Down Comes the Oak

The latest issue of River Oak Review, a twice-yearly literary journal, arrived with a note tucked into it. “River Oak Arts has had a wonderful run of 10 years, publishing River Oak Review as well as offering workshops for writers and programs for the general public,” it said. “Therefore, it is with sadness that we announce that, after two years of struggling with declining enrollments and contributions, River Oak Arts will be shutting down its operations effective December 2003.” The note was unsigned, and a machine answered the River Oak Arts telephone, but when I tracked down the president of the organization’s board, Sandra Wilcoxon, she filled in the sorry details. It seems the stroke that felled the Oak was a tardy Illinois Arts Council grant of $6,800.

Huh? A temporary shortfall of $6,800 is bringing down an organization with a couple hundred members, a cornucopia of programs that include a popular monthly open mike, a long-running writers’ group, readings by the likes of U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins and novelist Rick Moody, a schedule of workshops that could put some colleges to shame, and, not long ago, an annual budget of $100,000?

The grant, delayed because of the state’s budget crisis, wasn’t the only thing, but it was the final thing, Wilcoxon says. “We expected it last fall, and at first they said it’ll only be 30 days late.” When January rolled around and the money hadn’t arrived, the River Oak board laid off its only full-time employee, executive director and chief bottle washer Cynthia Todd Quam; when the grant still hadn’t come in March, they gave up the office in downtown Oak Park. “It forced us to look at what we were doing,” Wilcoxon says. Cash reserves had been drained, memberships had dropped from a high of 300 to about 200; some readings were drawing as few as a half dozen people. About a third of the 16 workshops offered the previous fall had failed to attract an eight-student minimum and were canceled. Wilcoxon says the only thing growing was the number of submissions to the journal (over 200 a month, from writers all over the country)–and the Review doesn’t generate income. After a decade of robust growth, River Oak Arts looked sick.

In the early days, it was a one-woman show. In late 1992, Oak Park resident Etta L. Worthington took a New Year’s inventory of her life as a single mother, decided she’d “neglected the writer part of me,” and determined to rectify that by starting a writers’ group and a literary magazine. The daughter of a Baptist minister, she’d come to Chicago to attend the Moody Bible Institute, then transferred to Columbia College, where she studied writing and filmmaking, and wound up working in medical and educational publishing, with an evangelical fervor for literature. She went to the Oak Park Arts Council for funding, wrote letters to “150 of my closest friends,” and, in March ’93, started her writers’ group in space donated by the Oak Park Public Library.

By May, River Oak Arts was holding readings, by the following January, offering workshops. Within a couple of years it had expanded to include programs in Evanston and Chicago as well as Oak Park, with monthly author events in two locations, a cross-disciplinary lecture series on themes like dance and literature, a playwrights’ group, the open mike (launched by poet Charlie Rossiter), a newsletter, and the Review, published by an all-volunteer editorial and layout staff and distributed nationally in runs of 1,000.

It was a remarkable proliferation, but Worthington was putting in 50 mostly unpaid hours a week on top of adjunct teaching gigs at DePaul University and Triton College: she chaired the board, edited the Review, and stayed up all night preparing the newsletter and mailings for the group. Even after poet Jenny Burkholder was hired as the first executive director in 1999, Worthington continued to clock 30 hours a week, and by 2001 she was burning out–ready to move on and test her wings as a filmmaker.

Then came 9/11, and after it the current economic slump. Wilcoxon, who was on the board then (she replaced Worthington as president last year), says, “The director planned a tremendous number of programs thinking it would turn around, and we all went along with it. Before we knew it, we had a $12,000 deficit.” Burkholder left, and the job stayed open for five months, Worthington once more holding down the fort. “We pulled ourselves out of a difficult spot,” Wilcoxon says, but when the going got tough again last spring, the board didn’t have the stomach for it. Marylee MacDonald, who edited the Review for three years, had given notice, and there had come to be a lot of competition in the way of readings and writers’ programs. Wilcoxon, a professional fund-raiser with 20 years of nonprofit experience, says she believes River Oak Arts “is an organization whose time has come and gone.”

River Oak’s open-mike series (now run by Nina Corwin and Al DeGenova) and writers’ group are likely to continue under their own steam, and Wilcoxon says the board is looking for a university or college to take over publication of the Review–which even with volunteer labor costs $3,000 an issue to produce. The board will continue meeting till the end of the year, and then River Oak Arts will go the way of Artemisia and the New Art Examiner.

“It’s hard to envision a scenario that wouldn’t put us in a difficult situation very quickly again,” Wilcoxon says. “We’re trying to be fiscally responsible. I think it’s a telling sign of the times when the Donors Forum”–the Chicago grant-makers’ organization–“is distributing a handout on how to shut down a nonprofit.”

Worthington, who remains on the board, thinks it “acted prudently.” Too prudently? “No comment.”

Wide Open

The Chicago Artists’ Coalition was lobbying the city for a gallery or museum for local artists eight years ago, but settled for a time slot. “We were the originators of Chicago Artists’ Month,” says former CAC board president and 20-year volunteer BettyAnn Mocek. Two years after they got the month (which they’d turned over to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs to administer), Mocek was part of a CAC brainstorming session about what they could add to it. She came up with the idea for the Chicago Art Open, a show where–“God forbid!”–the artists would be their own jurors. “I knew it had to be inclusive,” Mocek says. “CAC is adamant about that.”

Open on a first-come basis to any Chicago-area artist who meets the minimal requirements (a recent juried show, slides that demonstrate consistent work), the CAC show allows each exhibitor to select his or her own work, returning the $25-$60 entry fee to anyone squeezed out. Mammoth from the beginning, it’ll include 340 artists this year–and for the first time Mocek, now a Concordia University professor, won’t be in charge. “It was a nine-month job every year,” she says. “This time I’m just there as an exhibitor.” She’ll also receive a special achievement award at the benefit preview that starts at 7 this Saturday, October 11, at the School of the Art Institute gallery at 847 W. Jackson. The benefit’s $30 a head; the show runs through October 19.

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