Child’s Plays

Last weekend was huge for the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts. The first class of the center’s new arts training academy showed their stuff in a musical revue Sunday evening, and another group of 30 youngsters trouped valiantly through three full performances of the musical Working after seven weeks in the center’s youth-theater workshop. Ya gotta love the kids–who, in the performance I saw, were pretty much drowned out by the musicians accompanying them–but the jury’s still out on the question of whether plans being implemented by new executive director Malik Nevels will work for the city’s only arts-based Y and its rapidly gentrifying neighborhood on the edge of the UIC campus. When Nevels took over a year ago, he cut staff and the professional adult-theater productions that a previous administration thought would put the center–conceived as the cultural jewel of the west side–on the map. Now, with new hires including Columbia College adjunct faculty member Wilson Cain as the training academy’s director and former part-time producer Ed Krystosek as its producing director, he’s making education the center’s main mission, at least temporarily. The training academy is offering year-round, fee-based classes for kids in voice, dance, and acting, and by 2005 Nevels hopes to have an arts-oriented charter elementary school for 100 kids up and running.

The Duncan Y is named for Addressograph inventor Joseph Duncan, who gave the West Side YMCA, then located at Monroe and Ashland, about a half million dollars in the 1920s and ’30s. In 1982 it moved to its present site at Roosevelt and Morgan, functioning as a social-service and child-care center until the early 1990s, when a couple of things pushed it in the direction of the arts. Looking for “something for girls,” says former executive director Fred Matthews, “we started a dance class. We contacted the Dance Center of Columbia College for instructors.” The classes were such a hit that the center partnered with Columbia to build a dance studio and expand them. At about the same time, it became a venue for the Writer’s Voice, a national YMCA program that brings major authors in to read and discuss their work; in ’93, the Guild Complex’s Michael Warr was hired to run the Duncan’s program. With dance and literature going strong, Dance Center head Woodie White suggested to Matthews that he look into the other disciplines–visual arts, music, and drama. Sitting in the lobby of the Y, “we drew those five circles on a napkin,” Matthews recalls, and a MacArthur-funded study and $3 million capital campaign soon followed. At the time, the Duncan Y’s board chairman, Donald Lord, was also head of local retail institution Chernin’s Shoes. In 1997, with substantial donations from the Chernin Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and others, the Duncan Y added 11,000 square feet (including a 220-seat theater) to its facility and the Chernin Center for the Arts to its name.

The center snagged a high-profile talent as its first artistic director when it hired Ifa Bayeza away from her job as arts and education director at Court Theatre. Under Bayeza–a Harvard graduate, Kennedy Center fellow, and sister and collaborator to playwright Ntozake Shange–the center established the youth-theater workshop and the Shoebox Series (professional plays performed for preschool groups) and began to build the center’s reputation as a venue for and producer of cutting-edge adult theater. There were productions of Ping Chong’s Undesirable Elements (with an NEA grant and Chong in residency), Bayeza’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s The Sea Lion, and her own play Amistad Voices, the latter restaged last month at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. The center’s goals included “the engagement of artists of stature and vision” and a “commitment to examining critical issues of our time.” But according to Nevels, attendance at adult-theater programs was sparse. “I was there for the opening-night performance of The Sea Lion,” he says. “There were 11 people in the audience.” Last summer Matthews was moved to a new job at metro YMCA headquarters and Bayeza left. Nevels, who’d been director of youth development for the Chicago Urban League (where he says he grew his budget from $70,000 to $650,000 in three years) and has also worked for Jesse Jackson Jr., Carol Moseley Braun, and Richard M. Daley, was hired for Matthews’s job. Bayeza was not replaced.

Nevels says cutting staff and adult productions was necessary to get a handle on the center’s budget ($790,000 this year). The Duncan Y has operated in the red for the last three years, he says; in 2002, when YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago posted a $16 million loss, the deficit at Duncan was $380,000. Nevels says 80 percent of Duncan’s revenue was going to pay staff salaries; he thinks 70 percent should have been going to programming. His restructuring, which reduced staff from 27 full- and part-time workers to 14 (just 7 full-time), has shrunk 2003’s projected deficit from $320,000 to $87,000. On the other hand, he’s added a marketing director and is about to hire a fundraiser–positions he hopes will have a positive effect on the bottom line. He’s looking to expand the youth-theater workshop (which this summer, through a city program, paid the kids minimum wage for 22 hours a week) and Shoebox programs into year-round schedules, revive the Writer’s Voice (if he can get $60,000 a year to fund it), and build the academy, which had 16 students in its first session, on the model of Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre. (Andre Ford, originally hired from Freedom to run the academy, lasted just eight months.) There may be a resident theater company or in-house adult productions in the center’s future, Nevels says. But right now he’s focused on getting operations in order, offering opportunities to economically disadvantaged kids, and positioning the center as a place that will “strengthen the sense of community” as the neighborhood changes. “We read in the paper every day that these mixed-income communities may not be working because very little social mixing takes place,” he says. “If there’s any medium that brings people of different ethnic and social backgrounds together, it’s the arts.”

News Flashes

The Evanston city garage at Church and Maple is still sporting a naked wall three years after the city approved $170,000 to embellish it and awarded the project to Chicago artist Lincoln Schatz. Schatz says the project (five translucent Plexiglas ovals) is “going forward through the city’s approval phases.”…Eureka! The state announced the opening of a tourism information center at Navy Pier, Chicago’s most heavily visited site, last month.

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