Old Town School at a Crossroads

The 38-year-old Old Town School of Folk Music, housed for the past 26 years at 909 W. Armitage, will decide within the next five months whether or not to move further north, to the former Hild Library at 4544 N. Lincoln. Notes Fred Lieber, president of the school’s board of directors: “This is a very significant move for the Old Town School of Folk Music, and it will be a very considered decision.”

It would cost between 1.8 and 2.3 million dollars to buy or lease and renovate the building, but the move would give the school space for more offices, more classrooms, more concert halls, and parking. It also would take the school quite literally into uncharted territory. “The question we are asking ourselves is whether the Lincoln Avenue location is the right location,” explains the school’s executive director, Jim Hirsch. “We have to figure out if our students and concertgoers will follow us to a new location or if they prefer us where we are because it is convenient and easy.” It’s an important issue, Hirsch contends, because as much as 20 percent of the school’s customer base lives in the 60614 and 60657 zip codes. Operating costs are another factor. “We are looking at whether we can support a larger facility that would cost more to run,” says Lieber. The board is investigating whether the school might be able to expand in a cost-effective manner at its present location.

One thing is certain, according to Hirsch: the school cannot continue to grow as it has if it doesn’t take action now to enlarge its facilities. And Hirsch, who arrived there in 1982, should know: during his tenure class enrollment has grown from about 380 students a week to 2,000, while the number of classes offered has grown from 15 or 20 to 80 or 90 a year. “Our mission,” he says, “is to educate the public about the range and diversity of folk music.” That education is achieved through concerts as well as classes, aimed at a core audience ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-60s. The school hosts as many as five concerts a month, featuring everything from zydeco to Madagascan folk music to acoustic folk musician Tom Paxton.

When Hirsch arrived the school was limping along with an accrued debt of $100,000 and an annual operating budget of around $260,000. In 1981 alone the deficit was $59,000, and fund-raising was all but ignored. Observes Hirsch: “The year before I arrived we received a total of $7,900 in grants, primarily from the Illinois Arts Council and individual donors.” Hirsch immediately set about turning things around. He slashed administrative overhead and “looked at new sources of revenue with a passion.” Hirsch expanded children’s programs, now a key part of the school’s operations, and started charging a commission for booking Chicago musicians in jobs around the city, a service the school had previously offered for free, and more haphazardly. He also began knocking on the doors of philanthropic foundations, a task made tougher by frequent press reports suggesting the school was on the verge of closing. Within 12 months of Hirsch’s arrival, the school had received its first-ever foundation grant–$10,000 from the McCormick Charitable Trust–and shaved its annual operating deficit to $4,000. More grants followed, and by 1984 the school was operating in the black. In 1985 Hirsch launched an ambitious fund-raising campaign that netted the institution $648,000 to expand the school’s concert hall, open a retail music store, and add classrooms and office space.

Today the school’s annual budget is a whopping $2 million. About 75 percent of that reflects earned income; the rest comes from grants and other sources. Whether the school moves or not, Hirsch says, the organization will continue to grow only by remaining a “customer-driven” operation. “We constantly talk to our customers in formal ways, and with all the entertainment options they have available to them, we try to make choosing the Old Town School as easy and comfortable as possible for them.”

New Boss at Joseph Holmes

Late last week the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre board of directors selected Kevin “Iega” Jeff to replace former artistic director Randy Duncan, and already the company is in turmoil over the decision. In an interview last Sunday, Jeff said he intended to build the company over from scratch. “There will be auditions in Chicago and New York,” he said, for ten dancers, two apprentices, and four trainees. Jeff’s plans apparently came as a surprise to some members of the present company, who had been told, says one source, that they wouldn’t have to audition again when a new artistic director was named. “This kind of move is a slap in the face to the dancers who have been loyal to the company,” says Duncan, who had grown frustrated with the company’s constant financial struggles when he decided to leave about a year ago.

Earlier this week dancers met with board member Cheryl McWhorter to air their grievances and discuss Jeff’s appointment. One company member feared Jeff would hire all New York-based dancers to replace the current troupe. McWhorter says only that she never guaranteed the dancers employment with the company beyond May 15, when their annual 30-week contract expired. There was speculation from one observer that Jeff would seek to remold the company as an all-black troupe, as it was when Joseph Holmes founded it in 1974. But McWhorter insists the company will remain multiracial. “Jeff is committed to that and to forming a company with an Afrocentric perspective,” she says. According to Duncan, it was always Holmes’s intention for the company to be multiracial, and it has been since its second year. The company of ten dancers that performed last season was 40 percent African American, with the remainder a mix of white and Hispanic.

Over the past several months the company’s board of directors had narrowed the list of candidates to replace Duncan to two: Jeff and Dwight Rhoden, a senior dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Both finalists were brought to Chicago for interviews and to work with the dancers. According to McWhorter, Jeff finally got the nod because he had stronger artistic leadership skills: “Artistic direction was what the company was lacking.” For the past 12 years Jeff has led his own company of 25 dancers based in New York, Jubilation, which he says will continue to perform on some level after he assumes his new post. Jubilation performed at the Dance Center of Columbia College in 1990. Jeff studied dance at New York’s High School of the Performing Arts and the Juilliard School and first performed professionally as a cast member in the Broadway production of the musical The Wiz in 1978.

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