State of the Arts

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s voluminous study on the arts in Chicago, released last week after a year in the making, could prompt some serious, substantive talk about problems confronting the arts in Chicago. The report’s first 157 pages (out of a total of more than 260) are filled with the concerns of the city’s arts organizations as expressed in a series of focus groups conducted in early 1990. The issues discussed range from audience development to space needs to financial stability to arts education, and the findings, not surprisingly, are generally not upbeat: arts education is lacking in the city’s troubled public school system, performing arts groups are desperate for more and better spaces in which to work and perform, and arts leaders fear that corporate and philanthropic support will not keep pace with rising operating budgets in the 1990s.

The, MacArthur report also addresses two other thorny issues: the city government’s lack of cultural leadership and media coverage of the arts. MacArthur program officer Nick Rabkin, a former city deputy cultural commissioner who had a hand in writing the report’s introduction, says he gleaned from its findings a strong message: “What the report does in a variety of ways is clearly demonstrate there is a lack of understanding of the importance of the city’s cultural life in the eyes of the media and our civic and public leadership.”

Much has been written in this column about Mayor Daley’s cultural outlook as evidenced in the activities of cultural commissioner Lois Weisberg. The politically astute Weisberg managed to keep a low profile while Daley campaigned for reelection in recent months. Among other things, she delayed taking a stance on the Cultural Center and stayed out of the limelight during a discussion of the $300 million performing arts center proposed to house the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Weisberg’s low profile merely reflects Daley’s ignorance and lack of leadership in the realm of the arts. Cultural life is not one of the mayor’s strong suits, and it’s doubtful it ever will be. Unless pressure is continually brought to bear on Weisberg and the mayor by an aggressive arts constituency, the arts will remain a peripheral issue in a vapid city government that may be around for a long, long time.

As for the media, anyone who has tried to find sustenance in the dailies’ impoverished arts coverage will not find the MacArthur report particularly surprising. “The weariness that is mentioned by the press is sometimes their own,” said one theater focus-group participant. Noted a dance administrator, “There is no newspaper that gives the kind of importance to the arts that the New York Times does in New York City.”

Indeed, puffery and the most cursory of criticism predominate at the Tribune and the Sun-Times. They seem content to fill their pages with perfunctory advance pieces on whatever is passing through town, only occasionally deigning to address the work of local arts organizations. Neither paper appears to understand that arts coverage has to delve beyond the painfully obvious if it is to be of value to either readers or the arts community.

Though arts executives discussed their displeasure with the media’s arts coverage in the relative safety of focus groups, they have not demonstrated much willingness to protest the situation publicly. In the past they have talked off the record, but to go public, they say repeatedly, could mean retribution. The leaders of large arts organizations such as the Goodman Theatre and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–those with the least to lose from taking a stand on improving media coverage–aren’t likely to do so because of their cozy relationships with entrenched cultural media figures.

If Chicago’s arts community really wants a change in the attitude of city government and an improvement in media coverage, it will have to make an organized, vocal, and ongoing commitment to effecting change. The arts are no longer a stepchild in Chicago, and it’s high time members of the arts community started acting like grown-ups.

Who’s Moving Into 1034 W. Barry?

Resurrection Lutheran Church has yet to sell the building it owns at 1034 W. Barry, which formerly housed the defunct MoMing Dance & Arts Center Developer Todd Main, who had planned to buy the building and convert it into condominiums, has been unable to finance the purchase. This turn of events comes as a surprise to former MoMing board president Catherine Pines: “The church insisted the sale was a fait accompli.” Main’s purchase price was approximately $435,000 (MoMing offered around $350,000). As of early this week, Main said he still was awaiting word from the banks about his financing. Meanwhile, Resurrection pastor Stephen Swanson says the church is entertaining other offers. One interested party is the Frank M. Rodde Fund, a gay and lesbian community organization that wants the building, among others, as a site for gay- and lesbian-related arts events. Last week, Swanson conceded that he and the church elders had not looked favorably on MoMing’s original offer to buy the building because of bad blood between the church and MoMing and doubts about the financially strapped organization’s ability to finance the acquisition. Pines insists MoMing’s offer was solid: “We guaranteed them we would come up with the cash.” But Pines also admits the dance organization was eight months behind in its rent at the time of the discussions.

It’s Curtains for The Speed of Darkness

The $400,000 Broadway production of The Speed of Darkness, directed by the Goodman Theatre’s Robert Falls, folded last Saturday, only a month after it opened to mixed reviews. With a top ticket price of $24, Speed–which received its world premiere at the Goodman–failed to gross the $70,000 or so a week needed to cover operating expenses. Michael Cullen, Sheila Henaghan, and Howard Platt served as the shows associate producers in New York in what may be their last project as an active producing trio.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.