Grant Park Music Fest Dumps Gift Horse

Three months before the start of its 62nd season, the venerable Grant Park Music Festival has shed a longtime benefactor. In mid-February, Chicago Park District general superintendent Forrest Claypool moved to sever all ties between the music festival and the nonprofit Grant Park Concerts Society, an independent organization created 18 years ago to solicit private donations and memberships for the free concert series. The society also underwrote the costs of advertising and publishing schedules as well as the Concerts for Kids Too program through the Chicago Public Schools. Claypool is now bringing these outreach and fund-raising functions solely under the aegis of the Park District.

“They have put us out of business,” says Betty Madigan, executive director of the Grant Park Concerts Society. But the group might not go without a fight–its board of directors will officially take up the matter at a March 13 meeting. “We can’t figure out what we’ve done to deserve this. All we’ve ever done is give them money.”

Grant Park Music Festival executive director James Palermo says that the festival simply needed more money than the society was capable of raising. “We are appreciative of their contributions over the years, but it wasn’t enough for the sustained growth of the festival,” he says, claiming that the society never contributed more than around $150,000 annually for artistic programming. By bringing the festival’s fund-raising in house, Palermo says he hopes to raise $350,000 for the 1996 festival–$185,000 of that from government and foundation sources and the remainder from corporate sponsorships.

The Park District adminis-tration has also been at odds with the society over the children’s outreach program. Palermo says it “didn’t go far enough for us.”

He wants artists who will appear at festival concerts to interact with children at organized events in city parks before the kids attend performances. “I was hired to program the music festival, but there may be ways we can supplement existing arts programming in the parks and create new ties.”

Whatever happens, one thing seems clear: taking over the society’s old responsibilities will substantially increase the music festival’s annual operating budget. “Make no mistake about it, it’s going to cost the taxpayers money,” warns Madigan. According to Palermo, the 1996 festival budget will jump to $2.3 million from last season’s $1.9 million. Most of that increase will cover the costs of doing those tasks that the society previously handled. Madigan says the society raised $747,000 last year and spent $670,000 on advertising, development, membership, publicity, children’s outreach programs, music programming, and facility expenses.

Madigan believes the festival will end up spending even more than they anticipate. “Once we’re gone they’ll learn how much things cost. They are going to find out that getting and maintaining memberships is a costly and laborious process. And they’ll probably hire more people to do the same things.”

The Park District considered allowing the society to retain its membership duties, but according to a March 1 letter to Park District officials written by society president Robert A. Podesta, “Mr. Claypool said that a pre-condition of any discussion” was the removal of Madigan. Claypool says he “won’t discuss personality issues,” but attributes the split to “strategic differences about the way money was being spent.” At one time the society advocated privatizing the festival, pointing to the Lincoln Park Zoo Society as a model. But Palermo says that may have proved unworkable because the “lines of communication have not been good” between the society and the festival.

Of course even Madigan acknowledges, “It’s the Park District’s festival. They can do what they want.” Festival director Palermo says his staff is in the process of deciding how to best carry on the membership program the society created and operated.

As far as next season’s concerts are concerned, Palermo says he’d like to broaden the festival’s programming. Jazz and rock music may wind up sharing the bill on some nights with more traditional classical fare. Don’t be surprised if a piece for rock band and orchestra shows up in the 1996 lineup. Palermo also says he eventually wants to do some family-oriented evenings that might last only an hour or so.

Pope Joan Defrocked

Producer Michael Butler’s $250,000 presentation of Pope Joan–the Christopher Moore musical about a medieval woman who rises to the papacy disguised as a man–closes this Sunday after opening less than three weeks ago at the new Mercury Theater. Pope Joan’s poor showing was a setback both for Butler and Moore. But its quick failure also provided a poor introduction to the new Mercury, which may one day be a winning venue if its owner, veteran producer Michael Cullen, can find some worthy product.

Cullen intends to present an eclectic mix of entertainment in his new 300-seat theater. He and the Prop Theatre have just opened a late-night series provocatively titled “Sex Talk,” which will feature perfor-mance artists ranging from Bryn Magnus to Aaron Freeman to Annie Sprinkle. But Cullen apparently has some concerns about what people might think of something called “Sex Talk.” Last week Prop artistic director Scott Vehill was busy making a sandwich board promoting the show that could be placed in front of the Mercury before each performance and then removed immediately afterward. Vehill says Cullen didn’t want any posters or the show’s name on the Mercury marquee because it might “upset the neighbors.”

Cullen maintains the problem was not the neighbors, but a lack of space on the marquee. “That space is reserved for the theater’s principal tenant,” he explains. But Cullen will now have plenty of space on the marquee after March 10. His next confirmed tenant is the Splinter Group, which plans to open its six-week “Buckets o’ Beckett” marathon in late April.

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