Millions From Heaven

“If somebody had been doing this when I was thinking of a career in the arts, it might have made a difference,” says Charles Beck. The 41-year-old millionaire minored in theater at Southern Illinois University before earning a communications degree and cleaning up as a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry. Now, as arts funding continues to wane, Beck has astounded some observers by incorporating and bankrolling the Beck Institute for the Arts, a commercial organization that will generate hundreds of grants and performance opportunities for local artists in a variety of disciplines.

“Charles is a man who wants to give something back to the arts,” explains Don Oberg, a choral singer who serves as artistic director and general manager of the institute. If all goes according to plan, the Beck Institute will hand out close to 100 grants each year, ranging from $500 to $5,000, to emerging artists in dance, theater, music, visual arts, and other creative disciplines. Beck–who still presides over his Schaumburg consulting business, C. Beck & Associates–expects at first to spend between $500,000 and $1 million of his own money annually to underwrite the institute’s activities.

Until now Beck has been a mere blip on the local arts scene. He says the urge to create the institute originated five years ago, when he got involved with the Lutheran Choir of Chicago. Beck performs with the 50-year-old choral group and currently serves as board president; as an administrator, he’s added ticketed performances, initiated print and radio advertising, and brought in guest artists such as William Warfield and the Agape Ringers. “We’ve tried to give the group a more professional status,” he explains, and he hopes the new institute will help many more artists become professionals.

The institute, also based in Schaumburg, has placed ads in the Reader, Tribune, Sun-Times, Daily Herald, and Daily Southtown soliciting grant applications, with a cutoff date of March 31 and awards to be announced this summer. Beck is assembling a panel of some two dozen consultants in various arts disciplines to evaluate the proposals; among them are playwright David Sinker, dancer-choreographer Donna Jagielski, classical musician Frank Winkler, and Tony D’Angelo and Bill Pullinsi of the now-defunct Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. Beck thinks he and his panel could wind up sifting through as many as 4,000 proposals in the first year alone.

There will be one thick string attached to the grants, though most artists would welcome the obligation. According to Oberg the grants will serve in part as a “fee for future services.” Every year the institute will produce a series of neighborhood performances to spotlight the grant-winning talent. Each artist will be expected to perform in two or three events annually. Beck and Oberg are still choosing performance sites, but they hope to charge no more than $10 to $20 for tickets and to funnel the profits back into the institute.

Sometime between 2000 and 2005, if operations are running smoothly, Beck plans to cough up another $10 million to realize the institute’s second major goal: a 1,500-seat theater that will become its flagship performance venue. Beck and Oberg recently traveled to Chandler, Arizona, to inspect the Chandler Center for the Arts, a state-of-the-art facility that can be easily configured in a variety of seating capacities. Beck would like to construct a similar theater for the Beck Institute, one that could just as easily seat 600 people as 250.

Ideally Beck would like to build the theater on the city’s northwest side or in the northwest suburban corridor. “This is the area I live in and an area I know well,” he explains. Though he and Oberg have explored at least one site in Arlington Heights, they would prefer a location farther from the Prairie Center for the Arts, which is the locus of Schaumburg’s arts community. But even if the theater opens, Beck wants to keep performing in the neighborhoods: “We always want to work in local venues.”

Group Dishes Poop

Chicago’s visual arts scene has suffered in the past year: Feigen Incorporated and Phyllis Kind, both prestigious, cutting-edge galleries, have shut their doors to concentrate on their New York locations. But the city’s artistic community may soon be getting a shot in the arm. Last month about a dozen local scribes convened to organize the Chicago Art Critics Association (CACA); so far the group includes writers from New Art Examiner, the Reader, the Sun-Times, Artforum, and Art in America.

As its scatological acronym might suggest, the association is trying not to take itself too seriously. “We hope to bring something to the community and have some fun doing it,” explains Kathryn Hixson, editor of New Art Examiner. “We want to help demystify art, raise the visibility of art, and help a wider public understand art criticism and the issues involved in it.” She thinks critics too often isolate themselves from the artistic community, and she hopes CACA will encourage more dialogue among critics, artists, and the public. The group hopes to publish a newsletter, establish a Web site, hold open and informal meetings at galleries to discuss exhibited works, and organize a major event in conjunction with Art 1998 Chicago, Tom Blackman’s spring art fair at Navy Pier.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Charles Beck photo by Eugene Zakusilo.