Can't Buy Love/ Late Bloomer? | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Can't Buy Love/ Late Bloomer? 

The Illinois Arts Council has more green, but staffers see nothing but red.

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Can't Buy Love

"Public service was something I always had an interest in," says Kassie Davis, explaining why she left the corporate offices of Marshall Field's to become executive director of the Illinois Arts Council. But this week Davis left the IAC after only 19 months, making room for George Ryan's handpicked successor, and her brief tenure raises the question of how well the public is served when the governor makes directorship of the state arts council a political plum.

Founded in 1965, the IAC dispenses information and financial aid to all manner of artists and arts organizations statewide. Under Governor James Thompson, the IAC was headed by an experienced arts professional, but all that changed in 1995, when Jim Edgar handed the directorship to Lori Montana, his chief fund-raiser. Montana had little experience in arts administration, and after two years she left the IAC to become director of the state lottery. Even Davis admits, "Jim Edgar did begin to make this job more of a political appointment." She came to the IAC with an 11-year track record as vice president for public affairs at Field's, but her contacts with Montana and former first lady Brenda Edgar may have helped her win the job. Irene Antoniou, chairman of the IAC advisory board, is quick to praise Davis's performance as director, and according to Davis, the average grant awarded by the IAC increased by a whopping 50 percent this year. But sources both inside and outside the council claim that staff morale was plummeting while Davis spent more than a year devising a new strategic plan.

The council has been heavily burdened since Edgar took office; over the last few years state budget cuts have trimmed a staff of 36 people down to 22. To reduce administrative costs, program directors now handle the granting process for about 200 arts groups with budgets of $50,000 or less, a job previously handled by panels of artists and administrators. Critics contend that Davis added to the stress by updating the department's database system during the busy summer season and creating a huge backlog of paperwork. After she increased a newsletter mailing from 6,000 copies to 9,000, the council exhausted its $8,000 postal budget in only four and a half months, and other budget items had to be raided to cover the shortfall. But the friction between Davis and her staff might have been more cultural than anything else: one staffer complains that she often referred to artwork as "product."

Shortly after Davis arrived at the IAC, Antoniou told her the council needed a new strategic plan. To help formulate the plan Davis organized focus groups, mailed out surveys, conducted endless meetings with arts groups and IAC staffers, and contracted Arts Market, a consulting group based in Bozeman, Montana, for $13,500. But when the new plan was finally approved last April, some staffers found it remarkably similar to the old one. It called for the council to develop arts programming in the state's more remote regions. But it also recycled standard operating procedure like working closely with park districts to develop and fund programs. Says the same staffer: "We've always worked with the park districts."

Even as her staff was struggling against budget constraints, Davis found herself holding the purse strings for a surprising increase in arts funding. Following several years of sharp cutbacks from the legislature, the IAC's grant money jumped substantially for fiscal 1999. Davis also controlled hundreds of thousands of dollars from a rapidly growing IAC fund earmarked for "special projects and special assistance"--fast-breaking projects that aren't served by the lengthy grant process. In fiscal year 1997 the fund totaled about $173,000; in 1998 it ballooned to $240,000, and this year it stands at $340,000, nearly double the amount available two years ago.

One of the beneficiaries is Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs, whose IAC grant for its own local projects jumped from $60,000 to $100,000 this year. The department commissioner, Lois Weisberg, was profiled in the January 11 New Yorker as a woman with a unique talent for getting people jobs, and she's helped Davis land on her feet with another executive position. On Tuesday Davis started as executive director of the Civic Preservation Foundation, where Weisberg sits on the board; the city established the foundation to oversee operations of the bankrupt Chicago Theatre and the adjoining Page Brothers Building. Meanwhile, no one seems to know whether George Ryan will hand the IAC to a political crony or conduct a search for an arts professional.

Late Bloomer?

The Black Orchid Showroom and Lounge, a lavish re-creation of a 1940s nightclub, was scheduled to open at Piper's Alley on New Year's Eve with two performances by comedian Joe Piscopo. But a few days before the event, representatives from the club began calling ticket holders to inform them that construction had delayed the opening. Piscopo's performances were moved to the new Old Town School of Folk Music near Wilson and Lincoln; a third show, scheduled for that Saturday, was canceled after the blizzard hit.

But according to Mike Boyce in the mayor's office of license & liquor control, the Black Orchid hasn't even applied for a liquor license. Once it does, city law stipulates a waiting period of no less than 45 days, and the process will probably take much longer. Jim Hirsch, executive director of the Old Town School, said the school applied for a liquor license in July and only got it a couple of weeks ago:

"The process is complicated because several city departments, including police, revenue, and buildings, are involved." Marc Curtis, owner of the Black Orchid, did not return calls seeking comment, but January appearances by Pam Stone and David Brenner have been "postponed."

Second City producer Kelly Leonard has seen the unfinished space and pronounces it "really nice." It could be the swankest place in town for a Shirley Temple.

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