News & Politics » The Arts

Mission Diminished

With its old home about to become an exclusive hotel, the Three Arts Club moves on to things neither bigger nor better.



The timing was coincidental but totally appropriate: at two separate meetings on a single day last week, announcements were made revealing the very different fates of the Three Arts Club building, at 1300 N. Dearborn, and the organization that owned it for nearly a century.

Since the controversial $13 million sale of the structure to a developer last year, the two had gone their separate ways. Pockets stuffed with $11 million in net proceeds from the sale, the venerable Three Arts Club went off in search of a new mission to replace the one Jane Addams and 31 colleagues had articulated for it in 1912: creating a safe haven in the city for women artists. Meanwhile, the haven itself—a Byzantine-style landmark by City Hall designers Holabird and Roche, with quarters for 100 residents, a tea room, a library, a dining hall, and a spacious courtyard—headed down Zoning Change Lane toward a commercial makeover at the hands of M Development, which has also recently acquired the Cedar Hotel on north State Street as well as a big chunk of upscale Oak Street, including the Esquire Theatre.

The place, it turns out, will remain a club. After a fashion, anyway.

At an open meeting hosted by 42nd Ward alderman Brendan Reilly on March 11 at City Hall, a couple dozen people, mostly from the building's Gold Coast neighborhood, learned that M Development will be signing a long-term lease with a British firm that will turn the four-story structure into Soho House Chicago, a boutique hotel promoted as a private club.

The firm, which has five similar club hotels in England, opened Soho House New York five years ago and has properties under way in Los Angeles and Miami. M Development's Jeffrey Shapack said Soho is a good neighbor, blind to celebrity, and thriving; according to a video he showed, there are currently 15,000 members chainwide, with half that many more waiting years to get in. But the Manhattan club, after being featured on Sex in the City, has a reputation as a hangout for gawkers, and as of last week, according to its membership office, there were plenty of open slots (fees there are over $1,400 a year). Besides, you don't have to join to play: if you can drop, say, $500 for a room, they'll make you a "member for a day," with full privileges.

In Chicago your dues will buy you access to a restaurant, bars, private dining rooms, a spa, a gym, and a rooftop pool. Architects from the BauerLatoza Studio discussed plans that promise to preserve the building's exterior and most of its main floor while carving 48 hotel rooms out of the three stories above and adding—here's where tension in the room really escalated—a 20-foot-tall rooftop structure for mechanicals and a sizable solarium. Just about everyone, but especially the Soho's future next-door neighbor, objected to that.

There were also questions about parking ("valet" was the answer) and about what might happen if the club changes its membership rules. Former Three Arts Club resident Colby Luckenbill called it a shame that the board refused to keep the club going while a commercial firm is embracing a similar idea. An attractive piece of property like the Three Arts Club is easy to sell, Luckenbill lamented, but "imagine turning the Art Institute into condos."

M Development's attorney said he still needs a zoning change, and Reilly promised more meetings. But in the end, representatives of Gold Coast Neighbors and the North Dearborn Association said they were pleased that the building would be saved.

Less than an hour after the meeting disbanded, a much larger and more festive crowd climbed the Mies van der Rohe staircase in the Arts Club, at 201 E. Ontario, to sip wine and snack on caviar at a coming-out party for the organization that now styles itself 3Arts. Board president Cynthia West, who works in the nonprofit end of the Podmajersky family's Pilsen-area arts and real estate empire, took the stage with treasurer William Girardi, MD, to announce that 3Arts is "setting out on a new path." After extensive research, she said, they'd discovered that artists "struggle, lack funding," and "are undervalued." Then she introduced executive director Esther Grimm, who welcomed the guests to the "rebirth of 3Arts" as an organization that "supports the creative development of Chicago's underrepresented artists working in music, theater, and visual arts" through grant making. The focus, she said, will be on "women, people of color, and people with disabilities."

Grimm then rolled out the roster of annual grants. The signature program, she said, will bestow unrestricted $15,000 cash awards—mini genius grants—on 6 artists selected from a field of 54 compiled by 18 anonymous nominators. Another six artists will get $750 stipends along with two-week residencies at the Ragdale artists' retreat in Lake Forest. And starting next year an additional award of $32,000 will go to an organization that serves women artists.

Grimm wrapped up by presenting a Special Project Award of $35,000 to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs in support of Chicago Artists Month. Deputy cultural affairs commissioner Janet Carl Smith—a onetime Three Arts Club board president and member of the "vision committee" that steered the club through part of its transition—accepted.

So an organization that housed as many as 100 artists at a time for nearly 100 years is patting itself on the back for sending six to Ragdale for two weeks. In a city that's home to the MacArthur and Joyce foundations, where the state alone doles out 800 grants to artists yearly, the Three Arts Club has given up its unique mission to become a small fish in the big pond of arts funders. The grants it announced last week—totaling less than 1.5 percent of its $11 million in resources—are too small to make a significant splash. All that's left of the founders' idea right now is an administrative apparatus that will have to raise money like everybody else to finance a mission that's pretty much like everybody else's.

The Three Arts Club had a corner on artists' residencies—so hot now—before the term was even coined. That makes it easy to imagine a different outcome, in which its board guides it back to health as the talent greenhouse and international magnet it was originally intended to be. That would have been a rebirth to celebrate. But not to worry. The developers say Soho House draws an artistic crowd. There will definitely be film and advertising folk among the doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers hanging out in the courtyard at Goethe and Dearborn.v

Add a comment