Sticker Shock

Though the theater going up at Cityfront Center is at least two and a half years from completion, the 12 music and dance organizations expected to become its primary tenants have already gotten a taste of how expensive it will be to operate in the new 1,500-seat venue, to be known as the Chicago Music and Dance Theater. Certain aspects of the proposals submitted to the groups two weeks ago are open to negotiation, but the basic terms and fee structure shocked many of the building’s potential users. According to Dance Center of Columbia College executive director Julie Simpson, “It’s a real complicated situation, and I think they are going to have to make some revisions in what their expectations are.”

One part of the contract sure to cause problems is the provision calling for each group to make a $21,000 deposit. An initial payment of $5,000 would be due this May, followed by another $7,000 in December and a final $9,000 in July 1996–still well over a year before the theater’s proposed opening in late 1997. Several sources say the board of directors needs the cash up front to secure the project’s financing. “The bank wants to see a commitment from the arts organizations before they make a financing commitment,” says one source.

Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum executive director Carlos Tortolero thinks it’s unfair for the theater to demand the same deposit from every group and intends to bring the issue up to the Music and Dance Theater executives. “I think it should be prorated based on who is going to use it the most,” says Tortolero. He claims his organization initially plans to use the facility only a few nights a year for big presentations.

In addition to comforting nervous banking executives, the deposit will apparently be used as a guarantee against shortfalls in rental fees. One executive director was told his group can draw from its own deposit fund to come up with a contracted rental fee, but it will have to replenish the fund and maintain its deposit at $21,000.

Another potential problem for the arts groups is a venue-exclusivity clause that would prevent them from performing anyplace else within a 30-mile radius of the facility. Susan Lipman, executive director of Performing Arts Chicago, says the clause could be problematic for her group, which presents a wide range of productions in a variety of venues around the city. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago executive director Gail Kalver says she had already discussed her group’s annual performances at the Ravinia Festival with Music and Dance Theater executives and was told that the engagement “would not be a problem.” Simpson says it wouldn’t make sense to move the Dance Center’s annual Dance Africa event, which previously has been presented at the Medinah Temple, to the new theater. “It would cost me as much to do it at the Music and Dance Theater as it does at the Medinah Temple, and I can sell out 4,000 seats a performance at the Medinah,” explains Simpson. She said she would also petition Music and Dance Theater executives to be allowed to present summer events at the Skyline Stage on Navy Pier. With so many groups already talking about the need to use other facilities for at least some presentations, Music and Dance Theater executives could find it hard to keep the theater busy 52 weeks a year. With organizations such as the Dance Center looking to Navy Pier, the summer months are certain to be the most difficult to fill.

Along with the proposed contract, each group received estimates of rental fees tailored to its expected needs. Rates depend largely on the number of hours put in by union stagehands. The Old Town School of Folk Music was presented with estimates indicating it would cost $9,500 to present a concert in the new hall. Old Town executive director Jim Hirsch says he could rent the Vic, which seats 1,200, for approximately $3,200. “I don’t know if we can afford to produce in this hall,” says Hirsch bluntly.

Performing Arts Chicago’s proposed rental fees range from $51,000 for a three-performance engagement to $70,000 for six performances, which Lipman says is in line with fees charged by the Shubert Theatre, a 2,000-seat union house. “This will involve new rules for some of the players at the theater,” says Lipman, referring to arts groups that may not have previously dealt with unions.

High rental fees would almost certainly be passed along to the ticket buyer. “Much of our audience can’t afford $35 or $45 tickets,” says Simpson, explaining why the Dance Center doesn’t present more often at the Shubert.

Joyce A. Moffat, the theater’s recently hired general manager, and the various arts groups are likely to be discussing these issues for the next several weeks. “Everything is up for discussion,” says Moffat, who hopes the groups will sign and return letters of intent by the beginning of June.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/J.B. Spector.