Leaving Lill

Bruce Robbins was an art history major at Lake Forest College in 1972 when he enrolled in a pottery class at Barat College. The instructor, Nick Prokos, needed to get rid of a small clay manufacturing company he’d been running in the garage of his Highland Park home; he asked Robbins if he’d like to take it over. The self-described hippie borrowed $450 for a used dough mixer and the first month’s rent on a space at Halsted and Grand, and became sole owner of the Robbins Clay Company. Three years later he found a like-minded partner in potter Martin Cohen. “We were both sort of political lefties,” says Robbins, “and we had this idea–like a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland let’s-do-a-play thing, but it was ‘let’s start an art studio.’ We could keep this clay company, which was really boring, but we could surround it with studios and a gallery and classrooms. We’d make all our money out of the clay and run the studios and gallery as an unofficial not-for-profit.” With two other investors they bought a rambling former stable at 1021 W. Lill and opened the Lill Street Studios.

Cohen eventually moved on; he’s now executive director of the Citizens Utility Board. Robbins became Lill Street’s longtime executive director. He sold the clay company in 1986 and bought out the two outside investors in the building ten years ago. Under him the Lill Street Art Center, as it’s now called, has grown to house three gallery spaces, ten classrooms, and 40 artists in a warren of 25 studios. It offers 125 classes a week, serves up to 3,000 people each year, and has an international reputation as an urban ceramics center. Its nonprofit educational arm (formalized in 1989) makes the courses and facilities available to anyone who can’t pay. Two years ago the center became an affiliate of DePaul University. “It was as much about the community and education as it was about art,” Robbins says of Lill Street’s original mission. But the community has changed. Lill Street is lined with half-million-dollar town homes now, parking is so scarce the art center just paved over its small front parkway to accommodate a few more cars, and the center is bursting at its seams. As soon as he can manage it, Robbins will separate the Lill Street Art Center from Lill Street.

“We’re looking for new space in the Ravenswood corridor or the Lincoln Square area,” Robbins says. A former factory with at least 20,000 square feet of open space and an elevator would do, and would allow for the addition of some studios for artists working in other media. Two possible locations have already fallen through, but he’s hoping to have a done deal within a couple of years. There won’t be any problem selling the center’s current home, which cost $100,000 in 1975. “Real estate developers look at our building as three empty lots in Lincoln Park,” Robbins says. He owns 80 percent of the building; 20 percent belongs to Cohen. Robbins plans to use some of the proceeds from the sale to buy and equip the new facility; at the same time, he plans to turn the art center into an entirely nonprofit operation and lease the new space to it. Instead of being its owner, he’ll become its landlord, though he hopes to stay on as executive director. Giving up ownership is no big deal, he says: “There isn’t much money in this business anyway. There are maybe 20 organizations like ours in the country and we’re probably the only for-profit.”

Like the Old Town School of Folk Music, Robbins says, the art center will build a core of participants in its new neighborhood. He notes that people from Lincoln Park have moved north and west in droves. The reaction of artists we talked with, who pay $100 to $300 monthly for studios, was mixed. A move would be inconvenient, some noted. There’d be heavy supplies to transport and wasted downtime; kilns might get cranky. For some it would be farther to travel. They wondered if rent would go up in the new space. And the spirit of this place that’s been their vessel for 26 years might get left behind, no more separable from these walls than the line left by the potter’s thumb on a lump of spinning clay. But no one said a move from Lill Street would keep them away.

Insufficient Memory

It sounded like an easy question: Was the award given to Mark Townsend last week the first regular Jeff awarded posthumously? Townsend, who won as best actor in a revue for his performance in the title role of Black Ensemble Theater’s The Nat King Cole Story (Unforgettable), died of AIDS at age 36 a month before the awards ceremony. Turns out, no one’s sure. There’ve been special awards, like the one given this year to the late Essee Kupcinet (with Irv) for nurturing Chicago talent. But no one could bring to mind another regular season award given after the actor died. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, says Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee chairperson Joan Kaloustian. The Jeff committee’s been handing out awards for Equity shows since 1968 and non-Equity citations since ’73, but records from the first 15 years are scant to nonexistent, Kaloustian says, “and we wouldn’t have tracked it that way.” Committee members have been too busy watching plays to create their own archive. Either we wasted our time in graduate school or this is a no-brainer dissertation project that ought to pull in a cushy grant.

Can We Laugh Now?

It seems like yesterday that Second City producer Kelly Leonard said not enough time had passed for 9/11 jokes, but blink and everything changes. Last Sunday, exactly two months after the attack, Second City E.T.C. opened its 23rd revue, Holy War, Batman! or the Yellow Cab of Courage. There aren’t any highfliers making final deals by cell phone as they plunge from burning towers in this inspired show, but it looks like everything else–from the new fear of flying to the mood on the streets of Kabul–is fair game. Make that nearly everything, says Leonard. Osama as bogeyman? No problem. A sketch that requires a cast member to rip open an envelope? Way too scary.

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