There’s No Price Lower Than Free

The air was sweatshop-stifling last Sunday in a packed room at Acme Art Works, where Open University of the Left hosted a screening of the anti-Wal-Mart documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. A few people fled the unhealthy environment, but those who stayed through the 95-minute polemic may be glad they did: last week Landmark Theatres quietly canceled its nationwide commercial run for the film, which was to open in Chicago December 16. Landmark has refused to explain, but it’s a move bound to provoke speculation: did Wal-Mart stretch a giant tentacle and snatch the run? A Landmark spokesman would only say that the cancellation “has nothing to do with the content of the film.” More likely, Internet DVD sales and thousands of free showings like the one at Acme were eating into the potential theater audience. Landmark, in effect, had been undersold.

The free showings, promoted at, are part of a grassroots campaign to create momentum for the film, a strategy director Robert Greenwald successfully exploited for his previous documentary, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. The Wal-Mart film marshals an army of familiar charges against the giant retailer, beginning with the way it knocks out local businesses and ending with security problems in its parking lots. Greenwald’s main point is that Wal-Mart’s low prices are subsidized in numerous ways by taxpayers: according to the film, the federal government shells out an estimated $1.5 billion annually to provide medical care and social services for the chain’s 1.3 million U.S. employees, while local governments continue to provide hefty subsidies to bring new Wal-Marts to town. And then there are those $3-a-day factory workers producing Wal-Mart products in China, and seamstresses in Bangladesh working for 13 cents an hour. More than 7,000 of the grassroots screenings were scheduled nationally this week, with some still to come in the Chicago area this weekend.

Wisdom Bridge Goes Condo?

Speaking of the elusive good deal, Wisdom Bridge Arts Project is about to announce that Rogers Park will get a new free community arts center–with a condominium attached. After years of dreaming, scheming, and persistence by the project’s real-estate-savvy five-member board, WBAP has purchased the old Wisdom Bridge Theatre building near the Howard el station. Chairman Tom Rosenfeld says 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore helped them acquire the long-vacant structure for $300,000. It’s a major accomplishment for the nonprofit, which came together five years ago as an attempt by a few neighborhood residents to save the building, then slated to become a minimall. But things have changed: they now plan on tearing the building down.

“In the last five years as an organization, we’ve learned a lot,” Rosenfeld says of WBAP, which has been functioning as an “arts broker” in the neighborhood, sponsoring a theater camp, music festivals, and a gallery while placing a priority on programming for kids. “None of our plans have anything to do with the current building.” Though they still hope to capitalize on nostalgia for the second-floor theater space where Robert Falls led Wisdom Bridge Theatre to glory in the 70s and 80s, Rosenfeld says a decade of vacancy and neglect has turned the building into a water-damaged, mold-infested squatters’ den–“unsafe, unsanitary, and unsalvageable.” According to Rosenfeld, “Five years ago the cost to rehab the building was a little more than the cost to tear it down; now it’s outrageously higher. We’re talking with developers, pursuing a mixed-use development on the site.”

The board is looking to cut a deal that will cover construction costs for a 10,000-square-foot community arts center (to include classrooms, a gallery, and a 100-plus-seat theater) as part of any proposed development, such as a six-story residential condominium. WBAP board member Dan Alexander (who lived in Rogers Park five years ago but has since moved) works for the Illinois Facilities Fund, which will oversee the development process; they’ll issue a request for proposals. Architect John Morris is in line to design the center, which might cost $2.5 million; financing for the building purchase and preliminary expenses is coming from the Chicago Community Loan Fund. What’s unusual here, Rosenfeld says, is “we’ll do a capital campaign, but we won’t have to wait for that [money] to make it happen. If it works, we think it will be a remarkable model of how you can utilize the value of the land to deliver–in this case–a community arts center.” Anyone who wants to help can contact the project at

Had It With Acme

“We’ve had it,” says Woman Made Gallery executive director Beate Minkovski of the organization’s abrupt departure this week from its home in the Acme Artists Community, the city-subsidized artists’ co-op at 2418 W. Bloomingdale, which has been plagued by flooding and construction-related problems since it opened nearly three years ago. Woman Made fled to the first space a real estate agent showed them–685 N. Milwaukee, where they’ll have more than 3,000 square feet on two floors, ARC Gallery and Intuit as neighbors, and, Minkovski hopes, a lot less hassle. “I’m sorry,” she says. “We liked the concept of the artists’ community; when we moved in we had great hopes. But the flooding, the problems people are having in the building, were interfering with our work. We were there three years and things were not getting resolved. The situation was impossible.”

Minkovski says she was troubled by the more than 30 code violations in the gallery’s Acme space, but the last straw was three weeks of daily flooding last month that coincided with the opening of a show, “Women of the African Diaspora.” “We were able to contain the water by soaking it up with towels,” she says, but the gallery “smelled,” and “you’d come in the next day and there’s water everywhere.” In a hall outside she found “buckets of water” gushing from under a wall, and the unit next door had standing water. “We so much tried to deal with the issues,” she says. “But I didn’t want to wait for another occasion. We were responsible for other people’s work in a situation I didn’t feel was safe.”

The gallery, which was renting its space, never signed a lease. Warren Leming, a board member of the Near Northwest Arts Council, which developed the Acme facility, says, “We negotiated with them over two years in an attempt to get a lease and then gave up. Without a lease, you’re pretty much dead in the water.” As for the building itself, Leming says “things are back on track” in spite of a “rump group” of residents who’ve been holding up repairs by denying contractors access. “I hope things will improve for the other people there,” Minkovski says, but as far as Woman Made is concerned, “it’s over.” Woman Made will open a holiday bazaar in its new home November 25.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

WHEN: Fri-Sat 11/18-11/19


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