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Recent development: if it can't come up with the dough, MoMing may bite the dust

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Very little on the exterior of the big old building on the northwest corner of Barry and Kenmore suggests what goes on within. A granite cornerstone dated "A.D. 1924" proclaims the structure's age; the dingy red bricks, high vaulted windows, and fading flecks of spray-painted graffiti suggest a disused school. Only a wooden sign, its bright purple clashing with the dusky wall on which it hangs, and a flamboyant purple logo on the orange front door advertise the current identity of this venerable neighborhood landmark.

This is MoMing Dance & Arts Center, for 16 years a hub of innovative activity in the visual and performing arts. But it may not be MoMing much longer. Since its founding in 1974, MoMing has paid rent ($1,700 a month in recent years) to nearby Resurrection Lutheran Church. Now the church wants to sell.

Resurrection's pastor, Steve Swanson, says, "We've been wanting to sell to MoMing--if they can really be serious and come up with the money. But I'm living within the market. When I go to my congregation [to report on financial matters], I'd be hard- pressed to sell it to MoMing for a significantly lower price than I can get elsewhere."

After learning of the church's decision in July, MoMing's board and staff decided to offer to buy the space. For an organization used to existing on grants and the nominal fees charged for dance classes, raising the money to compete with commercial developers is a challenge. But the folks at MoMing didn't feel they had much choice.

"I can't perceive MoMing being in any other location," says Peter Tumbelston, a dancer turned arts manager who has been the center's director since 1988. That statement is informed by a variety of factors. Relocating to a new space "would cost MoMing at least $150,000 in mandatory moving and renovation expenses," estimates Catherine D. Pines, a clinical psychologist who is president of MoMing's board. But Tumbelston emphasizes an even more basic problem: the unlikelihood of finding appropriate space even if moving money were readily available.

"We've got an uphill battle here. There aren't a lot of options," says Tumbelston. "There aren't spaces of the kind we need--wide-open, pillar-free studio space is the most difficult to find."

Such definite space requirements follow naturally from MoMing's mission, which is to offer an ongoing program of performances and classes in dance and performance. The four-story, 18,000-square-foot building it's inhabited since its founding has been remarkably well equipped to meet these needs. Located at 1034 W. Barry, the building was erected as a Sunday school. "They wanted to serve a thousand kids," says Swanson. "And they did, I guess . . . I've seen a picture from 1925, I think it is, with 1,000 children gathered outside the school. I don't think our [building] codes would even allow us to do that today." Later the building housed the theater department of Columbia College; when Columbia moved out, a group of dancers took over the space for a new arts collective and renovated the rambling old building into an efficient network of performance, rehearsal, and office spaces. Today MoMing (whose Chinese moniker means "something too beautiful to be named") houses a 144-seat main stage (complete with balcony for extra seating and technical crews), a flexible studio that can accommodate about 75 viewers, and an art gallery in its wide hallways. Professional and student dancers also use its hallways for warming up, and they store food and cold drinks in the old kitchen left over from the building's Sunday-school days.

This sprawling space has hosted a remarkable array of local and imported work. Tumbelston--whose background includes managerial stints with the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Jose Limon Dance Company--took over as director following the departure of cofounder Jackie Radis. He has expanded MoMing's historic role as a showcase not only for local artists but for significant talent from around the country and overseas. A week of performances, workshops, and seminars by cutting-edge German choreographers last November drew wide praise and packed houses; Tumbelston points to that event as evidence of MoMing's commitment to an agenda that combines performance and education.

Tumbelston estimates that about 300 students take part in the center's 18 adult-oriented and 15 child-oriented classes per week. MoMing also plays host to Urban Gateways, inviting groups of inner-city public-school students for daylong field trips in which the children watch and take part in classes, watch performances, and talk with the artists. The center also gives away tickets to less affluent segments of its Lakeview community via such cooperating agencies as the White Crane Senior Health Center, the Neon Street center for homeless youth, and the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic, which serves people with AIDS.

"We're not affiliated with an institution--our programs are accessible to anyone," Tumbelston says. "One of the most important aspects of MoMing now is that the school and performance spaces are in close proximity. The two functions are integral to an ongoing learning experience." If MoMing is forced to move, it may have to rent studio space for its classes and find outside venues for performances on an ad hoc basis.

