Sins of No-Mission

What happens to an arts organization when it loses its artistic mission? That’s the question currently facing both the tiny, not-for-profit Puszh Studios and the better-established but currently directionless Organic Theater. In the Organic’s case the problem is how to rejuvenate both artistically and managerially from the slow downward spiral that began when founder Stuart Gordon left for Hollywood in the mid-80s. With Puszh Studios things are a little different: “It was never exactly clear what the focus of the facility was, and we are reevaluating what that should be,” says Tim Zingelman, president of the group’s three-person board of directors. Currently the board is trying to establish Puszh as a “multiarts-oriented” rental facility, and possibly as a home base for one or more of the city’s myriad dance and theater companies.

Founded in the mid-80s by dancer/choreographer David Puszh, Puszh Studios initially focused on presenting dance events in its cozy suite of spaces at 3829 N. Broadway. When it became apparent that dance alone could not support the venue, Puszh expanded to include theater, performance art, and other attractions; one of the company’s most popular events a few years ago was a series of cabaret evenings featuring performances by local musical theater stars.

But when David Puszh left the organization several months ago to concentrate on dance, the board brought in Chrisanne Blankenship as artistic director and started working on attracting new board members and bringing in more funding. Their efforts failed–one source who saw the financial records supplied to interested candidates at the time said they were not very likely to encourage anyone to join–and Blankenship bailed out. “It appeared the primary focus was going to be on rentals, and I didn’t think that required the services of an artistic director,” she says. Brad Waters arrived as general manager in December. So far he has had little luck signing up resident companies.

The Organic, on the other hand, has been under the leadership of an unwieldy artistic collective for the last two years, but the latest in a series of regimes since Gordon’s departure. When the company found itself on the verge of collapse last fall after an expensive main-stage production of Who Goes There? closed prematurely, it canceled all future main-stage production plans and relieved the collective of its managerial powers (though the group will continue to function as an ensemble affiliated with the Organic). Executive director Jeff Neal is now handling all business-related matters, while a three-person team (former members of the collective) is steering the company artistically. The company’s been bringing in income by renting its stages out; currently both the 400-seat main stage and both studios are filled.

To help get the company back on its feet both artistically and financially, the board recently brought in former Second City owner Bernie Sahlins; since he sold Second City Sahlins has done several consulting jobs, most recently for Court Theatre. One option the Organic is considering is selling its studio theaters and storefront space along Clark Street in order to concentrate on producing on the main stage. “We’re discussing many different options, and within six months we intend to have a long-range plan for the theater company,” says Neal.

Navy Pier’s New Tent

Curious Chicagoans will be able to see the first portion of the $150-million Navy Pier redevelopment in May, but they may need to bundle up. Last week pier officials released an architectural rendering of what the new $5-million theater pavilion is expected to look like: an arching, open-sided, Teflon-coated canvas tent. Raked seating for 1,500 will face a stage that measures 45 feet deep, 64 feet wide, and 34 feet high. According to architect Rick Fawell, who helped design the new structure, the material used in the pavilion’s cover is the same as that used in the new international airport that recently opened in Denver. But sources say the open-sided design, intended to give audiences spectacular views of the city while they face the stage, may have to be rethought. Pier officials still are unsure about whether or not the facility’s location, some 400 yards out into the water, will make things too windy for audiences and performers. Landscaping planned for the north side may protect the facility to some degree, but tent flaps may end up being added to the sides. It could take a couple of seasons to determine how much of the year the pavilion can be comfortably used. Right now pier officials are cautiously planning events only between late May and early September.

MCA’s Security Record Soiled

Tomorrow’s opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art of the show “Radical Scavengers(s): The Conceptual Vernacular in Recent American Art,” which includes nine paintings by the artist Ed Ruscha, provides an opportunity to relate the strange tale of another Ruscha work, a 1971 drawing called Soil, which is part of the museum’s permanent collection. The story was never reported, but Soil disappeared for four months last year, the first piece of art ever to vanish in the museum’s 26-year history. In a memorandum to all staff dated August 18, MCA chief executive Kevin Consey declared the work missing and announced that the police and the FBI had been contacted. He went on to say that an initial investigation had already been carried out, but asked all staffers to search offices and work areas. Staffers also were reminded to refer any public inquiries about the drawing to the museum’s director of public relations, Maureen King. Apparently Soil had not turned up by October 1, when Consey issued another memo, this time offering a $1,000 reward to any individual providing information leading to the recovery of the work, which is worth about $20,000. The money was never paid out, according to King, who says the drawing materialized unannounced in the mail in November, at which time the museum concluded its own investigation without uncovering a thief. A source said the MCA’s insurance company was continuing its investigation, however.

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