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Psst-- Wanna Buy a Theater?/Ballet Chicago's Pas de Deux/State Art Funds: The Big Get Richer

What pressures have put the Organic Theater on the block?

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Psst--. Wanna Buy a Theater?

Less than a year after the Touchstone and Organic theater companies merged, the newly formed entity is putting its principal tangible asset--the 21,000-square-foot Organic Theater building, at 3319 N. Clark--on the block.

Artistic director Ina Marlowe, who came from Touchstone, says selling the theater should allow the Organic Touchstone Company, as it's now known, to get out of the time-consuming landlord business: along with the 350-seat theater and two small studio spaces, the building also contains a surf-and-skate shop (whose owner was surprised to hear the news from me) and a coffeehouse. The sale would also give the company's productions a new financial cushion--current figures aren't available, but when the merger took place last summer each partner was $40,000 in the hole.

The decision to sell constitutes quite a turnaround for the OTC: after the merger, Marlowe toyed with the idea of moving the whole operation from 2851 N. Halsted (the old Steppenwolf space) to a renovated and downsized Organic facility; in fact, rising rent on the Halsted address was part of what prompted Touchstone to join forces with the Organic in the first place. But Marlowe says she's since reached a better agreement with the landlord, and so far OTC has only used the Clark Street venue to present a second run of Love! Valour! Compassion!

The OTC is asking $1.495 million for the complex, which comes out to about $70 per square foot--a little on the high side for the area, one real estate source says--and Marlowe says that as far as she knows the buyer will have to honor all existing leases.

Ballet Chicago's Pas de Deux

Ballet Theater of Chicago, the plucky company that last year mounted a full-blown and surprisingly well-attended Giselle during one of the worst cold snaps in the city's history, is joining forces with Kentucky's Lexington Ballet. "This will put us on a more solid foundation," says Ballet Theater artistic director Mario de la Nuez, who founded the troupe two years ago.

Ballet Theater has astounded dance critics with its ability to mount more-than-respectable performances on a shoestring budget--especially compared to Ballet Chicago, which after ten years of struggling has devolved into a ballet school with a single week of performances every spring. Still, even de la Nuez admits it's been tough trying to grow a ballet company in an era of curtailed funding. Under the new arrangement, he says, Ballet Theater and the Lexington Ballet will maintain their identities, but they'll share staff, talent, and repertoire, which should help lower both companies' operating expenses. De la Nuez, who will take on the additional title of executive director for the Lexington troupe, says it operates on $500,000 a year--more than twice Ballet Theater's budget--and is currently in the black.

A core of 24 dancers will be given 34-week work contracts, a step up from the 16-week contracts most Ballet Theater dancers have now and a development de la Nuez hopes will allow the company to tour nationally and attract a higher caliber of dancer. He plans to present much of the same programming in Chicago and Lexington, though not all performances will hit both cities. Ballet Theater's plans for the 1997-'98 season again include a three-show subscription series.

State Arts Funds: The Big Get Richer

The bizarre business of state funding for the arts just got more so last week with the release of Governor Jim Edgar's proposed budget for fiscal year 1998. Within the budget for the Illinois Arts Council, Edgar introduced a brand-new grant for $5 million--the single largest line-item grant ever administered by the council, according to fiscal officer Richard Carlson--to be split between the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera. The figure to be divvied up among the 1,000 or so other groups that come to the council's trough every year is essentially the same as for the previous fiscal year, $7

million.

Some Chicago arts heads see Edgar's generosity with two of the state's richest arts organizations--both are finishing up $100 million building projects--as just another example of Illinois' narrow-minded approach to arts support. "It's unbelievable, but it is consistent with the way the powers that be see culture in this community," says Performing Arts Chicago executive president for communications Stephen Belth says he's not sure how exactly the grant made it into Edgar's budget, but speculates that perhaps some of the orchestra's better connected trustees made a good pitch to the governor; others in positions to understand how state government works agree.

But the CSO spokesman also argues that the grant is deserved. "We have a lot of people who come through this place," he says. "This is an important project that needs to be completed." There are also a lot of people besides Edgar who are willing to pay for it: the CSO has rounded up $96 million in pledges to fund the new Symphony Center, scheduled to open in October.

Sidestepping the question of whether the state should be putting so much money into the hands of so few, Illinois Arts Alliance executive director Alene Valkanas, whose group advocates $1 per capita arts funding (Illinois has about 12 million residents), says the grant is a step in the right direction. "We hope we can find the support in the state legislature to keep this money, now that it's there in the Arts Council budget," she says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Organic Theater photo by Nathan Mandell.

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