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City Arts Cutbacks Hit Big-Budget Groups/Can Navy Pier Get the Midsize Theater Project?/The Performing Arts Payback/China Club Goes Gourmet

John Schmidt, the mayor's man in charge of Navy Pier, thinks he's got the perfect spot for the Chicago Community Trust's midsize-theater project. Anyone want to argue with him?

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City Arts Cutbacks Hit Big-Budget Groups

In keeping with its low-key style of doing business, the Department of Cultural Affairs has quietly withdrawn its meager, mostly symbolic funding to cultural institutions with operating budgets of more than $2 million--those that fall into the department's "level four" category. Commissioner Lois Weisberg recently notified the affected organizations in a letter that cited budget cuts as the main reason for the decision. In her letter Weisberg said she "tried to protect the [funding] program through internal measures," but obviously she failed.

Arts groups are usually notified no later than January of the city money they can expect to receive for the year; Weisberg says the delay this year was due to the "many meetings" required to decide how to cope with the cutbacks. She says her department finally chose to cut out funding to the largest arts institutions because she believes smaller groups need the city's money more: "As a city agency, our obligation is to the smaller groups, because the large groups have big boards [of directors]"--in other words, they presumably have more resources.

The total City Arts funding program was cut approximately 20 percent this year, to $821,631 from $1.042 million in 1991, pitifully small change in the city's massive $3.245-billion operating budget. Weisberg wiped out approximately $100,000 in level-four funding and took the remainder out of grants to smaller organizations.

The department's operating budget was also hit, dropping to $3.276 million from $3.85 million, which Weisberg says she handled primarily by axing exhibitions and performances at the Cultural Center. She claims she only could afford to drop one staff member because of the huge amount of work in the department, though one might assume that fewer programs would mean a smaller work load.

Most big Chicago arts groups--the ones that give the city whatever world-class image it has--long ago steeled themselves to the fact that City Hall isn't inclined to give them much financial support. But this blow comes at a time when even the largest organizations are scrambling to find funding. "We are being nibbled to death," says Mary Jane Keitel, director of government and foundation relations at the Art Institute, a level-four organization. The Art Institute's request this year for $25,000 was denied.

Weisberg says she doesn't know whether the arts will face another round of funding cuts in 1993, but she says it wouldn't be proper for her to lobby Mayor Daley to spare the arts should he need to make budget cuts next year. "That's not something you go and tell the head of government," she explains. As Weisberg remembers all too well, her predecessor, Joan Harris, walked the plank for complaining too much about budget cuts.

Can Navy Pier Get the Midsize Theater Project?

The clout-heavy Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority has begun lobbying in earnest for the construction of a midsize theater at Navy Pier. The authority has already compiled a list of more than 20 arts groups that have indicated interest in using a theater there, including Ballet Chicago, Remains Theatre, the Child's Play Touring Theatre, the International Theatre Festival of Chicago, and Shakespeare Repertory. Authority executives have also met with the Chicago Community Trust, which has been spearheading the drive for a new midsize theater for dance and music groups. Other sites the Community Trust is considering include the Oriental Theatre, Dearborn Station, and the Fine Arts Building.

The MPEA would like to lure the Community Trust to the Pier because a half dozen foundations have already guaranteed a sizable chunk of funding for the project. MPEA chairman John Schmidt says the complex tentatively contemplated for Navy Pier would include a 1,200-to 1,300-seat theater and a smaller "black box" space, with a total construction cost of $20 to $25 million. Schmidt says Navy Pier's $93 million reconstruction budget includes no money to build such a complex, but he says some of the revenue generated by the Pier might be available to subsidize a theater's annual operating costs. "Such a theater facility probably would require an ongoing subsidy," says Schmidt.

Some influential arts executives aligned with dance and music groups that would use a new theater say they'd prefer a Loop facility, because the location would be more accessible by public transportation and because many of them want to increase nighttime arts activity downtown. But Schmidt isn't giving up. "We would like to do the theater with the Community Trust support," he says, "and we would like to do it sooner rather than later."

The Performing Arts Payback

The New York-based League of American Theatres and Producers, Inc., has compiled a fascinating booklet full of facts and figures about the impact of legitimate theater and other arts on the economy. Originally prepared for the Congressional Arts Caucus, the booklet includes a series of charts that lay out the economic activity generated by the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats during its many national tours and its long run on Broadway: ticket revenue, employees' salaries, souvenir sales, even estimates of what audience members paid for dinner before or after the show and transportation to the theater. In a cover letter mailed with the booklet, the League also notes that out of each American's annual taxes, $1,137.28 goes to the military, $201 goes to education, and just 68 cents goes to the arts.

China Club Goes Gourmet

Three weeks ago Paul Stepan of the Chicago Dining Authority (the group that operates Prairie, Red Kerr's, and Harry Caray's) opened a dimly lit restaurant called Backstage in the former VIP room at the China Club. The complex already housed a fully equipped kitchen, so Stepan brought in Stephen Langlois, his talented executive chef from Prairie, to create a limited menu of entrees ranging in price from $10 to $14. The food is well prepared, but it's been tough luring customers interested in good food to a nightclub setting. "We need to do about 100 meals a night to make it work," says Stepan, "but so far we haven't been getting the traffic." Stepan, one of the principal partners in China Club, is also talking with Jam Productions about opening an outdoor concert facility next to the club this summer. Stay tuned.

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

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