Market Pressures: WIDC Wobbles
"It's March, 2003, and we are tense," read the introduction to the schedule for the 22nd annual Women in the Director's Chair Film and Video Festival. The reference was to the threat of war hanging in the air as the program went to press, but for the WIDC staff there was another source of strain closer to home. Since 9/11, the organization had been in a financial crunch. "We felt an immediate impact," says executive director Rebecca Gee. Corporation sponsorships had dried up, except for "in-kind" support, and government and foundation grants had either shrunk or been deferred. At the same time, WIDC's annual budget was at an all-time high of $170,000. The group's strategy for dealing with the situation was to fatten its annual festival (which usually was lucky to break even) and use the surplus ticket income to make ends meet.
The staff of three, aided by volunteers, worked for seven months planning the ten-day, four-venue event, which would screen 135 films and videos from 20 countries. It was set to run March 14 through March 23. Opening weekend was a little disappointing, drawing average numbers of viewers for films that included Yvonne Welbon's Sisters in Cinema and the premiere of Su Friedrich's Odds of Recovery. On the fourth night, with Bush on television announcing that Saddam's time had run out, the audience disappeared. Gee watched in dismay as a mere half-dozen people showed up at the Art Institute's Columbus Auditorium for a film that should have been an excellent draw--Ghost Cities, set in Chicago and made by local filmmaker Ines Sommer. By the next night, the war was under way. With the exception of Chekhov's Motifs, which drew a sizable niche crowd of Russians, the rest of the festival played like private screenings, sometimes to as few as three people. When it was over, attendance was a third of what it had been in 2002, when there were 25 percent fewer programs, and instead of generating new income the fest had run up a $20,000 debt. On April 1, already behind on payroll, WIDC laid off two staff members and Gee dropped to part-time status.
Women in the Director's Chair was founded as an annual festival in 1980 by a small group of filmmakers who wanted to showcase progressive feminist work. It was volunteer run for nine years, then took on two part-time employees and began touring a selection of work from the festival to universities and libraries--first in the midwest, then nationally. In the 1990s it organized media workshops for women and girls in Illinois prisons. In 1999 it moved from a small office in Link's Hall to 2,000 square feet on the fifth floor of Uptown's Preston Bradley Center, where it has an 800-tape archive, a black-box screening room that can seat 100, and year-round programming. Board member Debi Chess-Mabie says the future of the organization will be discussed at a retreat in June, and changes are likely: staff could be cut to as little as one part-time position (with volunteers taking up the slack), and women in the clink may have to do without their video training.
Could it fold? No one I talked to thinks so. WIDC now has 300 members, an on-line community of 1,700, and a staff loyal enough to keep working even though they're off the payroll. "Five days after the festival we had a board meeting and developed a plan for recovering the lost income," says Gee. Last weekend she and events coordinator Lopa Pal were in the office, stuffing envelopes with the announcement that 35 of the festival offerings would get an encore run this week and next. Program director Sabrina Craig plugged it via E-mail, advising that "this is the largest and oldest festival of its kind in the U.S. This year we received a record 789 submissions [up 200 from last year] from 35 countries. We are determined not to become another casualty of the war."
Artemesia didn't want to fold either, but it did. Board president Judith Brotman says the show that closed April 26 was the 30-year-old gallery's last. The door at 700 N. Carpenter is locked, and "we've started the paperwork for dissolution." Last year the organization lost a major donor, and membership is declining; Brotman says the current 11-member roster could drop to six come fall, resulting in a "staggering" workload for the few people left. Gallery owner Rhona Hoffman says the women-run co-op's time may have passed, "since so many women now have representation in heterosexual galleries." According to Hoffman: "Most women don't want to be segregated. They want to play with the big boys."
Columbia College Retreats
Columbia College announced last week that it has frozen vested benefits in its pension plan as of the end of last year and will be coming up with a new (read: less generous) plan that will apply from 2003 on. Spokesman Mark Lloyd said the plan's stock portfolio, hit by the downturn in the market, would have required a $9 million contribution from the college this year. Assets dropped from a high of $32 million in 2001 to $26 million in March, even with a $3 million contribution by the college in 2002. (The plan was entirely funded by the college.) According to the college's press statement, "No one will lose benefits already accrued." Affected employees include 530 full-time staff members and 267 full-time faculty. For the more than 1,000 part-timers who teach at Columbia it's a moot point: they don't get benefits anyway.
Does an antiques show next door to a contemporary art market sound like a synergistic pairing or the kiss of death? Leslie Hindman and her Parisian colleague (but no relation) Sandra Hindman are hosting Antiques Chicago, with 50 international dealers, on the east end of Navy Pier during this weekend's Art Chicago....Joseph Tabet says the budget for this year's Pier Walk outdoor sculpture show is $60,000 (plus in-kind donations), down from $100,000 in 2002, though the show's no smaller. Only four of the show's nearly 40 pieces are by local sculptors....Looking for a Lion King alternative? Evanston's wonderful Flying Griffin Circus plays through May 18 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. Tickets are $10, and all the seats are good....Speaking of bargains: WBEZ is paying just $18,000 for 30 half-hour comedy shows from sketch troupe Schadenfreude, expected to air Sunday nights beginning this summer. Besides being a huge opportunity for the troupe, the broadcast might help the station attract younger listeners, says Schadenfreude's Justin Kaufmann, who also happens to be a WBEZ producer. There's a launch party for the show Wednesday, May 14, starting at 8 PM at Martyr's, 3855 N. Lincoln, and cosponsored by the Chicago Improv Fest.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.