Shake-up at the Terra

Terra Museum founder and chief patron Daniel J. Terra has abruptly fired printing-company heir Robert Donnelley, who’s been the museum’s director since last winter. At his own request Donnelley’s appointment had not been widely publicized, and it appeared he was settling in for what he hoped would be a long tenure as, in his words, “an agent of change.” As recently as a month ago Donnelley, an art enthusiast and former banking executive who had served on the boards of several other cultural institutions, talked confidently in an interview about his long-term plans for the Terra Museum, including a possible move to a new location.

Terra chief financial officer Stuart Popowcer said last week that details concerning Donnelley’s dismissal were still sketchy. One source close to Donnelley said the fired director had told him that the apparent reason for the dismissal was a cocktail reception Donnelley had cohosted for Time writer Christopher Ogden to celebrate the recent publication of his biography of Pamela Harriman, currently serving as U.S. ambassador to France. Terra reportedly disliked certain aspects of the book and was livid when he discovered Donnelley was behind a party to honor its author. Terra was out of the country last week and unavailable for comment.

Donnelley, who didn’t return calls late last week, is the latest in a growing list of Terra directors to fall by the wayside. One of Donnelley’s presumed goals was to establish the museum as an institution independent of the imposing shadow of its mercurial and idiosyncratic founder. Popowcer said the search for another director was likely to begin soon.

The Secret Feasibility Study

Last week the board of trustees for the planned 1,500-seat theater at Cityfront Center, which would serve as a home for local music and dance companies, announced that they had selected architects for the project, a team led by the local firm of Hammond Beeby and Babka. What the trustees didn’t talk about publicly was the study they recently commissioned to assess the project’s feasibility. “It’s a snapshot of where we are right now and the climate in which we are carrying out the project,” Sandra Guthman, chairman of the board, said later–a snapshot not intended for public perusal, she added.

But one source who has read the report called it “a pretty serious critique of the place that looks at every dimension of the project, including the financial fundamentals.” While preparing her report several months ago, San Francisco-based consultant Melanie Beene apparently talked to executives at the nine organizations for which the theater is being built: Ballet Chicago, Performing Arts Chicago, the Chicago Sinfonietta, Chicago Opera Theater, Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Music of the Baroque, Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, and the Dance Center of Columbia College. Among the issues the report explores is whether these groups will use the new facility regularly enough to make it financially viable. It also remains to be seen whether all nine groups will even survive until the theater is open; completion is projected for 1997. A few of the companies, including Ballet Chicago and Chicago Opera Theater, have had serious and well-publicized financial problems in recent years.

The trustees are currently attempting to raise approximately $30 million to cover the cost of land acquisition, building construction, and an endowment for the facility. Guthman would not indicate how much is already committed to the project, but one source estimated it’s in the neighborhood of $15 million. Guthman did concede that raising money is “tough” and that the project is competing with several other cultural institutions seeking building capital, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera.

Meanwhile the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority has announced plans to build its own $40-million, 1,200-seat theater on redeveloped Navy Pier, which might also open as early as 1997. “What if the Pier theater opens and starts undercutting the rental fees charged by the new music and dance theater?” wonders one source. Should the Cityfront Center theater run into financial problems after it’s open, the trustees may be forced to ask local philanthropic foundations that are already funding the project

to cover any operating shortfalls–which, of course, would leave less grant money for the groups planning to use the theater.

Sins of Omission

Last Thursday’s intended unveiling of the 1,500-seat open-air Navy Pier Skyline Stage had its cataclysmic moments. Among them was the decision about six hours before the event to move it indoors because of high winds and predicted frigid evening temperatures. Then there was the dramatic behind-the-scenes confrontation that took place moments before the performance finally began–almost an hour late. A member of the Windy City Gay Chorus, one of the seven choral groups performing in a “thousand-voice” choir, discovered that the word “gay” had been deleted from the group’s name in the printed program. The program also listed the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus as the “Chicago Men’s Chorus” and Unison: Windy City Lesbian and Gay Singers as just “Unison.” When leaders of the groups realized at the last minute what had happened, they initially refused to participate. “There was no question in our minds it was willful discrimination,” says Windy City Gay Chorus artistic director Richard Garrin. Backstage management for Jam Productions, which produced the concert, attempted to negotiate a solution, and the three gay and lesbian singing groups eventually agreed to go on after they were assured an announcer would correctly introduce the choruses to the audience. Jam honcho Jerry Mickelson says his records indicate that his organization submitted program copy with the correct and full titles to the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which apparently was responsible for the final program editing and production. Pier director of marketing John Devona said he has not been able to come up with an explanation for the problem.

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