It’s Money That Matters

Chicago Matters: The How and Why” was the title of a breakout session at last week’s annual Community Media Workshop conference at Malcolm X College. Producers Julia McEvoy of WBEZ and Len Aronson of WTTW showed up to talk about the 13-year-old multimedia project, in which the two stations, the Chicago Reporter, and the Chicago Public Library put together a series of documentaries, stories, events, and research archives every spring focusing on a single subject. This year the topic was housing. Next year it was going to be the arts, and arts organization publicists at the conference were eager to hear the plans. “Hank [De Zutter, the conference organizer] wanted us to talk about the past, present, and future of Chicago Matters,” Aronson says. “That was bittersweet.” He’d just learned that the project might not have a future.

Chicago Matters was launched in 1990, dreamed up by Bruce Newman, then executive director of the Chicago Community Trust, and Bill McCarter, then president of WTTW. At first it was on television only, as the trust’s high-profile signature program. As it moved into other media circa 1994, it continued to be funded exclusively by the trust, in recent years to the tune of about $1 million. WTTW, WBEZ, the Reporter, and the library usually collect their Chicago Matters grants in the fall, but this time, Aronson says, “we wanted to start work in the summer.” The four organizations filed their applications early, seeking approval in the spring, and Aronson was thinking he’d be able to film some of the city’s Music Everywhere events this summer.

WTTW asked for about $440,000, WBEZ $218,000, the library $95,000, and Chicago Reporter $60,000. But the trust had a problem: when the board sat down to make its spring allocations, it was working with only $8 million, about $10 million less than it had expected, to support hundreds of organizations. A payment from its largest donor, the Searle Fund, had been blocked by the Searle family, and some tough decisions had to be made. Late last month the Chicago Matters applicants got a letter saying their request had not been approved. In the end, Chicago Matters didn’t matter as much as some of the others.

The Searle money, about $20 million a year, is income earned from a $350 million fund established by drug magnate John G. Searle, who died in 1978. In 2038 all the money in the fund will go to his family, but until then, in one of those inspired combinations of tax avoidance and community service, the fund’s annual harvest goes to the trust to dole out. Trust spokesperson Jennifer Jobrack says the organization can do that “with or without the approval of the family,” but has always chosen to “listen to them in the interest of having a good relationship” and has “not funded anything over the objections of the family.” The Searles disagree, insisting that their recommendations (they favor community programs, education, and medical research at local universities) and concerns have been disregarded. Unable to take their marbles and go home, they’re trying to do the next best thing. They’ve asked the Illinois attorney general (who oversees charitable trusts) to let them change the fund’s beneficiary from the trust to Northwestern University, where John Searle’s grandson is a board member.

Since its inception, Chicago Matters has covered the environment, children at risk, aging, racism, violence, immigration, religion, work, regionalism, health, justice, and education. This year the project generated 4 half-hour documentary films and a one-hour panel discussion on WTTW; 20 reports, 12 personal stories, 6 half-hour documentaries, and 2 town meetings on WBEZ; 3 investigative cover stories in the Reporter; and book purchases, discussion groups, a bibliography, and additions to the Chicago Matters archives at the Chicago Public Library. For next year’s series, Aronson was hoping to look at the arts through the filter of age; McEvoy says WBEZ was thinking of checking out art in the schools and the community; Chicago Reporter editor and publisher Alysia Tate wanted to take an investigative approach to money, services, donors, and diversity (the kind of work that won the Reporter a Sigma Delta Chi award for its Chicago Matters stories last year); and director of development and outreach Amy Eshleman says the library was hoping to purchase books on Chicago artists and architecture.

Some of those plans will go forward no matter what happens at the trust. McEvoy says she’s drawing up a budget and can envision a project that’s scaled down and possibly renamed, with new underwriting. Eshleman says the library would also look at participating on a reduced scale. But at WTTW, which is already in financial trouble and cutting staff, prospects would be dim. “Television is so expensive,” says Aronson. “It would be hard to do this out of the box.” It wouldn’t be easy for the Reporter either, says Tate, who cautions that it’s too soon to count the trust out. Bill Quinlan, a lawyer for the Searle family, says they’re discussing a compromise proposed by the attorney general’s office. “People are talking,” he says. “And as long as they’re talking, anything’s possible.”

The Homes Front

Two years after it shut down to move to a new nest, Raven Theatre will open Marvin’s Room August 18 at 6157 N. Clark. The grocery store renovation took a year longer than planned and $700,000 more than the $1.3 million originally budgeted….It took a nudge from the village to convince reluctant members of the Glencoe Women’s Club to let Writers’ Theatre Chicago move in with them, but they’re about to sign a five-year lease. Writers’ will double its seating to 100 starting with the 2003-’04 season; the club will get help with its leaky roof.

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