Last December, when Paula Giannini was still director of the Chicago chapter of the American Composers Forum, a group that promotes new music, she got an alarming phone call from headquarters. As Giannini recalls it, John Nuechterlein, president of the Minnesota-based national organization, announced that the Chicago chapter would be closed down at the end of the year for lack of operating funds. It was true that the chapter had had a financial setback when grants from two foundations that had been supporters in the past failed to materialize. But in this economy every nonprofit was having trouble. Giannini was confident the Chicago group, given a little more time, would be able to raise the money it needed to keep going. She says she offered to work for free until things turned around, but Nuechterlein wasn’t interested. When she passed the bad news along to her eight-member board, they rallied and voted to continue the chapter on its own. But a few hours later, five of them had second thoughts. “In one bloody night,” Giannini says, “they resigned en masse.”

The American Composers Forum started in 1973 as the Minnesota Composers Forum, a service organization. Focusing on outreach and education, it grew to a national group with nine chapters in major cities and its own record label, Innova Recordings. The Chicago chapter was formed in ’96, and by the time Giannini got there in 2000, it was incorporated. But the national organization remained the fiscal agent for all the chapters, holding their grant money and doling it out as they submitted invoices. The national office also provided administrative grants. After 9/11 and the stock market decline, however, that kind of help was coming to an end. A couple of years ago the chapters were told to get their own nonprofit status in preparation for becoming fully responsible for their own expenses.

Giannini’s been working in the arts nearly all her adult life. Originally a French and Italian teacher, she’s done public relations for the School of the Art Institute, managed the Union League Club of Chicago’s Civic & Arts Foundation, and headed the Poetry Center of Chicago. (She’s also been married to two major museum directors: the late Stephen Prokopoff, when he was director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Gerald Nordland, when he was director of the Milwaukee Art Museum.) After taking the 30-hour-a-week job at the Composers Forum, she moved the organization (which had been run out of the previous director’s home) into an office, built the board, got the chapter not-for-profit status, and raised a considerable amount of grant money. Last year, when the chapter’s budget was $102,000, Giannini says, she pulled in about $80,000 in grants for programs–including meetings, salons, residencies, commissions, and performances of the mostly avant-garde music its 125 or so members produce. Even after most of the board fled, she felt she had put too much into it to give up. The three remaining board members–Rochelle Gordon, Christopher Preissing, and William Jason Raynovich–dug in with her. They renamed themselves the Chicago Composers Forum and determined to keep going. The chapter was already a legally independent entity, with articles of incorporation, tax-exempt status, and its own bank account, which gave them a leg up.

Working without pay herself, Giannini laid off her part-time assistant. The Jazz Institute of Chicago, which subleases two cubicles in its office to the forum, agreed to reduce the rent to a fraction of what it had been. Lawyers for the Creative Arts matched Giannini with Lynn Fleisher of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood to try to recover about $26,000 of the grant money raised by and for Chicago but still being held in Saint Paul. (Giannini says the national organization wanted to hang on to the money and manage the programs itself.) As word got out, offers of pro bono help with logo and Web site design and marketing began to come in, along with new grants for programming. And then, Giannini says, a couple of really wonderful things happened. First she was able to convince two of the former board members to return. Then musician James Robinson-Parran appeared in the office, said he’d heard she needed help, and signed on as a volunteer assistant two days a week.

Giannini says she doesn’t understand why the national office wouldn’t agree to keep the chapter going without paying salaries. The New York chapter, which had similar problems, is now volunteer run. A phone call to Nuechterlein was referred to American Composers Forum managing director Glenna Dibrell, who says Chicago was suspended because of its finances. According to Dibrell, Chicago was “in a deficit situation” and during talks last fall, Giannini herself “raised the possibility that the office wouldn’t be able to stay open.” Dibrell also says all of the Chicago chapter’s grant money has been returned to the foundations that donated it. As to why Chicago couldn’t continue on a volunteer basis like New York, Dibrell says Nuechterlein

doesn’t recall a conversation in which Giannini offered to stay on without pay.

When the national organization dropped it, the Chicago chapter also lost all its members–technically they belong to the parent group. CCF is offering free membership this year to everyone who wants to join, and about half of the old members have signed up so far. Giannini also is on an urgent hunt for board members and always-hard-to-get operating funds. But CCF isn’t broke, she says: “We have a little cushion.” Plans are in place for programs, including a master class with Augusta Read Thomas next week, commissions for a series of concerts in Chicago Park District cultural centers in the fall, and residencies at dance companies Hubbard Street 2 and the Chicago Moving Company next year. Giannini says the group is humming with new spirit–“a kind of frontier eagerness.” But even if it all plays well, they could find themselves in competition with the national office in the future. In an improved economic climate, Dibrell says, the American Composers Forum could reactivate its Chicago chapter.

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