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In its day the Cliff Dwellers Club had its share of shining lights. Novelist Hamlin Garland formed the social club in 1907, hoping to create a hotbed of artistic creativity in Chicago; Louis Sullivan wrote The Autobiography of an Idea there; and poet Vachel Lindsay staged a reading of “The Congo” within its walls. But in recent years the club’s membership has been graying. “Most of our new members are definitely at the older end of the age spectrum,” admits program committee chair Melvyn Skvarla. New recruits tend to be well-pressed arts aficionados rather than the writers, artists, thespians, and architects that are supposedly the lifeblood of the club.
Concerned about the situation, club officers last month initiated a “resident artist program” that invites up to 120 creative professionals between the ages of 24 and 38 to join the club for one year, free of charge. Artists and industry professionals chosen for the program are asked to give a single Saturday morning lecture or performance and to attend at least five other such events. Next month Skvarla will head a five-person panel in considering applicants who’ve been recommended by club members. If all goes well the first year, the program will be repeated annually, and to entice the residents to stay on as dues-paying members, the club is introducing a new, substantially cheaper dues structure for those 36 and younger. Members usually pay a $300 initiation fee; dues are $65 a month for arts professionals and $85 for all others. But now members 36 and younger will pay $100 to be initiated; dues will range from $30 to $40 for those aged 31 to 36 and $20 to $30 for those aged 24 to 30.
Of course, Hamlin Garland never showed up wearing body art or nipple rings; Skvarla concedes that some young artists might be hostile to the idea of private clubs. But he thinks the expense might be a factor as well: “Many young artists today simply can’t afford to join a private club, or else they feel they need to commit what money they do have to other things.” In any case, the Cliff Dwellers is in no danger of collapsing. Skvarla says membership has actually grown since the Chicago Symphony Orchestra evicted the club from its longtime home in the penthouse at Orchestra Hall to make room for the CSO’s trustees and high rollers. For the last two years the club has occupied a spacious facility atop the Borg-Warner Building, with breathtaking views of Grant Park and Lake Michigan. Now all it needs is a few more members who can spare the breath.
Changing of the Guard
Robert Fitzpatrick, the new director of the drifting Museum of Contemporary Art, says he’s in no hurry to fill the long-vacant post of chief curator. “I am still in talks with several candidates and expect to make a decision sometime this fall,” he says. But Fitzpatrick has shown firm and decisive leadership in selecting the MCA’s fall collection: last weekend security guards shed what Fitzpatrick described as their “paramilitary” uniform–white turtleneck, black flak jacket, and black pants–for a fresh new look comprised of charcoal gray T-shirt and slacks, khaki shirt, black wool vest, black leather belt with silver buckle, and black boots. “It’s a relaxed and stylish look.” Fitzpatrick initially discussed the guards’ uniforms with MCA trustee Sally Kovler, who rang him up a few days later to suggest some togs she’d seen at Banana Republic. Development director Greg Cameron was enlisted to serve as a runway model, and after careful deliberation Kovler and Fitzpatrick chose the new ensemble, which Fitzpatrick says the museum purchased at a substantial corporate discount.
Meanwhile Fitzpatrick is contemplating even more dramatic changes for next spring: several lighting design companies have been consulted about ways to illuminate the museum’s facade, which is currently dark at night. Fitzpatrick says he’ll wait until a new curator is in place before he decides when to redo the floors in the exhibit halls.
When the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts took over management of the Chicago Theatre earlier this year, it immediately began creating a sister organization to be called the Chicago Association for the Performing Arts. “We wanted to highlight the fact that we were a Chicago organization, based in Chicago and presenting in Chicago,” explains Mike Rilley, general manager of the theater. Like the Ohio operation, the new entity has been incorporated as a nonprofit, exempting it from the 10 percent city and county amusement taxes. But unlike other arts nonprofits, it may not require significant fund-raising to underwrite its shows: according to Rilley, the Columbus association usually draws 94 percent of its income from the box office.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Melvyn Skvarla photo by J.B. Spector.