that. We gave away some control over administration, but we got back more control over what we do best--the creative part."

"For eight years we've labored in relative anonymity," adds Darlene Pearlstein, Wavelength's general manager. "Now we're part of a network."

Plenty of networking will be in evidence when Arts Bridge holds its official opening party on "Leap Day," February 29. In the refurbished lobby of the Uptown National Bank Building, each of the six participants will stage a brief act to introduce itself to foundation directors, community representatives, and media folk. The event is also meant to underscore CCR's relationship to the surrounding neighborhood.

"Arts organizations tend to hire from the local area, contribute revenue, and bring people into a neighborhood from the outside," Gelzer says. "A study sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts found that the arts return four dollars for every public dollar invested. Uptown is an ideal place for a project like Arts Bridge. It's a neighborhood with a rich variety of ethnic groups which are beginning to generate their own art; it's a community that's committed to revitalization."

Uptown Chamber of Commerce president Suellen Long is also the manager of the Uptown National Bank Building; naturally she has a vested interest in helping her newest tenant succeed. Yet she seems genuinely enthusiastic when she speaks of the project: "The bank's involvement is partly due to the belief that we're developing good businesspeople. An arts group that fails won't bring business into the community."

Gelzer envisions Arts Bridge as a model for similar incubator projects across the country. "We think it's a good start to work with nine organizations, but we'd like to expand to other sites," he says. The real measure of the project, though, will not be the number of arts groups that join, but the number that leave. "We're saying, 'Develop yourselves.' Our success is providing a foundation for the groups to grow and go on to bigger things."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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