Bye-Bye Arts Y

Officials won’t confirm it, but word is the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts, conceived less than a decade ago as a cultural jewel for the near-west side, is a goner. Located on the corner of Roosevelt and Morgan in UIC’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, the building is apparently about to be sold. Congo Square Theatre Company, entering its third season of residency at the center, has been told to find a new home by the end of the year, and the Y’s own paltry programming for the fall has been canceled. Spokesperson Lee Concha, who admits only that the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago is “exploring the possibility of a sale,” claims the arts concept never worked: “It’s a case of ‘we built it and they didn’t come.'” But people familiar with the center say Metro Y has been operating it in “closing mode” for several years, failing to provide the marketing and support it needed to succeed.

The Duncan Y, endowed by Addressograph inventor Joseph Duncan, has offered social services at this location since 1982. Eight years ago, with donations from the Chernin Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and others, it was reborn as one of only seven arts-centric Ys in the country. The building got an 11,000-square-foot addition that included a recording studio, an enhanced dance studio, a nifty 220-seat theater (with dressing rooms, scenery shop, and loading dock), and an art gallery that doubled as the theater lobby. Playwright and director Ifa Bayeza was hired away from Court Theatre to be artistic director, and the center, which already had a successful dance education program, began producing and hosting professional theater for adults and children. But Bayeza left in 2002, the same year Metro Y came out $16 million in the red; and Duncan had a deficit of $380,000. The adult theater productions, which had yet to develop an audience, were dropped, and the center’s focus shifted to children’s arts education, which also never really got off the ground.

Concha says the Y had a full schedule of programs set for this fall and was forced to cancel them because of “lack of interest.” According to her, Duncan had less than 125 participants for the 2005 calendar year–a 300 percent decline since 2002–and “only 13 of last year’s participants came from zip codes in the immediate area.” She says the Y “could provide some arts programming at our other centers without the added expense of maintaining that building.” But former Chernin training academy head Wilson Cain questions those numbers, noting that hundreds of kids who came to the center for free programs and Congo Square performances aren’t getting counted. (Adam Thuman, executive director of Congo Square, says the two plays the company produced at the center last year had a total attendance of 5,000; he expects that number would’ve gone up by the end of this coming season, since the company is bringing over its annual holiday program from the Goodman.) As for the zip codes, Cain says that as the city’s only arts Y, Duncan was intended to serve a larger area. Cain was let go two years ago, but he sayshis criticisms aren’t sour grapes: “It’s about the kids in ABLA and Barbara Jean Wright having an arts center to come to.”

Duncan Y board member Don Lord, who spearheaded development of the center, notes the rapid change in the community and says it’s “disappointing,” but it’s worth more to Metro Y “to have it for real estate purposes than it is to have a Y and an arts center there. We all feel bad about it, but so goes life.” Chernin Shoe Outlet CEO Randy Schifrin, now an “inactive” board member, says “it’s very sad for the kids and the community. In my opinion, unfortunately, they put the almighty dollar ahead of the kids.”

The League Cuts Its Losses

League of Chicago Theatres board president Roche Schulfer, addressing a minuscule press turnout after last week’s members’ meeting at the Goodman Theatre, responded to claims published by PerformInk editor Carrie Kaufman that the Audience Group, a Louisville-based program publisher, had offered its services to the league after Stagebill tanked four years ago, leaving Chicago theaters stranded. Kaufman says former league CEO Marj Halperin never presented the Audience Group’s proposal to the board, which instead took a dicey leap into the program-publishing business. “Let me be clear about this,” Schulfer said. “In August 2002 no other vendor or publisher was offering to provide free programs for all the members, and no other vendor or publisher was offering to provide programs that promoted Chicago theater in their content.”

Schulfer says the league had planned to finance its program, ChicagoPlays, with start-up grants for two years while an advertising base was built. But the ad base never materialized, and by the end of last year ChicagoPlays had run up a debt of about $400,000. “We should have recognized the economic reality of it before 2005 and made plans to divest ourselves of the business,” Schulfer said. “As chairman I take responsibility for that along with the rest of the board. It was a mistake.” He says the debt, apparently negotiated down, has now been retired, and two vendors–Footlights and Playbill–are providing programs that will have “better content and at least comparable if not better terms” than what was being offered four years ago. But the league is still tightening its belt: Theater Guide, its long-standing bimonthly, is in danger of going exclusively online, and there’s no effort under way to find a replacement for executive director Deanna Shoss, who left at the end of June to “pursue other opportunities.”


Last week alderman Burt Natarus asked the city zoning committee to undo a change it had given the Three Arts Club, now that the club’s $24 million expansion has been abandoned and the building’s up for sale. Neighbors feared the higher zoning would allow a developer greater leeway. The committee approved the reversal; Natarus says it’ll go before the City Council on September 13. . . . The Gay Games sold about 15,500 individual tickets for its opening event at Soldier Field, and about 10,000 for the closing at Wrigley Field, according to Games official Kevin Boyer. A nearly equal number of athletes and sponsors–whose tickets were included in their packages–also attended. The figures aren’t in yet, but Boyer projects that commemorative DVD sales, getting under way now, will contribute to a financial surplus. . . . One producer’s glut is another’s festival: attend any one of the four Christopher Durang plays being produced at area theaters this fall with a stub or program from any of the others and you’ll get $5 off your ticket. Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, which initiated the co-op effort, is doing The Vietnamization of New Jersey, Infamous Commonwealth Theatre has scheduled Betty’s Summer Vacation, and Next Theatre Company will offer Miss Witherspoon. It all starts with a double bill, The Actor’s Nightmare and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, opening August 11 at Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway. . . . Lawyer, playwright, theater founder, Republican fund-raiser, and Winnetka native Gary Cole, whose appointment to a top post in the Bush NEA was scuttled after word got out that he’d produced a video of the play Poona the Fuckdog, has written a book about it all. He’ll read from Artless: The Odyssey of a Republican Cultural Creative at 7:30, August 11, at Borders, 2817 N. Clark.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Carlos J. Ortiz.