Midsize Theater Project: Got Three Years and $25 Million?

The long, long wait is on for a new midsize theater in or near downtown Chicago. At a recent meeting with Chicago Dance Coalition members interested in the project, Chicago Community Trust consultant Carol Yamamoto wasn’t exactly brimming with great news about the progress of the project that is supposed to result in a 1,200- to 1,500-seat theater primarily intended for music and dance groups. Though Lyric Opera is likely to take over the Civic Opera House and Civic Theatre sometime next year, rendering those venues off-limits to most music and dance organizations, Yamamoto told her rapt audience that the new theater would take three years to open even if it were given the green light today.

But, as those awaiting the space know all too well, the green light hasn’t been given to the project and isn’t expected to be in the near future. After about a year and a half of consulting work and discussions with arts groups about the kind of theater they need, the options have been narrowed to three sites: Navy Pier, Cityfront Centre, and Dearborn Station. Negotiations are ongoing with representatives from each site to determine which of the three will offer the best deal. Once an offer is accepted, Chicago Community Trust spokesman Richard Turner says it could take one to eight weeks to seal the deal. Even so, Turner notes, “We’ve got no timetable in mind at this time.”

Insider sources now say Dearborn Station has the edge, with Cityfront Centre the most likely second choice. Powers behind the project have apparently shied away from the pier for reasons having to do with politics and concerns about financial support from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, operators of the new Navy Pier. One source said concerns have been voiced about whether the Pier Authority might seek a say in programming at the new theater if it were built there.

Whichever site finally gets the nod, the considerable challenge of raising the $25 million or so needed to build the theater remains. According to Turner, philanthropic foundations backing the project are expected to ante up some of the construction cost, but by no means all of it. At her recent meeting with dance organizations Yamamoto stressed that other arts groups throughout the city are currently seeking a whopping $500 million in new capital for building projects, Yamamoto’s way of suggesting it won’t be a snap finding the bucks for the midsize theater. The $500 million figure includes funds for Lyric renovations at the Opera House and Civic Theatre as well as money for the building projects of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Museum of Contemporary Art, and Goodman Theatre, among others.

With plenty of loose ends yet to be tied up, the resources of dance and music groups will be sorely tested during the next few years. Unless these groups are willing to use large and costly houses such as the Chicago Theatre and Orchestra Hall or small and awkwardly configured venues such as the theater at the Harold Washington Library, downtown performances are going to be few and far between. Ballet Chicago recently tested the Steppenwolf Theatre space as a dance venue and found the theater’s relatively small stage hardly ideal for dance performances.

Art Fairs Update

Last week Art Chicago cofounders David and Lee Ann Lester got some unexpected news. Rosner & Liss Public Relations, that well-connected firm that had represented the Lesters’ art fair since its founding three years ago, announced that they were going to work for the competition, Art 1993 Chicago, the fair that former Lakeside Group executive director Thomas Blackman hopes to mount for the first time this spring. David Lester admits that he had purposely left his company’s relationship with Rosner & Liss “vague” for the past several months while he looked around for another agency, but he says he hoped to keep the firm involved in at least a limited way, among other reasons because of their valuable connections to city government. June Rosner, a principal in the agency, is the sister of cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg.

The Lesters learned just how valuable a connection they’d lost only three days after learning of the Rosner & Liss move, when Blackman announced his Art 1993 Chicago would host an opening-night benefit for Gallery 37, the summer outdoor art school that is a pet project of Commissioner Weisberg. Last year the Lesters hosted an opening-night benefit for Gallery 37. “They [Rosner & Liss] were very helpful to us in obtaining Gallery 37,” notes David Lester, “and I am sure they will use that same influence on Tom’s behalf.”

Though loss of the Gallery 37 opening deprives the Lesters of a chance to schmooze with the City Hall crowd, David Lester says he’s happy to be hosting an opening-night benefit next spring for the Museum of Contemporary Art. He says, “It’s more of an art-buying crowd.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.