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Floods, Feuds, and a Smidge of Good News

Some of the year's juciest arts-biz stories revisited

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As the year ground to a dismal end we dialed up a few of the folks featured on this page over the last 12 months, looking for a bright spot of news to ride out on. The Acme Artists' Community seemed like a decent prospect. The subsidized condo development at 2418 W. Bloomingdale, touted as a model for artists' housing, had been plagued by floods and leaks since it opened in 2003, but last time we checked the city had ordered the developer, the Near Northwest Arts Council, to correct construction problems by August 1. By now, we thought, the Acme community would be snug and peaceful. Wrong, says resident Heather Graham: flooding has been even worse since the developer made efforts to correct it. Three of the residents recently received buyback letters from NNWAC--a bad sign, says Graham, when "all we want is the faulty construction fixed and the water-damaged materials replaced." Residents will hear reports from independent plumbing and roofing experts in the next couple of weeks, and in an effort to distance themselves from NNWAC and its Acme Art Works gallery across the street, they'll host an artists' open house February 4 under the moniker Bloomingdale Studios.

An artists' housing proposal for Wilson Yard hasn't fared any better. A group of Uptown residents floated the idea last summer, right after learning of Alderman Helen Shiller's plan to include two subsidized apartment buildings in the development mix for five acres of CTA land along Broadway between Montrose and Wilson. But a spokesperson for Shiller says the alderman hasn't heard anything about artists lately, and this month the city's Plan Commission approved her proposal for 71 units for seniors and 70 for households with annual incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 in two nine-story towers. Shiller expects full City Council approval within a month or two, with construction scheduled for completion by spring 2007. Randy Lehner, a member of the Uptown Neighborhood Council, which came up with the alternative proposal for artists' housing, says the group would still like to see artists on this site, but "no one seemed to want to go with it." The UNC is concerned about Uptown's concentration of poverty. "What we don't understand is why in other parts of the city [artists' projects] are lauded but in Uptown it's somehow viewed as an elitist thing, a way to keep out or push out the poor," Lehner says. "No one's making that argument in Bronzeville."

Mexican Fine Arts Center head Carlos Tortolero and the Illinois Arts Alliance are moving on separately. Tortolero resigned from the IAA board because another board member, Richard Hawks, works for an investment company owned by former Senate candidate Jim Oberweis, whose campaign ads claimed that 10,000 illegal immigrants are entering the United States daily in pursuit of citizens' jobs. Oberweis wound up pulling the ads and backing away from that number, but the damage had been done. After Tortolero quit, Hawks got a vote of confidence from the board, but two other board members resigned in support of Tortolero and a chastened alliance began looking for new members from the Latino community. Executive director Alene Valkanas expects to announce appointments in the next month or so.

River Oak Review, the ten-year-old literary journal that sank when its publisher, River Oak Arts, died a year ago, has been revived. Elmhurst College published its first issue of the Review this month; new editor Ron Wiginton of the college's English department says a second issue will come out in the spring, carrying winning work from WBEZ's Stories on Stage short fiction competition. But so far the journal's a shadow of its former self: the first run was 500 copies, down from 1,000, and it's no longer distributed nationally. Submission guidelines are online at www.riveroakreview.org.

Child's Play Touring Theatre was in dire straits last spring: its touring business had taken a dive after 9/11 and never recovered. "I had to let people go who'd worked for us 14 years," says founder June Podagrosi; the layoffs included four full-time actors and two associate directors. The downsized troupe is using $50,000 in grants from McDonald's to finish a black-box studio in its Armitage Avenue home and launch after-school programs Podagrosi hopes will take up the slack. "We've always been kids' mouthpiece, but a lot of other people appear to be doing that now," she says. "After 25 years I have to figure out how Child's Play will sustain itself."

The fledgling In the Works...Theatre Company didn't let a tough six months in its home near Midway Airport keep it from signing a lease for another year. "We didn't have the huge response we dreamed of," admits founder Jenniffer Thusing; Stockyards Theatre Project, which did two shows in the onetime movie house, concluded it would do better up north and won't be returning. But In the Works is getting ready to mount its own initial full productions, a version of Romeo and Juliet reimagined as a silent film and a stage adaptation of Dorothy Parker stories. When things get tight, company members pitch in with their own money, Thusing says: "We're holding on by the skin of our teeth."

So is Paula Giannini, who was trying to save the Chicago chapter of the American Composers Forum last spring after it was shut down by the national office. Eight months later the Chicago Composers Forum, as it's now called, is still commissioning work and producing local programs; Giannini's running the show without a paycheck. She says 90 percent of the 125 or so members stayed on after they were offered a free ride this year; the big test will come when a letter goes out in January announcing dues for 2005.

At this time last year the Chicago Talent Authority was gearing up to produce work by local writers, actors, and filmmakers. It derailed after the winter premiere of its initial film, written and directed by a 17-year-old and bankrolled by his father. Former Second City writing guru Kim Clark says he and former Hollywood comedy writer Steve Zacharias are each "pursuing the same goal" on their own now.

Gallery owner Paul Klein closed his west-side space last spring after more than 20 years in the business, but he's been reborn as an Internet critic and freelance curator. Klein's Web site, www.artletter.com, carries reviews of local shows, an open forum on all things arty--and the announcement that he's been chosen to select art for the $850 million McCormick Place West expansion. He's looking for help with the concept. "It's time to think big," he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell, Lloyd DeGrane.

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