Behind the Joseph Holmes Collapse

The arrival of the Joffrey Ballet and the busy fall season at the Athenaeum Theatre may have created the impression that dance is on a roll in Chicago, but in reality most local companies are struggling to stay afloat. Last week’s collapse of the 21-year-old Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre was the latest evidence of trouble on the local dance scene. Since no company can survive without outside financing, the situation looks especially bleak in an era of tighter corporate and government funding. Debts totaling around $70,000 left the Joseph Holmes board with no option but to suspend operations. With recriminations flying back and forth between the board and its fired management team, few remembered that the company was in a similar situation several years ago and tragically learned nothing from its past experience.

When artistic director Randy Duncan left in 1993, he cited frustration with the company’s uncertain financial situation. Sources indicated that its debt may have been as high as $100,000. Outside consultants spent a year clearing up the books and reducing costs, and the company was reportedly debt free as recently as September 1994, just prior to the arrival of the new artistic director Kevin “Iega” Jeff and managing director Diane Shober. But increased spending on salaries and other administrative costs, coupled with a decrease in grants, apparently helped bring about the organization’s demise.

One source said the Chicago Community Trust had made substantial grants to the company for the past couple of years to keep it afloat and to specifically cover expenses related to 1994’s Spring Festival of Dance. There was speculation that a healthy Holmes troupe was needed to help secure financing for the planned Chicago Music and Dance Theatre. Francine Cabonargi, a program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, says Joseph Holmes may have lost some funding recently because of the “disintegration” of its dance school for inner-city children, an attractive program for corporate and philanthropic grants. Board president Cheryl McWhorter’s daughter Mei-Ling, a recent college graduate, had been manager of the school for the past year; she resigned in September.

Cabonargi says she had not spoken to McWhorter for more than a year until late last week when the company’s troubles became public. But Cabonargi maintains she was not surprised by developments at Joseph Holmes. “There were a lot of symptoms.”

Dance Coalition Board Downsizes

In the wake of the Holmes misfortune, the Chicago Dance Coalition met earlier this week to formally announce a restructuring. CDC executive director Lisa Tylke says member dance companies had come to realize that the trade association was too “bureaucratic.” With funding from the Chicago Community Trust, the coalition brought in a consultant to streamline operations. The new board will now have between 6 and 8 members, down from around 25. “We had come to realize the old board simply couldn’t make decisions fast enough,” says Tylke.

In addition, the coalition will establish an advisory council of approximately 15 members, and Tylke says the group is looking at projects to raise the profile of local dance troupes. In particular, it wants to provide public relations and marketing support. Tylke says the CDC would like to start a co-op advertising program similar to one the League of Chicago Theatres offers to its member companies. She’s also hopeful the CDC will begin promoting upcoming performances by creating bimonthly videos that will be distributed to the media.

But these tasks may be left for someone else. After eight years with the CDC, Tylke says she plans to step down in late January.

Seminary Co-op Heads North

The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, which has catered to University of Chicago academics and Hyde Park book lovers for the past 34 years, opened a north-side outpost this week in the Newberry Library. The Seminary has taken over the A.C. McClurg Bookstore, which had been operated by the library, and plans to expand its 600-square-foot space to 800 square feet. A three-year deal calls for the two organizations to share revenue from the new store. Newberry vice president for research and education Fred Hoxie believes the Seminary is a good match for the distinguished research library. “The Seminary offers us access to the largest stock of academic books in the midwest, if not the nation,” he says. Seminary manager Jack Cella also sees the arrangement as a nice fit: “We will be melding our strengths as an academic bookshop with the strengths of the Newberry as a research center.”

In addition to scholarly tomes, the new store will offer general interest books as well as some cards and gifts in the hopes that neighborhood residents may choose to shop there. The Seminary Co-op has 38,000 shareholders, many of whom live on the north side, according to Cella.

Hoxie says the bookshop made a modest profit when the Newberry ran it and library executives hoped to boost store revenue by turning it over to the Seminary. A recent survey indicated that the lobby bookstore was the most visited location in the library, which has been struggling to reduce a sizable operating deficit in recent years. More exhibits, concerts, and classes have been added to attract visitors from outside the academic realm. For the fiscal year that ended last June 30 the Newberry posted an $800,000 deficit on an operating budget of $7 million.

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