Block Museum’s Growth Spurt

This is a university where the schools of speech and music have gotten most of the attention up to now,” admits David Mickenberg, director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. Founded in 1981, as the Block Gallery, it’s played a small role in the local art scene. With a staff of seven and a permanent collection of about 2,000 works, it’s functioned primarily as an educational facility. But all that will change in the spring of 2000, when a $5.5 million expansion will more than triple its space, from 6,000 to 21,000 square feet. Funded by the university and a variety of corporate and individual contributors, the Block Museum addition is intended to signal Northwestern’s increased commitment to the visual arts.

The addition will be the work of Dirk Lohan, who designed the new Blue Cross-Blue Shield building on Randolph. Plans call for vastly expanded exhibition space, a 200-seat auditorium, a 40-seat classroom, an art library, a print and drawing study center, and new offices for administrative staff. Final renderings for the addition haven’t been completed, but Mickenberg promises a much more dramatic architectural statement than the nondescript concrete bunker now housing the museum.

The addition, says Mickenberg, will also trigger the start of a major membership drive, and while he wouldn’t say how many members the Block has now, he expects the building addition to be a major attraction. “We’ve already begun to expand our reach into the community beyond Northwestern,” says Mickenberg, “and that will increase when the new addition is finished.” After it opens Mickenberg will begin another push to increase the Block’s current endowment of $2 million. “You need more endowment money nowadays,” he says, “to protect a cultural institution from significant fluctuations in government support and other sources of funding.”

Another Jolt for Joffrey?

Last month the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago suffered a body blow when Robert Alpaugh announced his resignation as executive director. Now the Joffrey could be losing two of its biggest benefactors, Barbara and David Kipper. By all accounts the Kippers were instrumental in bringing the Joffrey to Chicago from New York City in fall 1995, and the couple personally spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to assist in that relocation. Bruce Sagan, acting president of the Joffrey’s board, confirmed that the Kippers have continued to make sizable annual contributions since the company arrived in Chicago, and a source close to the Kippers put the sum at about half a million dollars a year. But in May, David Kipper resigned as board president after six years.

The Kippers were on vacation and unavailable for comment, and because both have been appointed honorary board members for life, their names probably won’t disappear from the roster. Kipper’s resignation seemed to catch the board by surprise: no one else stepped up to fill the position, and Sagan says he isn’t interested in signing on permanently as president. According to Sagan, the board is looking beyond its current membership to recruit a new president, someone with the connections needed to attract serious financial contributions. The position of board chairman has also been open since the company arrived in Chicago.

Sagan denied any knowledge of Kipper’s possible departure from the board, though he admitted that the couple had not pledged any sort of ongoing contribution to the ballet. He was quick to praise the Kippers’ work in planning the Joffrey’s recent tour of Israel: “David was a great emissary for us there.” Another source said the Kippers wanted the Israeli tour to be their last major effort on the troupe’s behalf.

Livent on the Line

The new Ford Center for the Performing Arts is scheduled to open here in October, but the fate of its corporate owner and operator, Livent Inc., could turn on the success of a show premiering this weekend in Toronto. Fosse: A Celebration in Song and Dance is the first major production to emerge from Livent since founder, chairman, and chief executive officer Garth Drabinsky was demoted last spring following a $20 million stock purchase by super-agent Michael Ovitz. If Fosse turns out to be a loser, it could force Ovitz to curtail live theater development and look to safer sources of revenue as he tries to turn around a company that’s lost more than $40 million over the past two years.

The show, a long and repetitive compilation of dance numbers from the film, stage, and television work of legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse, debuts August 9 at the Ford Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto and is scheduled to run through the end of the month. After that it will move on to Boston and Los Angeles, and if it’s successful Livent will try a Broadway run. But during the weeks of previews leading up to the Toronto opening, the company was apparently having trouble moving tickets. For a recent Sunday matinee, scores of rush seats, which normally cost more than $80 Canadian, were going for $25 just two hours before the performance. One Livent insider conceded that the company was unsure how to sell what’s essentially a dance revue to audiences looking for a traditional musical with a strong story line. Meanwhile, Ovitz’s involvement in Livent hasn’t helped the company’s stock, which continued to trade at record lows this week on the NASDAQ exchange.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Mickenberg photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.