Starving Artistes

Wanna grab a seat on what should be the hottest board in town? Chicago Opera Theater president Dororthy Osborn Walton is looking to fill a half dozen of them right now, as COT launches into its third season in the Harris Theater and sixth under resident genius and general director Brian Dickie. But Walton’s unabashed about the requirements: she wants folks with a pipeline to deep corporate pockets. COT, whose provocative productions showcase flawless performances of some of the most esoteric material around, has an international reputation for high culture that pops but is still living paycheck to paycheck. With no endowment and no cash cushion it operates on a shoestring, one misstep away from extinction. This board, Walton notes, has not been a place for the fainthearted.

That was never more obvious than during the 2004 season. The company had just taken the dicey step of relocating from the 900-seat Athenaeum in Lakeview to the Harris’s 1,400-seat venue on the north edge of what was becoming Millennium Park. But the park was still a hard-hat zone, people didn’t know where the theater was, and the company had its own identity issues. (“There are still a lot of people in Chicago, even among those who love opera, who don’t know about COT,” Walton says.) Ticket sales fell short of expectations, and expenses at the Harris, where the rent was $4,000 a day and union labor was mandated, were 30 percent higher than in the old location. They’d barely completed their season opener–an acclaimed production of L’incoronazione di Poppea–when they ran out of money.

At an emotionally charged meeting a faction of the COT board voiced concern about management and viability, citing everything from a failure to cut expenses to Dickie’s attitude. They discussed shutting the company down unless drastic changes were made; when the rest of the board balked, five of them–including the chairman–resigned. According to a former board member they left in frustration. But Walton says she thinks there was a fear factor. “People didn’t want to take the risk, personally or professionally, in case it didn’t work. We lost some good people and I thought to myself, what do we do now? But the rest of the board kept calling, saying, ‘Let’s just keep going,’ and I couldn’t really picture folding. I know how to keep it going; I don’t know how to shut it down.”

COT racked up a $290,000 deficit over its $3.2 million budget that year and was able to stay alive only because several board members came to the rescue with loans–and it didn’t get easier in 2005. While the product continued to knock everybody’s socks off, attendance, which had risen from about 10,000 at the Athenaeum to more than 14,000 the first year at the Harris, dropped slightly. Determined not to have another deficit, Walton says, they took a knife to the budget and managed to close out the year in the black–though “just barely.”

The 2006 season, which opened with a typically quirky double bill of 17th- and 18th-century works, The Padlock and Dido and Aeneas, and is budgeted at $3 million, looks like a turning point to Walton. The Millennium Park location has blossomed into a greater asset than anyone could have anticipated during those tough days two years ago, and the season’s closer, Nixon in China (with composer John Adams present and a China-themed gala in the works), is expected to generate even more than the usual buzz. Still, Walton, a senior vice president at Northern Trust, is the only member of the COT board with a corporate affiliation, and after ten years as president she’s ready to hand off the baton. She just needs to find someone with the pockets and guts for the job.

Also Strapped

A brand-new name wasn’t the only thing the Chicago Historical Society acquired last week. The day before CHS announced it would dump the snobby old S-word and henceforth be known as the Chicago History Museum, it took on $51 million in debt, about half of it new. President Gary Johnson says the museum issued low-interest bonds to refinance existing debt and raise money to cover the rehab of 75 percent of its public space, which began December 5 and is now pegged at $27.5 million. CHS ran a $1.5 million deficit last year and projects a $1 million loss this year while everything but its research center is closed. But Johnson expects a surge of visitors when the museum reopens, which, along with a new-and-improved wedding and event space featuring the “longest unobstructed view of the lake in the city,” he says will soon have the organization operating in the black. He says the budget for next year has been set conservatively at $10 million, and adult admission–a suggested donation of $5 before the museum closed–will likely jump to $12.

A former securities lawyer with a reputation as a fund-raiser, and the first nonhistorian to head the museum, Johnson has been on the job since August. So far $22 million has been raised in a capital campaign with a goal that equals the rehab cost, $2 million of it under his watch. The cash-strapped museum has been drawing money from its $70 million endowment to cover construction bills, and Johnson says all of the donated funds will go to replenish and build the endowment. The Chicago History Museum will open September 30 with a new costume and textile gallery, a children’s gallery, and twice as much space for the Chicago history galleries, which will thereafter be known as the Exelon Chicago History Galleries.

Just Plain Busted

Left of Center bookstore is closing just two years after it opened in an Edgewater storefront. In spite of “a nice, solid group of regulars,” owner Arlene Levey says she’s “deeply in debt and can’t swing it anymore.” She’s selling the stock and fixtures at deep discounts and expects to be out by the end of the month.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz, Liz Lauren.