Talk Ain’t Cheap

“The point of a nonprofit is not to generate more grants,” says philanthropist Lisa Yun Lee. “It’s to change the world.” This is how Lee explains her decision to seek a home for the Public Square, the organization she founded nearly five years ago in the heady days after her husband’s e-business went public and made him a paper billionaire. It’s an “adult adoption,” she says, and the new parent is the Illinois Humanities Council. That means the Public Square is also going public: the IHC gets 80 percent of its support from the federal and state governments. And the “adoption” includes a financial exit strategy for Lee, who’s been Public Square’s major source of support, contributing $1 million since its inception.

The Public Square, initially launched as the chilly-sounding Center for Public Intellectuals, is meant to bridge the gap between theorists and political action. While Lee’s husband, Marc Ewing, rode his tech company, Red Hat, up the e-stock bubble with prices as high as $267 per share before a split (it’s now trading at about $12), she was completing a dissertation in German studies that had her itching to bring society and its thinkers together. The Center for Public Intellectuals started out with lectures by high-profile academics; as the Public Square it’s created programs that sponsor discussions of cultural, social, and political issues in Chicago neighborhoods. They include Cafe Society, weekly coffee-shop conversations greased by e-mail preparation and paid moderators; Know More (there’s a name they ought to take another look at), a discussion series in West Englewood; and most recently a documentary film series, “Civic Cinema,” which sponsored a free screening of Born Into Brothels last weekend.

“Most of the people we were working with are idea generators,” Lee says. “The business of running a nonprofit was weighing us down.” Also, she adds, “It was stupid for us to pay for space.” The Public Square ran a deficit of $68,000 on a $360,000 budget in 2003 and a $44,000 deficit the year before. After a potential affiliation with the University of Illinois at Chicago didn’t pan out, Lee says she interviewed a “bunch” of organizations and decided that the IHC, which had already funded some Public Square programs, was the best match. She says the arrangement will facilitate expansion beyond Chicago: “We had been looking nationally and thought we should try this statewide first.” The Public Square has already moved into the IHC office at 203 N. Wabash.

The IHC has been around as the local legs of the National Endowment for the Humanities for 30 years. It’s neither a federal nor a state agency, though in 2004 it received 42 percent of its $2.2 million budget from the feds and 38 percent from the state. It claims to reach millions of people through the documentary films and exhibitions it funds, and last year counted 218,000 at lectures, readings, and discussions it produced. IHC executive director Kristina Valaitis says the missions of the two organizations mesh well and that the IHC will benefit from the Public Square’s ability to “get diverse audiences together and do programming quickly.” She plans to expand the Cafe Society program, which Public Square says reached 6,000 people through 300 events in Chicago last year, bringing it to places like Carbondale and Rockford.

The arrangement calls for a series of diminishing grants from Lee. She’ll contribute $70,000 of the Public Square’s projected budget of up to $200,000 this year and less in each of the next two years. At the end of three years she’ll be off the hook, with the IHC taking over all financial responsibility. Lee says she won’t be walking away even then, but she’d like to teach (her dissertation, Dialectics of the Body: Corporeality in the Philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno, has just been published by Routledge), and she says that “like everyone else” her financial situation has changed since the dot-com bust. She thinks of what she’s done so far as “venture philanthropy.” Now, she says, it’s time for the public to buy in.

ART’s New Czar


Dragging the river for bodies

to apply for their jobs.

Poet Richard Friedman penned this little ditty, perhaps after the last time we spoke: he was on the way out the door after nine years as managing director at Northlight Theatre. In any case, it’s not a problem he has anymore. At the end of January, Art Resources in Teaching announced that Friedman is its new executive director. (Former director Jeanne Becker has reportedly stepped down to write and work as a consultant; she was traveling and couldn’t be reached.) ART has been putting artists into schools since its founding as the Chicago Public School Art Society by Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams in 1894; with a budget of more than $1 million, it reaches 30,000 children annually. Friedman, a co-owner of the revamped Lakeshore Theater, has a long resume that includes posts such as managing director at Organic Theatre in the last of its good old days and founder of the now defunct Arts Bridge incubator. He’s also published poetry and taught it in Chicago schools. He says he warned the board that he’s “not good at maintenance” and “no one said go slow.” It’ll be his job to increase visibility; maybe he should cast a poet’s eye on that generic name.

Art Show-a-Go-Go

Count Leslie Hindman out of this year’s new Navy Pier art show, Chicago Contemporary and Classic. Hindman, who was to head up the antiques component, says she decided to exit after the show was abruptly moved up a week. It now runs April 29 to May 2, overlapping with a major antiques show on the west coast. CC&C plans to offer antiques without her. . . . Michael Workman’s trading the Artboat he’s run during Art Chicago for the last couple of years for a land-based exhibit in the West Loop, with trolley service to and from the pier. The Nova Young Art Fair, sponsored by Workman’s Bridge magazine and planned for April 28 to May 1 at 857 W. Fulton Market, will offer 30 booths at $2,500 each plus some less expensive “project” spaces, Workman says. Meanwhile, Thomas Blackman will move the Stray Show of emerging galleries, previously held on Kingsbury, to his Art Chicago tent on Butler Field by Millennium Park, April 28 to May 2.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.