Off With the Heads!

It’s not exactly Al Qaeda, Iraq, or the dustup between India and Pakistan, but the Illinois Arts Alliance Foundation recently issued an “urgent wake-up call” about an impending crisis right here at home. According to the foundation’s research, 70 percent of executive directors at Illinois nonprofit arts organizations plan to leave their jobs within five years; unfortunately, 76 percent of the groups have no succession plan in place. In a December press release, executive director Alene Valkanas warned that “the quality and character of many of these arts organizations” are at risk.

The “troubling statistics” were uncovered during a two-year research project funded by the Chicago Community Trust. The Illinois Arts Alliance will unveil the results at a symposium, “Arts Leadership for the 21st Century: Boomers and Beyond,” January 9 at the Chicago Cultural Center. The lid’s on the findings till then, but you don’t need a focus group to guess that most nonprofits are too pressed for money and time to train “emerging” leaders in any formal way for future responsibilities.

The project includes a brief history of the last 30 years of local arts management by Michael Wakeford, a PhD student at the University of Chicago, who conducted interviews with ten established arts leaders. Among them is Nick Rabkin, executive director of the Chicago Center for Arts Policy at Columbia College, who notes that the city’s oldest institutions were founded by businessmen with deep pockets, while the “second wave,” those organizations founded since the 1960s, tended to be launched by artists with more passion than money. It’s hard to see who’ll step in and carry on at small and midsize organizations, and Rabkin wonders if anyone should, asking “What are we saving [when] the soul of an institution is withdrawn?” As for the booming new college arts-management programs, the old guard is skeptical. According to Wakeford, “veteran leaders doubt whether formal programs will ever supply a pool of leaders driven by the type of artistic commitment with which they entered the field.”

In the words of the IAA’s promo materials for the symposium, the “baby boomer generation of nonprofit arts executive directors is careening toward retirement.” It may be that the prospect of anemic retirement packages has them spinning as much as the question of their successors. Joan Mazzonelli, who became executive director at the Theatre Building after cofounder Ruth Higgins left, remembers when Higgins had to step in upon the sudden death of her husband, Byron Schaffer. Higgins moved on five years ago, in part with an eye to funding her retirement, says Mazzonelli. Now Mazzonelli is worrying about the same issue. “I’m not going anywhere; I’m hoping the board will address this,” she says. “But when I came it was easy for me to trade off the big bucks and not worry about my retirement–I could wear jeans and work with artists every day. That was 17, 18 years ago. [Since then] I’ve gotten kicked upstairs, my job’s become much more administrative, and the vision of writing grants into my 70s is not great. Folks in the corporate world are dying to have this kind of job, but the work is hard and long, salaries are low, and there isn’t that infrastructure to say OK, here’s what you can count on.” The IAA will consider salaries and benefits in a “second wave” of research to come.

Seeing Red Over the Lady in White

‘Twas the day before Christmas when the honorable David P. Yaffe of Los Angeles County Superior Court stormed into his courtroom half an hour late and ready to whack down to size the assorted incompetents about to parade before him. Faster than you can say Judge Judy, he flushed the lawyer in a condo plumbing controversy down the toilet and turned his attention to the next unfortunate: E. Randol Schoenberg, representing the heir to a Nazi-looted Picasso that’s hung for the last quarter century in the Chicago apartment of art doyen Marilynn Alsdorf. Alsdorf and her late husband purchased the painting, Femme en blanc, from a New York dealer in 1975 for $357,000. Schoenberg’s client, Berkeley law student Thomas C. Bennigson, learned of its whereabouts after Alsdorf shipped it to a Los Angeles gallery to sell last year and a prospective buyer traced its provenance to Bennigson’s grandmother. Bennigson asked for its return or $10 million, and Schoenberg says settlement talks had been scheduled. Two weeks ago, when they were abruptly canceled, an alarmed Schoenberg got a temporary restraining order from Yaffe that would have kept the painting in LA–only to learn that it had already been sent back to Illinois, where laws governing art stolen during the Holocaust are less stringent. So Schoenberg struck a deal with Alsdorf’s lawyers: the painting would stay in Chicago until January 10, when another hearing was scheduled. All he had to do now was convince Yaffe to change his previous order. But the logic of this escaped the judge, who suggested that Schoenberg’s paperwork wasn’t up to snuff. “You got this thing fouled in itself,” he snarled. “I hear whiners every day. Application denied.” Schoenberg returned with additional documents three days later, and Yaffe granted the change. For another week, at least, the lady in white will reside in Chicago.

And in Other News . . .

The Chicago Photography Center–born of the rancor that arose when the Jane Addams Center Hull House sold its Lakeview building and left its 33-year-old volunteer-run photography program high and dry–will hold an open house January 12 in its new location at 3301 N. Lincoln. Richard Stromberg (who founded the Hull House photography program) and E.J. Rublev (who ran the gallery there) are on board as staff, and work is under way to prepare the first floor of the former bank building for classes scheduled to start there in the spring. The not-for-profit entity is renting the 8,000-square-foot space with plans to purchase it from a benefactor who acquired it for them but wants to remain anonymous….Writers’ Theatre, which finally signed a lease with the Glencoe Woman’s Club and should be performing there by fall, says its average ticket price is $39 while the cost of staging its productions is about $90 per seat….That recent design competition held by the Spertus Institute for a hypothetical new museum building wasn’t so hypothetical after all: in December Spertus announced that it’ll build a new home on the empty lot next to its current building, to open in 2006.

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