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Woman Made's Fixer-Upper

Moving day held a few surprises, as a Prairie Avenue gallery headed to its new digs at Acme Artists' Community.

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On the morning of Thursday, January 23, Woman Made Gallery's new space in the Acme Artists' Community was a mess. Water dripped from a mysterious pipe coming from the heating unit, frigid air poured in through a hole in an outside wall, a row of track lights hung precariously from the ceiling, and wiring was visible through round holes in the drywall. Paint splatters and white dust covered the floor. One of the two galleries lacked a thermostat, so staffers were turning the heat on and off at the fuse box. They were also trying to clean up so they could unpack and hang the art for two exhibits scheduled to open the following night--something they usually have an entire week to do.

At the front of the larger gallery, Janet Bloch, the group's senior adviser and former gallery director, was trying to set up the gift shop. "We'll be up all night if we have to," she said. "Whatever isn't finished we'll throw in the back closet and hide."

Things hadn't been going well since January 4, when Woman Made moved into its new 2,300-square-foot home. The ten-year-old nonprofit had spent the past five years in the historic Keith Mansion on Prairie Avenue. Modifying the space or even mounting installations was prohibited by the building's landmark status, so by last summer, after they learned their rent was going up, they decided to move into Acme. Administered by the Near Northwest Arts Council, the three-building complex is a limited-equity condominium development designed to include 20 live-work spaces, common areas such as a rooftop deck and a darkroom, and five street-level commercial spaces.

"We took the space because of the mission they have," says executive director Beate Minkovski. "It's going to be great when it's all done."

NNWAC began planning the $3.2 million project in 1991 and five years later purchased the 40,000-square-foot former metal stamping factory at 2418 W. Bloomingdale for $299,000. After the usual hassles lining up permits and contractors (some of which were detailed in a 2001 Reader cover story) the council finally broke ground in March 2002. Six residential units were scheduled to be completed last fall, and two nonprofits--the Chicago Community TV Network and the Chicago Mutual Housing Network--moved in last November. At press time only one of the 20 residential condos was occupied; seven were finished. According to NNWAC executive director Laura Weathered, who's also the project manager, the construction delay was due to plumbing problems. Five more residents are coming in February, she says, and the rest are supposed to move in in March and April.

But only three of the artists who originally signed on to the project in 1995 are still involved. The rest dropped out because they got tired of waiting, found other housing, or had trouble with financing. "One of the problems we're having is that banks don't like the idea that it's restricted to artists, so at the last minute they're saying they can't underwrite the mortgages," says Weathered, adding that the staggered schedule is due to cash flow issues. "We need to close on units and take that cash and put it back into the project. We wanted to limit our interest payments and make it as affordable as possible. If we could borrow the whole $3 million and finish the whole building before everybody moved in, we wouldn't have these problems."

Woman Made was the last entity to sign on and is the only one that doesn't own its space, although the five-year lease (which is currently being vetted by the group's lawyer) includes an option to buy. When Minkovski and company showed up with their moving truck on January 4, Weathered, who's a painter, was mopping the floor and presented them with their lease. According to Woman Made crew there was no heat.

Weathered says that the furnace in the large gallery was working fine when Woman Made moved in--though the unit had yet to be hooked up to the ductwork, hot air was pumping out the front of it. Another furnace, in the smaller room, had yet to be installed.

The delays, she says, are typical of any new construction--"The guys that approve the sewer just don't have any obligation to make their decisions according to your schedule." She also claims that Woman Made was notified about them in advance. "I talked with their executive director on a weekly basis and we talked about a lot of different things....We talked about whether we should delay things a month or two, and what impact that would have on both organizations."

Not true, says Minkovski. "We could have done it, though. The other space asked us not to move out until spring, when it would be easier to rent it. I could have stayed there gladly until March."

The Woman Made staffers say they worked in the space for two weeks in their coats, making frequent trips to the bathroom, where it was warmer. Eight days before the opening, the heating unit in the larger gallery still hadn't been connected to the ducts, and there was still no heat at all in the smaller space, which was also slated to house the group's as-yet-unpacked office. That Thursday, Minkovski and Bloch asked Weathered and the construction foreman to have the heat and other construction finished by Saturday, January 18, at one o'clock. Later that night Weathered attended a Woman Made board meeting at the new space, where the group discussed what still needed to be done. Woman Made asked for a 50 percent discount on January's rent. Weathered offered to take off 16 percent, which she said was more than fair. "She said she had no recourse if we didn't get heating ducts by Saturday at one," says board member Lauren Mathews. "It got to the point where we both threw up our hands because we were deadlocked."

The construction crew did hook up the heat in the back room by the 18th, but the front room wasn't completed until the 23rd. In the days before the opening, staffers, board members, and supporters--including Minkovski's husband and sons--scraped paint, mopped drywall dust (sometimes four times a day), cleaned windows, installed lightbulbs, made and painted walls and pedestals, took home garbage (because there was nowhere to put it), and, finally, hung the art.

On Friday the 24th, people started pouring into the sparkling white space around 6 to take in work by Indiana artist Ann Starr as well as an eclectic group show she'd curated called "Normal/Abnormal: Bodies and Minds." They also marveled at the gallery's new digs. Most didn't seem to notice that there was no greeter at the door and no one behind the beverage table--the staff and board members were too exhausted.

"It went great," says Minkovski. "There were missing ducts and missing thermostats and no drain covers on the floors. But the art was the most important thing, and nobody even noticed. I'm very pleased. I still think that this will be good in the long run, when all the troubles in the building are resolved and the artists move in."

Weathered, who says she hasn't had time to paint in the past year and plans to move into the building in March, also attended the opening. "I thought it was brilliant," she says. A few other Acme members were there as well; they took their friends upstairs for a tour.

"The community is not quite there yet," Weathered said. "It's going to take another three months before the landscaping is done and the signage is up and the light fixtures over the front door are chosen and we decide what the lobby is going to look like. Some of the key things for why people bought into it aren't there yet. We're building a community, and it doesn't happen overnight."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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