Even among all the piteous pleadings for year-end donations, Around the Coyote's invitation to a December 19 benefit stood out. It unabashedly begged recipients to "Save Around the Coyote from the brink of extinction! We won't make it through the winter without your help." But donors don't often leap aboard sinking ships, and this particular exercise in extreme marketing didn't work. Executive director Allison Stites says both the gate of 300 people and the take of about $2,000 were disappointing. "There wasn't a lot of support from artists we've shown and people who've been involved with our organization in the past," she says. "It's too bad. We're in a desperate situation."
The 20-year-old nonprofit arts organization, which made a controversial move last March from its original home in the Flat Iron Building at North and Milwaukee to the Splat Flats, 1815 W. Division, is in debt and broke. Stites declined to put a figure on the debt but said the possibilities at this point include merging with another organization or simply shutting down. The only remaining staff member, she's been working without pay since October. And on top of everything else, the Splat Flats building is now up for sale.
It would've taken a much, much more successful benefit to turn things around. Stites says ATC needs an immediate infusion of $30,000 to $40,000 just to keep the doors open. To function at even last year's reduced level of programming would take $100,000. And besides cash, it needs a new leader: Stites says she's only available part-time and the job's "not something I want to do long term." Programming for 2010, if it materializes, will be cut back to pop-up gallery shows and smaller exhibits. Lately, she admits, she's been "trying to figure out if there is a natural time for this organization to end."
"My main focus is not saving the name, but saving the services," Stites says. That might be possible in a merger; if not, she says at least ATC can pass on its "physical resources" and database of artists to some other organization. She's trying to get things in "some kind of order" and will present options to the board at a meeting this month.
The move from the Flat Iron, where ATC had been an anchor presence and a promotional hub since its founding in 1989 by Jim Happy-Delpech as an open-studio event for neighborhood artists, was the culmination of what some saw as a loss of focus over the last few years. (Happy-Delpech left in 1995 and died four years later.) In its glory days in the 1990s, ATC threw a huge fall festival in and around the Flat Iron, attracting thousands to the then-lively Wicker Park art scene. As recently as 2006, Stites says, the organization had a budget of about $225,000 and three full-time staffers.
If it's failing now, Flat Iron owner Bob Berger says, Stites—who sought to free ATC from its identification with the Flat Iron—"is responsible." But Stites says that by the time she came on board the surrounding area had gentrified, making it impossible to continue "in the old path" as a neighborhood organization, even if she'd wanted to: both resident artists and auxiliary spaces for the festivals were in short supply. In 2008, ATC broke with tradition and took its fall festival to a rented hall in the West Loop. That turned out to be a money-losing experiment, but Stites wasn't deterred from what she says she was hired to do—"professionalize" the organization, diversify its fund-raising, and "support and promote emerging art in Chicago." She says that's always been the mission, though in practice ATC, named for the coyote-shaped Northwest Tower building kitty-corner from the Flat Iron, "became synonymous with the neighborhood."
And as Stites—a former New York gallery director and curator—sees it, that was a problem. "If you only focus on artists living near you, you're giving up curatorial control," she says. ATC dropped its membership program for the same reason. "If you have members, you're beholden to them, they expect to be in your shows. We show people because they do good work," she says, not because they happen to live nearby.
Stites notes that ATC's attempts to "branch out" coincided with the recession. Many corporate and local business sponsorships (including Miller Brewing, which provided free beer as well as financial support) have fallen away, and artists' applications for last spring's festival at the Splat Flats were down by half. She had stepped down to a part-time fund-raising position around the time of the move, but took over as interim executive director again in October, after her successor, Anne Mills, left. At that point, Stites says, she realized that the organization's part-time after-school art teacher and her substitutes hadn't been paid since August. "We found a donation for their salaries," she says. Now, she's "trying to prioritize our debt and pay it off" with additional donations.
To her critics back at the Flat Iron, Stites says, "We did programming there for so many years and dealt with so much hassle there, so many artists who would not contribute anything to the process." Those who complained, she argues, had no idea what it took to put on a festival or where the funding came from. "I've been working my butt off for this organization since 2005," she says. "We didn't leave the Flat Iron so we could screw artists," but "we can't just be beholden to one venue. If it really was all about the Flat Iron, if we had events that took place only in the Flat Iron Building, we would've been bankrupt a long time ago."
Meanwhile, the Flat Iron Artists' Association has rushed into the vacuum left by ATC, hosting First Friday open-studio events and announcing plans to launch its own exhibit space February 5. The FIAA Gallery, in Studio 214 of the Flat Iron, will primarily showcase nonresident artists, says spokesman Kevin Lahvic.
Art for Unbalanced Times
In August 2000, German sculptor Hubertus von der Goltz, represented by local dealer Ingrid Fassbender, was one of five finalists vying to create an artwork for Evanston's then-new Maple Avenue parking garage. He lost out to Chicagoan Lincoln Schatz. But then steel prices rose, Schatz's plan became too expensive to build, and the project was put on hold. Lawyers finagled a settlement that allowed Schatz to keep a $51,000 advance and gave the city a consolation piece from his inventory (Penelope, now installed at Ridge and Emerson). The city eventually reopened the garage competition, Fassbender presented von der Goltz again, and last summer his piece, The Encounter, was commissioned for $105,000—just five months before the tax increment financing district that will pay for it was due to expire.
On December 18, two dozen people huddled in the garage's sixth-floor elevator lobby for the dedication. Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said she found the work particularly appropriate, with its two black metal figures balancing on a beam that appears to seesaw across the garage tower roof: the city manager had just unveiled a budget that would cut 47 full-time jobs from the payroll. Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste said the sculpture would be a "signature piece for the city of Evanston"—never mind that Chicago has its own von der Goltz teetering over LaSalle Street.