After 20 years of nonprofit programming, this was supposed to be a time for celebration at HotHouse. Instead what’s been playing out at the music and performance venue since last summer is a classic institutional tragedy: a runaway board fighting a possessive founder while the organization they both claim to serve suffers for it. Seven months after the HotHouse board officially dismissed founder and executive director Marguerite Horberg, programming has been cut back, staff has been slashed from eight full-timers to one, and a call has gone out for $220,000 in donations to be raised by the end of the year–$70,000 of it by June 30. A public meeting held last month to kick off the fund-raising effort was, according to board president Martin Bishop, “derailed” by Horberg supporters who monopolized the microphone. Members have been asked to help “Re-ignite the HotHouse,” but the only thing blazing is the battle.

What led to Horberg’s departure from the institution she grew from a Milwaukee Avenue bar to an internationally known performance center was the board’s desire to control finances. They wanted to bring in a business manager who’d report directly to them and demote her, as Horberg saw it, to artistic director. Bishop says Horberg agreed with the need for someone to run the business side–he claims to be stumped by her turn against this plan. But it’s clear that what she had in mind was a business manager who’d report to her. Bishop also says the organization managed its finances poorly, lacked appropriate insurance, owed taxes, and had no contingency plans or financial reserves. In 2005 the HotHouse budget was $1.6 million. Figures for last year weren’t available, but Bishop says the “optimistic” $1.4 million the board budgeted for 2007 won’t be reached. HotHouse is also in litigation with its landlord over the terms of its lease.

After Horberg was suspended last summer, she predicted that the venue’s funders would follow her out the door. Bishop discounted that possibility at the time, but this week he said grants and donations, which had made up about 20 percent of the budget, were “way down,” and the current fund-raising drive is mostly an effort to replace lost unearned income. His initial “perception” was that Horberg and her friends had “poisoned the funding community,” choking off foundation support. After checking, however, Bishop reported that only two foundation grants–$25,000 from Prince Charitable Trust and $10,000 from the Field Foundation–had not been renewed. As for the rest: “Marguerite also took her individual donors with her.”

Bishop says Horberg’s supporters have verbally attacked him and “humiliated” him at last month’s meeting. But he maintains that employees who say they suffered under Horberg’s management have thanked him for changing things, and other people are still telling him they want to help. “The good story about HotHouse is people really love it. We bring in acts you’re not going to see anywhere else. If this place goes out of business because one person got her feelings so hurt she’s willing to destroy the whole institution she gave birth to, it’s a sad state of affairs. That’s the dynamic: people love HotHouse and she wants to crush it.”

Horberg says she’s working on two new ventures: a HotHouse-style club in New York, slated to open in fall ’08, and a project on the south side of Chicago where music would be one component. She says she’s still waiting to get back equipment and personal property from HotHouse, including art, archives, photos, and records. According to Horberg, there are people who would like to step in, put together a new board, and salvage the organization in its current space, but she says “a lot of those efforts have been rebuffed.” Horberg says many of HotHouse’s funders signed a letter in her support last summer that the board ignored, and current board members “are not part of the community that built HotHouse or funded it. They’ve alienated most of the people who cared about it so much.” Former board member Angela Spinazze says she hasn’t seen any positive results from this board: “As far as I can tell, all they’ve done is bankrupt the place and lay off the staff.”

Horberg says she could see herself going back if the current board stepped down. And Bishop maintains that “if somebody wants to come in with the financial means and expertise to run this organization at the board level, we’ll all happily walk away. We just care about HotHouse surviving. But their response is always ‘no, you resign first.’ It’s just empty, harmful rhetoric.” In the meantime, Horberg says, time is passing and she hears that the organization’s debt is rising: “There’s a real sense of sadness. It was more than a music venue–people proposed there, got married there. People who didn’t feel comfortable at a lot of other places were comfortable there. All these people invested something of themselves over the 20 years.”

Grand Crossing Needs Artists

The last time I talked to developer Andy Schcolnik, two years ago, he was launching a plan to build artists’ housing in the Strand Hotel on the south side. That plan was stalled by recently defeated alderman Arenda Troutman, he says, but under new ward leadership he expects it to fly. Meanwhile he’s come up with another idea for developing artists’ housing, which he’ll plug Saturday, April 21, at the Creative Chicago Expo at the Cultural Center. Civitas Development and Schcolnik’s Ansco Construction are partners in the for-profit South Greenwood Artists’ Lofts and Townhouses–51 units at 75th and Greenwood (in the Grand Crossing neighborhood), which they’re hoping to construct under the city’s New Homes for Chicago program. The work/live units will be about 1,100 square feet and will sell to qualified buyers (incomes of up to $60,300 for two-person households and $52,800 for singles) for $195,000, with potential city mortgage subsidies of up to $40,000. Civitas owner Jacques Sandberg (a community development specialist in his day job at the Illinois Facilities Fund) says the city approached them with the idea and has donated the property. The project will consist of 27 loft units in a rehabbed factory and 24 new concrete town houses. They’re taking the names of prospective buyers; completion is expected in fall ’08.

Poof, You’re a VIP

Tickets are now available for Symposium C6, originally planned as an invitation-only perk for Art Chicago VIPs. The three-day event, beginning April 26, will pose questions like “What does art look like now?” and “Why does it matter?” Unfolding on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion, it’ll feature luminaries like director Peter Sellars and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Tickets are $250 for the whole thing, including Art Chicago’s opening-night preview, or $100 for a single day (including lunch). A limited number of students and faculty from five local colleges have been offered $10 tickets. For more see

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): HotHouse; proposed artists’ housing; symposium speakers (clockwise from left) Peter Sellars, Hiro Yamagata, Anna Deavere Smith, and Jennifer Siegal photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni (HotHouse) Kevin Higa (Sellars), office of Mobile Design (Siegal).