Why Don’t We Live Together

Unlike some other former tenants of Wicker Park’s Flat Iron Building, the Near Northwest Arts Council has found a way to stay in West Town. As artists are increasingly being priced out of the neighborhood they helped to make fashionable, NNWAC is putting together the city’s first artist-owned cooperative housing complex, which it expects to be completed by next summer. Dubbed the Acme Artists Cooperative, the project will be carved out of an old warehouse purchased for $275,000. With a final price tag of $1.6 million, the completed complex will house up to 20 artists and three not-for-profit arts organizations. Plans call for individual apartments to open onto a common atrium at the center of the 40,000 square-foot building at 2418 W. Bloomingdale.

Artists’ housing cooperatives have proved to be welcome additions in other cities like Minneapolis, Baltimore, and Seattle, despite some concerns that artists might not have the financial wherewithal to keep them going. But Saint Paul arts consultant Jan Plimpton published a study last year that dispels many of these doubts. In her report, Plimpton noted that nonpayment of rent is rare in cooperatives: an average of only one tenant is evicted each year from properties that have been operating for five to ten years. Plimpton also found that turnovers in cooperatives are far less frequent than in buildings of comparable size.

The Acme project has generated considerable interest within the local arts community. When NNWAC first announced the project, it received more than 500 applications. After a careful review of financial backgrounds, 17 artists were chosen to become the complex’s first residents. The vast majority are visual artists, but the community also will include multimedia and theater artists. Among the first to reside in the Acme cooperative will be visual artist Raul Ortiz Bonilla, a divorced father of two who supplements his income with construction work. Bonilla says he’s been waiting a long time for something like the Acme project. “This will allow us to not have to worry about our rents increasing and will give us peace of mind,” he says. Another of the first tenants will be Miguel Lopez Lemus, who likes the fact that Acme will provide an affordable space where he can both live and work.

Acme project director Laura Weathered says she wants to keep the total number of artist residents at 17 for now to allow for the possible creation of larger duplex units when construction begins early next year. The Near Northwest Arts Council and the Community TV Network are already scheduled to occupy spaces in the new facility. Initially, each tenant will pay $3,000 to become a shareholder in the building. That will give the tenant the tax benefits available to any property owner, though the mortgage on the Acme building will technically be held by a corporation comprising all the building residents. Any shareholder wanting to get out of the project will have to sell his share back to the corporation. If he leaves after five years or less, his share will only fetch the $3,000 he originally paid. If he stays longer, he’ll get $3,000 plus 7 percent annual interest. Individual monthly payments will vary from $300 to $700 for apartments ranging in size from 900 to 2,000 square feet; the average will be $574 a month, according to Weathered.

The Acme project took six years to put together because it was difficult to obtain financing to purchase the property. A $120,000 grant from the Chicago Community Loan Fund finally made the acquisition of the property possible. The project also was slowed by the difficulty of finding an affordable building. As Weathered and her partners soon discovered, most of the available properties are being snapped up by real estate developers looking to make big bucks.

Seceding From the Union

In an effort to save money and return a profit to his investors, Rob Kolson is mounting Gentlemen Prefer Bonds, his new play with Aaron Freeman, as a non-Equity production. The show, about an investment banker turned street musician, is scheduled to begin previews October 2 at the Apollo Theater. Freeman and Kolson previously teamed up for the long-running hit Do the White Thing, which was produced under Equity agreements. Kolson says he personally pulled out of the actors’ union two years ago, while Freeman left within the past few months to allow Kolson to mount the new show more cheaply. The new arrangement means Kolson can avoid hiring a union stage manager or paying for health benefits required by Actors’ Equity. Kolson says instead he’ll provide health benefits to his employees through his own producing company, Rob Kolson Creative Productions Inc. The non-Equity mounting will also allow him to lower ticket prices and potentially bring in more customers. The top ticket for Gentlemen Prefer Bonds will be $28.50, well below the typical off-Loop high of $39.50.

Big Wind Blows Into Town

Gregory Henderson’s collection of character sketches, Big Wind on Campus!, wound up at the Victory Gardens Studio Theater through a strange turn of events. In the fall of 1995 Henderson, the show’s star and author, was staying at the home of a patron of the Downstairs Cabaret Theatre in Rochester, New York, where an early version of the show was being presented. Henderson’s host happened to own a Miami Beach condominium in the same complex as Chicago philanthropist Harvey Burstein. Henderson contacted Burstein in Miami Beach, and Burstein saw the show when it reached Florida and loved it. Burstein then sent a videotape of the show to Victory Gardens artistic director Dennis Zacek. So now Henderson is ensconced at Victory Gardens with his unique collection of oddball characters, which he’s been honing since 1994.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jon Randolph.