Gerber/Hart on the Edge

At Gerber/Hart Library cash is so short that board members recently got an SOS for toilet paper. A couple of benefactors came through with the $5,000 rent check in June and September, but the 20-year-old gay and lesbian library, archive, and cultural center needs to raise another $25,000 right away to stay afloat. “I don’t want to sound desperate,” says acting president Michael Hemmes, “but I want to say, ‘Give us money, don’t wait. Do it now.'”

The seeds for Gerber/Hart’s troubles were sown a year ago, when some grant proposals didn’t get submitted. By the time they figured it out, due dates had passed. Then former president Don Landers came up against some problems of his own: the sudden death of his partner of many decades, followed by a flood that destroyed the inventory of a business they had run together. Distracted, he hung on for a while as Gerber/Hart’s meager resources dwindled. Three weeks ago, with “too much on my plate,” he resigned. “I thought if I got out of the way, maybe it would get everybody else mobilized,” he says.

Pressed into service, board vice president Hemmes took a month off from his job, put a freeze on Gerber/Hart spending, and plunged into a two-tier effort–to raise immediate cash and to write grant proposals that’ll bring in money next year. Gerber/Hart, named for Chicago postal worker and gay rights activist Henry Gerber and civil liberties lawyer Pearl Hart, is housed in two storefronts at 1127 W. Granville. Its holdings include 18,000 books, 800 different periodicals, and “the important stuff,” says Hemmes: a collection of papers, photographs, and other memorabilia from the early days of the gay rights movement. Run entirely by volunteers, its annual budget this year is $104,000.

“Almost no all-volunteer organization lasts 20 years, let alone becomes the oldest and largest organization of its type in the United States, albeit a financially crunched one,” says Hemmes. “We’re always on the edge, but until this year we’ve never been over the edge. We have this saying–whenever we get into trouble something will happen, because God loves Gerber/Hart.” He’s not entirely serious, but something of a miracle did happen two weeks ago: “The landlord was calling me, asking where is the rent, and I didn’t know what to say because we didn’t have it in the bank. Then we got this anonymous check, like manna from heaven.” Hemmes is counting on donations and upcoming fund-raisers–the annual date auction this weekend, a book sale starting next weekend, and the 20th anniversary gala November 3–to pay the bills until new grants kick in. “I didn’t come on the board to preside over the demise of Gerber/Hart in its 20th year,” he says. “By the way, know anyone with an extra photocopier?”

Local Motion at MCA

Back in the mid-90s, when a small band of local artists picketed the Museum of Contemporary Art demanding permanent space for local work, director Kevin Consey dismissed the idea. “We believe it demeans local art and ghettoizes it,” he told this column. Now Consey’s history, and the museum’s setting aside one of its smaller galleries for a solo show by a new local artist each month for a year. “12 x 12: New Artists/New Work” is being promoted as a showcase for “emerging Chicago-based artists.” Chief curator Elizabeth Smith says her staff came up with the idea as “a way to engage with younger artists in the community, and to give a fresh focus to First Friday events,” which will now double as openings. “This idea sprang from our recognition that there’s a lively emerging artists scene here and our desire to play a role in it,” Smith says. “I think the majority of the work will not be known even to collectors in Chicago.” She expects “12 x 12” to be a continuing project and invites submissions for next year. At press time, seven artists had been chosen to exhibit the first season: Nicholas Brown, Pate Conaway, Paul Dickinson, Rashid Johnson, Melissa Oresky, Oli Watt, and Laura Mosquera, whose large-scale paintings will be up for the first show next month. “This is the museum as laboratory,” says art critic and historian James Yood. “That’s not a bad thing to do. But maybe every other year would be enough.”

Back Into Auction

After a six-year hiatus, the MCA is holding a benefit art auction October 27 in its Hubbard Street warehouse. Lela Hersh, director of collections and exhibitions, says the museum pioneered the big benefit auction concept in the late 60s and held one every few years through ’95. By then there was a glut of auctions, the bottom had dropped out of the art market, and museum staff was preoccupied with its move to Chicago Avenue. Now, Hersh says, there’s pent-up demand. Past auctions netted as much as $1 million for the museum; the goal for this one is a half million. Don’t expect to pick up anything from their collection; the hundred or so pieces for sale have all been donated specifically for the event.

Can’t Give It Away

Gerber/Hart, this one’s for you: Volunteers outnumber needy clients at the Arts & Business Council of Chicago. Nonprofit organizations with tax-exempt status and at least a three-year track record can get free help from the council’s roster of professionals in marketing, human resources (including board development), and more. “We meet, do an assessment, then match the client organization with a volunteer on a project basis,” says the council’s Kristin Larsen. A client orientation session is coming up September 28 at the MCA.

Making It Safe to Laugh Again

Second City’s Kelly Leonard wants to pull together a committee that would include the League of Chicago Theatres, Actors’ Equity, and IATSE (the tech trade union) to look at how the national crisis is affecting their industry. “We had only 70 people Wednesday night [after the terrorist strike],” Leonard says. “People need permission to laugh.” He fears a slump in travel will cut into audiences. As for Bush-in-Nebraska jokes: “The formula for humor is tragedy plus time.”

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