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Nonprofits in a No-Profit Economy

As the Dow takes a dive, the Renaissance Society works on its first endowment.

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Last week, when the whole world was tanking, I dialed up Renaissance Society board member Joe Tabet to get a report on the benefit he chaired last month for the Hyde Park-based contemporary arts group—and an opinion on what the failing economy means for nonprofits.

"It was a pretty good success," he said of the dinner and art auction with a Nelson Algren theme, held September 6 at the Merchandise Mart. Over 70 artists and galleries from around the world donated work, including art star Jeff Koons, who kicked in a puppy vase as a raffle prize. "People from all over really love the Ren," Tabet added, before referring me to the society staff for numbers and confessing he was a little distracted. A financial adviser at William Blair & Company, Tabet said he was wondering, in the wake of the Dow's 700-point nosedive, whether things were so bad that ATMs would be shut off. As for the longer-term impact on nonprofits? "Without being an alarmist," he said, "I think we're looking into an abyss."

The financial crisis will have donors snapping their purses shut, Tabet predicted. "I think 12 months from now it'll be a lot more difficult than it is right now. Not-for-profits will have to reach out and communicate." Even if the worst-case scenario—a banking meltdown leading to a global panic—is headed off, groups that rely on donations "have a lot of work ahead of them." "Financial institutions have been strong supporters of the arts," Tabet said. "But Lehman's gone, LaSalle was purchased, Washington Mutual has been taken over. Development people will have to be more active than ever."

That's a depressing assessment, because all the development people I know are already communicating their butts off, gilding the cause and romancing the givers. It's hard to see what new incentives might help them get donors to share their seriously shrunken nest eggs.

The Renaissance Society may be a case in point. This year's benefit netted $200,000 less than the record-breaking haul of $510,000 logged last year. Development director Lori Bartman says the drop is partly attributable to the 2007 auction having been spiked with several high-priced items—a collage by Arturo Herrera that sold for $42,000 and two other pieces that went for more than $30,000 each—while most of the 2008 offerings carried more modest estimates of $15,000 or less. (The highest bid this time around was $18,000 for an Andre Butzer oil.) A bigger factor was the lack of sponsors willing to underwrite the event, whose costs in the past were covered by the likes of Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Lehman Brothers.

Proceeds from the benefit will go toward the society's $1.4 million 2008-2009 operating budget—leaving more than a million dollars to be raised in daunting economic circumstances and at a time, Bartman says, when "fewer and fewer foundations are willing to fund art for art's sake." Bartman notes that in the 14 years she's worked at the Renaissance Society "we've always managed to raise more than we spend, and the extra has gone into building cash reserves," which now total in excess of $1 million. Something may have to be cut from the budget this year, she says—with consequent adjustments in programming. "Or this may be the year we have to tap those cash reserves."

The Renaissance Society is a bundle of contradictions, beginning with the fact that it's a museum that collects nothing. Despite its name, it's a showcase for avant-garde art. Despite its modest and hidden quarters—one large room and a few offices on the fourth floor of a University of Chicago building at 5811 S. Ellis—it has an international reputation and draws visitors from around the world.

And despite its age—at 93, it's the country's oldest contemporary art organization—it's just now in the final lap of a quiet drive for its first-ever endowment.

Director and chief curator Susanne Ghez says the campaign started a year ago—just about when the society shed its longtime membership structure, which required members' approval for appointments to the board of directors (now standing at 33). The initial goal for the new fund is $3 million; one-on-one solicitation of "friends and family" has already brought in pledges of $2.25 million. Ghez, who's been at the Society since 1973, says the fund will provide a safety net and interest income and make it easier to "move forward, take on risk, and strengthen our programming." With a full-time staff of five, the society now mounts five exhibits of work by regional, national, and international artists annually; publishes accompanying catalogs; and produces collateral lectures, performances, and concerts—all free—often in collaboration with the university or other institutions.

There's no such thing as "typical" at the Renaissance Society, but the current exhibit, Bolero, is esoteric enough to be representative. The installation by Francis Alys, a 49-year-old Belgian artist living in Mexico, consists of a large room with plywood walls standing in the center of the gallery, its inner walls lined with hundreds of framed stills from a sweetly nihilistic animated video called Shoe Shine Blues. To watch the video, you climb a staircase to the roof of the installation, where you can flop down on one of several mats positioned before a screen. A second video by Alys, Politics of Rehearsal, juxtaposes a Schubert solo and a striptease. (The show runs through December 14, and the Millennium Chamber Players will perform a related concert of work by contemporary Latin American composers on Friday, October 10, 8 PM, at the U. of C.'s Bond Chapel, 1025 E. 58th.)

Board president Laura Front says changes in the philanthropic environment they spotted a couple years ago inspired the endowment campaign. "Foundations and corporations are supporting less and less, and there are fewer government grants," she says. "We felt we had to have some permanent funds."

A preliminary study suggested that $3 million might be raised now, and double that could be added if the society mounts a more public effort in connection with its centennial in 2015. Right now, "it's a no-bells-and-whistles campaign," Front says, but "we have 100 percent participation from our board." First installments on many of the pledges will come due at the end of this very unpredictable year.

No Need to Read

The Tribune's transformation into a picture book last week included slapping a four-star rating system on its theater reviews—something it had long avoided. You can now see at a glance that the Hypocrites' Threepenny Opera, for example, earned the same so-so grade as Annoyance's Co-Ed Prison Sluts. Theater officials I talked with were waiting to see the effect on box office. Among their comments: Raven's Michael Menendian: "We have a culture that wants to be spoon-fed, right away." TimeLine's P.J. Powers: "I'm a fan of long-form reviews, but this forces the reviewer to take a stand." Silk Road Theatre Project's Jamil Khoury: "Feels a bit generic and reductionist." The House's Phillip Klapperich, on the big, middle-of-the-bell-curve pile of three-star shows: "Too broad." WNEP's Don Hall: "It's just a sign that the Red Eye has taken over the Tribune. Instead of stars, why not breasts? Three and a half breasts! That would bring in the frat boys."v

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