The MacArthur Foundation's new plan to help small arts organizations qualify for city licenses caught the attention of Live Bait Theater artistic director Sharon Evans when it was announced last month. MacArthur is making a total of $660,000 available to as many as 20 groups that need to bring their spaces up to code. "That's great," Evans says, "but wouldn't it be nice if those of us who have a space and managed to get our licenses could get some help with keeping it all up?" Live Bait, which has an annual budget of about $300,000, got $10,000 in general operating support from the MacArthur Foundation every year for over a decade until a couple years ago, when it was cut to $5,000. The next year it dropped to zero. Evans says she was told at that point that there were "too many theaters on the north side." That didn't make sense to her: Live Bait, with a 70-seat main stage, has a 20-year history as a rental venue for fledgling performers from all over the city and companies too small to have a home.
Evans says the MacArthur Foundation "always had an interest in how you fit in your community" and was "very supportive" of Police-Teen Link, Live Bait's six-year-old program pairing cops and teenagers in an ensemble. But a few years ago MacArthur handed off administration of its grants for midsize and small organizations to the Prince Charitable Trusts and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, and according to Evans, "Driehaus won't let you talk about your community work. We put a lot of our resources into community programs, and I think that hurt us." Driehaus programming officer Richard Cahan says Evans is wrong about that, noting grants were made to community-based theater groups like Free Street and Scrap Mettle Soul. What it comes down to, he says, is that "for 2006, 112 groups applied and 51 grants were given. We can't fund everybody."
Evans also thinks it's "less glamorous to deal with smallish organizations that have been around a long time. But we actually pay [actors and employees], we do insurance, and we have a building we're trying to keep up. With what's happened to real estate, I don't think another theater could open in this neighborhood. The only reason we're here is we came in 20 years ago. I'm not suggesting small companies shouldn't get help. But what's the point of helping the younger ones get spaces if you ignore the ones that are already in existence? When you've been doing this as long as we have, you see these ideas ebb and flow. You wish there was a more comprehensive vision."
And maybe there will be. It turns out the MacArthur program is still a work in progress. Its origins go back to the summer of 2005, when the League of Chicago Theatres and the Department of Cultural Affairs were still trying to get the Performing Arts Venue license through City Council. Julie Burros of Cultural Affairs put a bug in the ear of MacArthur officials that got them thinking about small theaters, which were about to find themselves in a bind. The PAV license, it was said, would be easier to get than the problematic Public Place of Amusement license (still necessary for theaters with 500 seats or more) but would also be much more strictly enforced. For groups without the cash to get their under-the-radar spaces up to code, the license could be lethal.
A series of meetings between Burros, LCT officials, and MacArthur staffers culminated in the new MacArthur plan, which will offer $5,000 grants for assessment and planning (including architects' fees) to theater, music, and dance groups, and, in many cases, will follow up with as much as $25,000 for construction and repairs. A veritable bonanza, but not one meant for young companies looking to get into their first homes. To qualify, a group should already have its own space, seat fewer than 500, operate on a budget of less than $500,000, be a current or recent beneficiary of other grants from Driehaus and/or MacArthur (a way of fending off fly-by-nights), and still be unlicensed. "The most important thing is safety, the next is building code, and the whole aim is to get someone licensed," Burros says. "If you just want to update and redecorate, that's not really the focus of the program." (She does say there will "probably eventually" be a list of eligible expenses.) Itinerant groups won't qualify, but renters will, which could work out nicely for their landlords.
Driehaus official Peter Handler hopes to have guidelines ready in a few weeks, but says they're "still figuring it out." Unlicensed spaces with safety issues will have highest priority, he says, but a licensed theater that knows it's going to have trouble passing its next inspection might be considered. So, hypothetically, if Live Bait wanted to invite city inspectors in for a fishing trip, it could end up qualifying. Or it could end up shut down.
The MacArthur program is funded for 18 months; as of January 1, licenses issued by the city are good for two years.
A Political Move?
The new head of the Illinois Arts Alliance has more experience in the political arena than in the arts. Ra Joy, 33, whose appointment was announced this week, has spent the last six years as a staffer for congresswoman Jan Schakowsky; prior to that he directed the youth and family department at the McGaw YMCA in Evanston. Joy doesn't expect his lack of arts experience to be a problem. "I come from a family of artists," he says, citing his father, painter Albert Joy, his sister, playwright Ebony Joy, and his own penchant for making charcoal drawings. As for his Democratic Party ties, Joy says the job "is not about a political affiliation." His wife, Falona Joy, is an executive with the Alford Group, consultants to nonprofits.
Retiring director Alene Valkanas put in 12 years at the MCA and a year and a half on Chicago's last Olympic bid before being tapped for the IAA job 20 years ago. Under Valkanas IAA grew into a well-oiled advocacy and service machine, and state funding for the arts quadrupled. Valkanas broke new ground with economic impact and succession planning studies, spearheaded a statewide drive for arts education, and stood up for the School of the Art Institute's right to display a student work that made a rug of the U.S. flag. "We lost a lobbyist and a $20,000 grant over that," she says. Joy comes on board March 5; Valkanas's last day is March 15.
aLeague of Chicago Theatres' free bimonthly Theater Guide, aimed primarily at tourists and recently in danger of being dumped, has been saved by a single sponsor. Carnivale restaurant got prominent exposure on the front and back covers of the current issue and has signed on for at least two more.
aKathryn M. Lipuma will join Writers' Theatre next month as executive director. A former Goodman staffer, she's been with New York's Signature Theatre for nine years, the last four in the top administrative job. Signature, which devotes each season to the work of a single living playwright, is slated for new Gehry-designed quarters at Ground Zero, but Lipuma's coming home.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz.