Hawking the "Creative Sensibility" | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Hawking the "Creative Sensibility"

Can cash-strapped arts organizations offer anything cash-strapped corporations might want to buy?


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Late last month, with nonprofit endowments down by a third or more, donors despondent over their own losses, and ticket sales starting to go soft, more than 400 arts administrators gathered in GAR Hall at the Cultural Center for a meeting intended to steady their nerves.

"Break on Through: The Creative Response to Tough Times" was cosponsored by the Illinois Arts Alliance, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Arts and Business Council. It featured a keynote address by economic development guru Paul O'Connor. "The arts are important. The city, state, and country need you," O'Connor said, before heading into rockier territory where "all the old models have crashed" and "we have to reinvent everything."

Instead of looking to business for handouts, O'Connor admonished, the arts must do business with business. "The arts have something to sell," he said, and yes, we're talking about hawking the "creative sensibility." MBAs, those methodical plotters, are in chronic need of help in the intuitive leap department; they might want to see how a designer approaches problem solving, or how a dance is created. And in this pink-slip, red-ink environment, "businesses are hungry. They're scared now, too. That means their ears are open. They're willing to try new things."

"The arts are going to survive," O'Connor told the crowd. "Whether you survive as an institution is something else."

In a follow-up panel, Collaboraction's Anthony Moseley declared that "it's time to dissolve the imaginary line between business and the arts." Collaboraction, with a $500,000 annual budget, made $13,000 on corporate parties and events in the second half of last year, he said. They're also looking at doing more coproducing, and at sharing resources like rehearsal space and costumes.

Muntu Dance founder Joan Gray cautioned that "there's no quick fix," and consultant Marj Halperin reiterated that it's time to look at partnerships and collaborations instead of philanthropy and sponsorship. She floated the idea of a service bureau, where businesses might shop for artists' skills. Alphawood Foundation's Laura Samson said arts groups "need to partner around their thinning resources, spreading them as broadly and deeply as we can.

"There's tremendous opportunity for change now," Samson continued, but it includes "talk about proactively encouraging mergers to circumvent unplanned closures." If that's going to happen, she added, "let's make sure we have a hand in how it comes to pass." In other words, folks, put your affairs in order, and think about how to preserve the mission—we're not all coming out of this alive.

Near the end of a Q and A, Sarah Dandelles, a program manager with the Old Town School of Folk Music, lobbed a question that went straight to the heart of things. "We're here, and we're ready to teach the business community," she said. "But where is the business community right now?" The panel turned to O'Connor, who suggested putting together a "flip side" of this session and passed the task of organizing it to Peter Kuntz of the Arts and Business Council, who was in the audience.

But when businesses retrench, as they're doing now, the first things they cut are what they see as the frills: corporate and marketing events, staff development, anything that eats up time or money without directly contributing to the bottom line. Reached at his office last week, Kuntz said the purpose of "Break on Through" was to "make sure arts groups weren't hiding in their foxholes. Business groups are probably in the same mode in their own way, and it's a taller order to lure them out." So don't hold your breath for that flip-side event. Maybe by spring, Kuntz says, he'll be able to convene some meetings with business leaders, and "get that conversation going."

Prompt Will Be Tardy

The first issue of Chicago Artists' Coalition's biannual journal Prompt, in October, included a statement from executive director Olga Stefan, who'd championed the publication. "Time and time again," she wrote, she'd received complaints about the "lack of a serious local art publication with a global perspective." Many potential funders were unwilling to invest, she noted. "We, however, believe in the Chicago Artists' Coalition's mandate to support visual artists, and thus in the necessity of Prompt, with its promise to elevate the Chicago art community to a national and—dare I dream it?—international level."

In January Stefan went international herself, moving to Switzerland and announcing that she'd continue to work on Prompt with Chicago-based editor Jeremy Biles. But as I was writing this column CAC was getting ready to notify its members that publication had been suspended indefinitely "due to the economy." Budgeted at $50,000 for the first two issues, the journal turned out to be more of a drain on CAC's financial resources than anticipated. Stefan has resigned; subscribers and advertisers are being offered trades (ads in CAC's monthly newspaper, a year's free membership).

Board chair Susan Aurinko says they hope to restart Prompt, maybe as an annual. "It is our hope that everyone will understand that the board needs to think first and foremost of the health of the CAC."

Got Milk?

What happened to "When Then Was... Now!"? The exhibit of Jerry Pritikin's photos and memorabilia from his years in San Francisco's Castro district, including both iconic and unpublished images of Harvey Milk, the gay political pioneer assassinated in 1978, was due to open February 8 at the Gerber/Hart Library. But library officials, who issued a circumspect cancellation notice on February 2, would say only that Pritikin had decided to pull the plug.

Known locally as Cubs superfan Bleacher Preacher, Pritikin blames "long delays" by Gerber/Hart's volunteer staff and "artistic differences." "It's deeply disappointing," he says, because he'd lined up a corporate sponsor and the timing would've been perfect. A similar display of about 40 of his photos ran last summer at the Center on Halsted—but that was before Milk opened, Pritikin says, and the general public hadn't yet fallen in love with Harvey.

Who Else Needs a Salary Cap?

Last week, when President Obama capped CEO salaries for companies getting bailout cash at $500,000, I got to wondering about executive pay at some of the local cultural institutions that benefit from public support. According to 2006 tax records (the latest available), Museum of Science and Industry head David Mosena was paid $926,000 in compensation and benefits, while outgoing Northwestern University president Henry Bienen got $1.7 million (including two deferred-compensation packages). The heads of Lyric Opera, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra totaled about $425,000 each.

Lincoln Park Zoo director Kevin Bell got $345,000, the Chicago History Museum's Gary Johnson $225,000. University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer received $980,000 in compensation, benefits, and expenses; Columbia College head Warrick Carter $570,000.

The Field Museum's John McCarter, who took a 20 percent cut to his $450,000 salary last month, might be ahead of the curve. At press time, the Senate had passed an amendment to Obama's stimulus bill that would shut out arts organizations and museums, along with casinos.v

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