I wish I could whip your back

But that won’t help me

–Jill Scott, “Haiku #2”

It was hot May 9. Poetry Center of Chicago head Ken Clarke says he worked up a bit of a sweat hauling boxes of books and other paraphernalia into the Art Institute’s Rubloff Auditorium to set up for a much anticipated reading that night by neosoul diva Jill Scott. St. Martin’s Press had just brought out Scott’s first book of poetry, The Moments, the Minutes, the Hours, and the publisher had called the Poetry Center a couple of months earlier to see if they’d be interested in hosting an event. Clarke says he threw himself into promoting it, working with WGCI and V103, among others, to get the word out. There would be a reading followed by a signing, and he was expecting about 800 people. More than 400 tickets had been sold in advance; another 250 or so had been given away, mostly to students; and he expected to sell 100 more at the door. (About 50 people had tickets that included a postevent fund-raiser.) Scott had come to town the previous day and was on local TV that morning, promoting the reading. But at 3:30, three hours before it was to begin, Clarke’s cell phone rang. It was St. Martin’s publicist Stephen Lee with word of a problem: Scott was threatening not to show up; she objected to the ticket charge.

That was when Clarke really started to sweat. “Everything was done in advance with her publisher,” he says. “They were doing a seven-city book tour. We said, ‘We need to charge a ticket price to cover expenses.’ They said, ‘What do you usually charge?’ We said, ‘For this venue, $35.’ They said, ‘That’s expensive. Why don’t you do $25?'” The Poetry Center also agreed to price student tickets at $10, to “give away its profit” by handing out free tickets, and to help promote a free Scott reading May 10 at African American Images, a south-side bookstore. Now, all of a sudden, “they wanted me to provide financials on the event,” Clarke says. “I said, ‘We have to cover our costs.'” He was still on the phone when School of the Art Institute vice president Jonathan Lindsay rushed over. Lindsay had received a call from a Chicago Tribune reporter who’d been told by Scott during an interview earlier in the day that she was bailing out in protest. According to the Tribune’s subsequent story, Scott said, “How are you going to charge people $25 to get in and then expect them to pay $18 additional for the book? I want them to get their money back.”

Clarke, however, says that when he offered to refund the ticket money he was refused. “We were negotiating up to half an hour before the show was supposed to start, saying, ‘There’s got to be something we can do–we have fans here, we have 250 books here,'” Clarke says. “Finally we said, ‘OK, if the issue is tickets, we’ll refund everybody, just so these people standing outside right now get a show.’ They wouldn’t even do that.” The doors were to open at 5:30 for the 6:30 event; at about 6, with “people lined up down the block,” Clarke, Lindsay, and the event staff hit the street with hastily duplicated flyers explaining that Scott had canceled and refunds would be forthcoming. “The best thing was that the people there for the reading were gracious,” Clarke says. “They were just as bewildered as we were.”

According to Clarke, all tickets have been refunded and the Poetry Center is out about $10,000 in promotional and event costs. He says it’s the center’s first last-minute cancellation in 32 years, and he’s hoping St. Martin’s will help cover it. But the loss was more than financial: Quraysh Ali Lansana, director of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center and an assistant professor at Chicago State University, who was to introduce Scott that night, says, “This was a wonderful opportunity for the Poetry Center to be introduced to a huge new largely African-American audience.” Lansana doesn’t buy Scott’s explanation that the people she intended the book to reach couldn’t afford the ticket price: “Her CDs retail for $18.99, and the book costs 20 bucks,” he says. “Hundreds of people chose to pay for tickets and parking and come to hear her read. And she decided, an hour or two before the event, not to show up.”

Karen Taylor, a spokesperson for Scott, says Scott became suspicious when the Poetry Center asked what kind of sound system she’d need. “We were told it was a signing with a Q and A afterwards,” Taylor says. “But they had sold tickets, and it was billed as a 45-minute performance. Once you start charging money you have expectations. She couldn’t deliver what was being billed.” Clarke, who maintains he asked St. Martin’s about the sound system a month in advance, says the Poetry Center uses “reading” and “performance” interchangeably. “We don’t do book signings without a reading, and her publisher knew that.”

Blackman Victorious–But Don’t Cash That Check Just Yet

“This show was a miracle,” Thomas Blackman says about his transplanted Art Chicago in Butler Field. While Chicago Contemporary & Classic, which bumped him off Navy Pier this year, generated all the excitement of a well-appointed graveyard, Blackman’s tent behind the Art Institute was jammed and buzzing. “Attendance was about 14,000,” Blackman says, “about where we were last year,” and “dealers were thrilled with the accessibility and parking for the site.” Last Friday, as the last of his tent floor was coming up, he got a preliminary nod from the Park District to return next year.

Word is, however, that his workers had to wait for checks or sit on them. “Things have been tight,” Blackman admits. “We just told people to hang on for a while. Everyone that worked for us is getting paid.”

CC&C head Ilana Vardy says attendance there was about 8,000, much less than the 25,000 they’d anticipated. The plan is to be back, she says, but “there’s a lot of issues. We’re talking to exhibitors, getting feedback.” Chicago dealers like Richard Norton and Carrie Secrist, who did both shows, noted the “low gate” at the pier and the “energy” at the Blackman event. Secrist thinks both fairs could continue if the pier became more “blue-chip and old master,” like the New York Armory show. As for Blackman, “I’m really proud of him for pulling it off, but he should get a bigger tent,” says Secrist, who bashed her head on a Carolyn Ottmers sculpture she was showing and had to be stapled back together at the hospital. No matter–she sold the piece.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/lloyd DeGrane, Keith Major.