That's assuming performance venues can be found--by no means a sure thing. "The space situation for small and midsize performing organizations in Chicago is nothing short of pathetic," says Susan Lipman, president of the Chicago Music Alliance. In the past year, CMA has spearheaded a campaign to seek City Hall support for possible use of the Chicago Public Library Cultural Center by a consortium of dance, music, and theater alliances when the cultural center is vacated by the library. But despite three letters to the mayor's office, Lipman said, her group has received no response to its request for a feasibility study on that project.

"Space is a real problem in Chicago," says Tumbelston. "I don't see anybody at the official city level addressing this issue."

The current MoMing space is also valuable because it's located in a quiet, cozy residential neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from public transportation and plenty of dining and drinking establishments (most of which weren't around when MoMing opened). This desirable neighborhood, of course, is what has attracted developers, who want to preserve the building's facade but gut the structure to build condominiums.

"We need a place where people will feel comfortable coming to evening classes or performances, but we probably can't afford to move to a better neighborhood," says Tumbelston. "We want to stay on the north side. I'd be hesitant to go much further west."

Given its lack of options, MoMing is desperate to hold on to what it's got. Its response to its immediate dilemma hinges on a "grass-roots capital campaign" to raise $120,000 for a down payment. Key to this campaign is the "MoMing 60" strategy, which calls for 60 individuals to contribute or raise $1,000 each; if that goal is met, an anonymous "angel" will donate $60,000. A sheet in MoMing's lobby lists 52 people who have pledged to become part of the MoMing 60. An escrow account is being established to guarantee that contributions toward purchase of the building or moving costs will be used for those purposes.

An ongoing series of benefits has augmented the MoMing 60 effort. A "Poets Dance Too" performance at Club Lower Links was held this week, and dancers will seek financial sponsors for a "Dancing in the Park" event scheduled for September 15. Meanwhile, the center is proceeding with its regular 1990-91 season, which begins next week with "Art Urgency: Artists Perspectives on the Epidemic." The monthlong exhibit of art inspired by the AIDS crisis will be launched with a program of performances and discussions on Saturday, September 8.

In a long-range effort to build and demonstrate support for MoMing--in particular, among residents and businesses in the Lakeview neighborhood--volunteers have been canvassing the area and seeking signatures for petitions that call MoMing "a unique asset in our thriving community." Results of the campaign have been mixed, says Phil Gibbs, an actor who is one of the petition campaign's coordinators. "Everyone's heard of [MoMing]," he says of his efforts to solicit signatures. "My best responses were from younger people. The people who are themselves less likely to go to MoMing are more difficult to approach. You can talk about how many people it brings into the neighborhood, but it's hard to actually prove."

Though such neighborhood canvasses and fund-raising performances appeal to MoMing's core constituency, they aren't guaranteed to raise big bucks. Notes Gibbs, "Most of our supporters don't have much money. I mean, a modern dance place--what do you expect?" But board president Pines says the purpose of the campaign "is to be able to enlist support from corporate and foundation donors based on the populist notion . . . to let them know how important this is to people. 'Art' is vague; 'people' is specific."

Meanwhile, a September 15 deadline for MoMing to raise $120,000 is fast approaching. That deadline, Swanson admits, is somewhat "artificial"--not legally binding but intended to keep things moving at a businesslike pace.

But the pressure is definitely on. According to realtor Marlene Granacki of Baird & Warner, who is representing the church in the sale, "There are two written offers on the table from private buyers," one of which was just presented this week.

"My heart is with MoMing," says Granacki, who claims a long history as fund-raising chairman of the church's preschool program. "My daughter takes dance lessons there. . . . The church would very much like to sell the building to MoMing. But if they can't come up with the money, yes, there are other offers."

MoMing board president Pines says that the purchase price MoMing has discussed with Resurrection is in the $350,000 range. Granacki wouldn't comment on how much the private developers are offering, except to insist that the most recent offer does not escalate the stakes as far as MoMing is concerned. "They are not in competition with the developers," she says of the dance center. "They're in competition with themselves to raise the money and finance a mortgage." That mortgage, she estimates, would be "astronomical . . . maybe a couple of thousand dollars a month."

One option Swanson says he'd consider is selling a portion of the building to MoMing at a lower price and maintaining another portion for the church. But if that idea doesn't pan out, MoMing may have to significantly alter its operation or cease altogether--and an irreplaceable space will be lost in a city where affordable performance venues are an endangered species.

But shutting down is an alternative Tumbelston defiantly rejects. "We haven't given up yet," he says, "and I refuse to give up. This is a perfect artistic space. To let it go by the wayside just because we couldn't get the money together would be a travesty."

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

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