Link's Hall Goes Pro; Pier Politics | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Culture Club

Link's Hall Goes Pro; Pier Politics

CJ Mitchell brings big-time arts administration to the little north-side space. But is dance getting the shaft?


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Link's Hall Goes Pro

When the Link's Hall fall schedule came out last week on the heels of a changing of the guard at the venue, a longtime home for experimental dance, it raised a few eyebrows. Of the seven groups listed for September and October, only one identifies itself as a dance troupe; the other programs feature performance companies of various stripes. CJ Mitchell, the new guy in charge, insists there's nothing funny afoot. "Most of these companies have a dance component in their work," he says, and besides, "the Link's Hall mission has always been rather general: to maintain a facility for experimental, multidisciplinary art." Still, it's clearly a change from the programming that prevailed during the last four years, when experimental dancer/choreographer Asimina Chremos was artistic director.

Mitchell says the important change is evident in his title. He came on board July 1 as executive director; the artistic director position has been eliminated entirely. While he'll make day-to-day artistic decisions, programming will be set by a newly formed committee and by guest artistic associates. Board president Michael Zerang says the change is an effort to shore up the organization's management and part of the slow process of adjusting to the departure of Link's Hall founder Bob Eisen--"the glue that held everything together." Eisen went to New York in 2000.

Chremos says she was hoping to establish something like New York's Movement Research or Seattle's Velocity Space when she took over, "but the organization needed infrastructure development." During her tenure, she says, the rental program went from a "latchkey" operation to a collaborative enterprise, the office was computerized, and a Web site was built; Link's also instituted an internship program, broadened its volunteer base, and grew its annual budget from a "shoestring" to $160,000. The board, which under Eisen had met infrequently to rubber-stamp his decisions, was nudged into an active role. Programming was another matter. "There are so many showcases for dance in Chicago," Chremos says. "I was hoping to do something richer. But the audience wasn't ready. I had a lot of very intense disappointments."

Mitchell was an opportunistic hire: after two and a half years as managing director at Performing Arts Chicago and the same amount of time as administrative director of the master's program in arts administration at the School of the Art Institute, he was looking for a situation where he'd have the top job. "I knew Michael [Zerang]," he says. "They were planning to fill this position in the summer of 2005." But when they heard Mitchell was looking, they jumped. Zerang says that with rent ever rising (up from near zero 25 years ago to $3,300 a month), "we have to figure out how to get more people in there. Over the last four years attendance was down. This is the first time in the history of Link's Hall that we've had a genuine arts administrator. We look forward to seeing what he can do with the space." Meanwhile, Chremos is teaching and mounting artists' salons for a limited audience in the Silver Space, her new Wicker Park studio.

Pier Politics

The huh? meter lurched into the red when an Ohio company, Pfingsten Publishing, announced last week that the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority had selected it to run the annual Navy Pier art show. Thomas Blackman Associates, which abdicated when competition was invited in and has now been sued by the MPEA for failing to pay $375,000 in rent, was out of the picture. SOFA exposition head Mark Lyman says his firm, the only other bidder, was told that Pfingsten offered a "very lucrative and creative financial package." Pfingsten Publishing, which runs several trade and decor shows, acquired Art Miami a few months ago and is installing its director, Ilana Vardy, as head of the Chicago expo.

"This happened so quickly we're scrambling to put together a plan," Vardy says. But she knows the territory. In 1992 she helped Blackman found Art Chicago, and she worked for him as the show's director until '99, when she went to Art Miami. (A few days after taking that job she learned that Art Basel, the 800-pound gorilla of the contemporary art world, would also be coming to town.) Vardy says her goal for Art Miami, a show that's "always been uneven," is to make it "more balanced, something like what the Chicago show was in the mid-to-late 90s. We don't compete with Basel Miami. Very few people can get into Basel Miami, and even fewer people can afford to buy there."

Vardy, who will be based in Miami but is hiring here, is looking to change the direction of the Chicago show, though she can't yet say exactly how. "The playing field has changed," she says. "We have to attract a new market." While time is short for getting galleries on board, "we're the ones with the contract at Navy Pier and the dates." She also notes that she has the advantage of a huge operation behind her. Pfingsten's parent company is the Deerfield-based venture capital group Pfingsten Partners. Founded in 1989 by former Citicorp executive Thomas Bagley, it owns 40 companies and has a powerhouse roster of investors and partners, many of them retired heads of firms like Quaker Oats, Sears, Kraft, Honeywell, and Jewel.

"Pfingsten Partners are local and very involved in what we're doing," Vardy says. "I think that has a lot to do with our getting the contract." That's likely to play better with gallery owners than this one: a Navy Pier spokesperson says the MPEA was also swayed by Pfingsten's promise of outreach to local schools, museums, and other nonprofits. According to Pfingsten Publishing spokesman Rob Spademan, the firm has hired well-connected local flack June Rosner to help with the outreach effort.

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

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →