Gather Around the Pork Barrel

Football season is still months away, but a growing number of arts organizations are learning how to make an end run around the Illinois Arts Council. The IAC’s fiscal 1999 budget shows a $3.5 million increase in funding for grants–from $6.3 to $9.8 million–but in addition it lists a growing number of what are called “line-item pass-through grants.” The money for these grants comes not from the council’s budget but from $180 million in the 1999 state budget earmarked for “special initiatives,” and state legislators can divide this money however they choose.

Line-item grants first caught people’s attention last year, when two of the city’s cultural heavy hitters, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera, each received $2.5 million to help fund their massive, nine-figure construction and renovation projects. At that time smaller arts groups wondered how these two relatively rich institutions had managed to win such generous funding directly from the state. But now other organizations have wised up and are lobbying their state legislators or other politicos in hopes of securing line-item gifts: this year the number of grants has jumped from eight to fourteen.

By far the biggest winner this year is the Beverly Art Center, which provides arts-related programming and classes to the south-side communities of Beverly and Morgan Park: the center’s $3.5 million grant will go toward a new $5 million facility that could begin construction as early as this fall. Lelde Kalmite, executive director of the center, says she took her case to senate minority leader Emil Jones, a Morgan Park resident who had long been familiar with the center’s activities. “Senator Jones believes the south side hasn’t received much in the way of arts funding,” Kalmite explains. Jones pushed the grant through when the legislature started parceling out special initiative money.

A number of other organizations scored smaller grants, including the ETA Creative Arts Foundation ($1 million), the Chicago Childrens Choir ($150,000), About Face Theatre ($25,000), and Pilsen’s tiny Blue Rider Theatre ($10,000). Like the Beverly Art Center the ETA foundation will use its line-item grant to expand its south-side facilities; according to Alene Valkanas, executive director of the Illinois Arts Alliance, many of this year’s grants are for building-related projects. “There really isn’t any way for arts groups to access this kind of development money through the arts council granting process,” she points out, “though there should be.”

Whether other arts groups will make it to the trough next year depends on the state’s revenues; a strong economy helped fatten the fiscal 1999 budget, says Valkanas, freeing up more money for line-item grants and the IAC’s regular grant-making fund. Arts organizations can press their legislators as hard as they like, Valkanas cautions, but if state revenues drop, next year could be a whole new ballgame.

The Mouse That Walked

The Walt Disney Company, whose lease on the 3,534-seat Chicago Theatre seemed to validate Mayor Daley’s master plan for a bustling theater district in the north Loop, has walked away from the gloriously renovated movie palace. With 20 months remaining on its three-year lease Disney has turned over the theater’s management and booking to the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, a little-known presenter based in Columbus, Ohio.

Disney officials say the Chicago’s stage is too small to accommodate upcoming projects, but the entertainment powerhouse seems weary of trying to keep the theater lit, a problem that’s plagued the Chicago since it reopened in 1986. Apparently Disney decided to bail long before Beauty and the Beast ended its disappointing engagement in late March: sources at CAPA say that a consultant put Disney in touch with the Columbus group more than five months ago, when the two sides seriously began discussing a takeover of the lease. “Disney basically wanted out,” says Doug Kridler, president and executive director of CAPA. The Disney organization, he notes, has experienced considerable turnover in its management ranks since negotiating the Chicago lease.

CAPA has a strong reputation as a financially sound organization; for nearly three decades it’s served many nonprofit arts groups in Columbus while bringing a wide variety of dance, music, and theater to the downtown venues it operates. But in Columbus CAPA is the only major player, while just about every type of entertainment it’s brought to Columbus is already offered by three or four companies or promoters in the Chicago area. Kridler says he understands the challenge CAPA faces on State Street: “We did not enter into an agreement with Disney with any illusions of being the savior here.” CAPA’s game plan for booking the Chicago is still evolving, he says, and if the deal doesn’t work out, CAPA will simply leave town when the lease is up.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lelde Kalmite photo by Lloyd DeGrane.