Coyote Slims Down
In its eight years on the city's cultural map, the Around the Coyote festival has grown from a grassroots celebration of artists in the Bucktown and Wicker Park communities into a slick symbol of the gentrification that's squeezing them out of those neighborhoods. Now the festival is going back to basics in what some consider its do-or-die year. "This is a festival that is trying to figure out if it wants to stay around or disappear," explains artist Adam Siegel, who designed the poster and T-shirt for this year's event. Around the Coyote features open houses at artists' studios and galleries, music in the streets, and a variety of theater and performance art; two years ago it drew approximately 150,000 people to the area just northwest of downtown. But last year attendance plummeted about a third to around 100,000.
No one knows for sure whether attendance will rise or fall during this year's edition, which runs through Sunday. But Jonathan Pitts, who for three years has organized the performing arts component of Around the Coyote, believes the festival is losing steam because many visitors who made the event successful have actually moved to the area: "People are never as interested in something when it's in their own backyard." What's more, says Pitts, many businesses that once supported Around the Coyote no longer need the event to draw people to the area.
But most of the artists for whom Around the Coyote was originally created haven't cooled on the festival. The number exhibiting at this year's event is up to 483 from about 350 last year, according to Mary Beth Creiger, a longtime member of the festival's board of directors. Siegel says that artists still value the festival, especially at a time when "the whole gallery model has been called into question." He thinks that artists benefit from dealing directly with buyers because they get more feedback on their work. "Around the Coyote gives artists a purpose, something to look forward to," adds Morlen Sinoway, a furniture designer, Coyote exhibitor, and former board member. This year the organizers have tried to make the event even more appealing to artists: a new policy allows several artists to exhibit in one studio for a flat $50 fee, which may partly explain the growing number of exhibitors.
But this year's budget has been slashed from $100,000 to $35,000. Creiger says it's lower because the festival won't be printing an expensive guidebook like the one available last year for $3. The organizers thought the guidebook would be a popular item, but according to Creiger almost no one bought it. Instead, Around the Coyote will take out newspaper ads and distribute a map-leaflet with festival information. This year's budget is also lower because there was no fund-raising gala. Last year's was a bust. "It actually wound up costing us money," says Creiger. About 30 percent of this year's budget is coming from exhibitors' fees, the remainder from the contributions of local businesses.
Shakespeare Rep Eyes the Royal George
New York-based Jujamcyn Theatres, the controlling coowner of the Royal George Theatre with Chicago-based producer Robert Perkins, has made no secret of its desire to sell the North Halsted theater complex; its asking price is more than $4 million. Now Shakespeare Repertory, the city's third largest theater company, is interested in taking over the theater, which could spare the property from being converted to other commercial or residential usage. A source says Shakespeare Rep has commissioned architectural renderings of what the Royal George main stage would look like with the theater company in residence. The 500-seat main stage is a proscenium house, but Shakespeare Rep executives have previously indicated that they prefer some sort of thrust stage.
For several years Shakespeare Rep has been planning to find a new home where it could produce up to four main-stage productions a year. The cramped Ruth Page Theater, where the company has been producing, offers few amenities for audiences or actors, and Shakespeare Rep currently keeps its offices in River North, at a considerable distance from the theater. A takeover of the Royal George and its adjacent office complex would enable Shakespeare Rep to consolidate everything under one roof in a desirable neighborhood. A source familiar with the situation says the money Shakespeare Rep now pays to rent its River North offices and the Ruth Page Theater could cover a mortgage of $2 million or more.
Sweet Home, Athenaeum
The Athenaeum Theatre's expansion will encompass considerably more than the current 949-seat theater, 50-seat studio theater, and lounge. The Athenaeum is building an array of offices on two floors above the existing theaters, covering some 23,000 square feet. Fred Solari, general manager of the theater, says the new office space is already booked to capacity with a wide range of not-for-profit arts organizations, including Lookingglass Theatre Company, Dolphinback Theatre Company, Redmoon Theater, Players Workshop, a new children's theater company called Emerald City, the theater support group the Saints, Jan Erkert & Dancers, and anchor tenant Arts Bridge, a 12-year-old arts support organization previously based in Uptown. New tenants will begin arriving in mid-September. Except for Arts Bridge, all are signing one-year leases so that both tenants and landlord can test the waters.
In addition to the office space, Athenaeum is adding a second studio theater, a general rehearsal hall, and a party room. Solari thinks the city needs more inexpensive rental space. "Not every arts organization in the city is a Chicago Symphony Orchestra or a Lyric Opera," he says. "There's a real need for affordable space in a nice area." Solari says he has no model for the current expansion. "What I'm doing fits the needs of this arts community as I see it." Arts Bridge executive director Suellen Burns finds the concept appealing: "Visibility has been a big problem for us, and moving to a facility where other arts groups are in residence will give us a chance to reach many more constituents."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Adam Siegel, Mary Beth Creiger, and Jonathan Pitts photo by J.B. Spector.