End of the N.A.M.E. Game?/Gates Closing at Zebra Crossing | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

End of the N.A.M.E. Game?/Gates Closing at Zebra Crossing 

N.A.M.E.'s future depends on its new director; Laszlo Sulyok, who faces a mountain of debt.

End of the N.A.M.E. Game?

As government and private funding for the arts continues to decline, the number of not-for-profits with financial troubles is on the rise. Last week this column reported that Randolph Street Gallery would soon close its doors for three months, during which time it would restructure its operations. This week an equally venerable not-for-profit gallery, N.A.M.E., finds itself weakened by debt, with a drastically diminished budget and an uncertain future. The 23-year-old gallery's survival appears to hinge on the efforts of Laszlo Sulyok, N.A.M.E.'s new executive director and the fourth person to hold the post in as many years.

A former assistant curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and a recent graduate of the master in arts administration program at the School of the Art Institute, Sulyok admits the N.A.M.E. board didn't paint a rosy picture when he applied for the job, but he says the situation proved even worse than he was led to believe. "There was no transition from the previous director when I arrived," he explains. He was shown his office and left to examine the files. He was appalled by what he found. "It was a disaster, with thousands of dollars in outstanding bills from the previous year," he says.

N.A.M.E.'s board of directors wasn't completely in the dark. Former board president Janet Ecklebarger says she resigned from her post last month because the "financial situation scared me off." The board currently has no president. Ecklebarger says she found out that "back bills we assumed were being taken care of were in fact being thrown out." Ecklebarger, who was forced to close her for-profit MWMWM gallery earlier this year, explains that managing N.A.M.E. has proved difficult. It's an artist-run organization with about 40 committee and board members, all of whom are volunteers (executive director is the only paid position) and want a say in operating the gallery. "It's chaos, like being with 35 roommates," she says.

Since assuming the helm, Sulyok has zeroed in on the reasons for N.A.M.E.'s problems. Chief among them, of course, is cash. "Less money is coming in than what is being spent," he says. Housed in a 4,000-square-foot space at 1255 S. Wabash, N.A.M.E. is saddled with a costly long-term lease that it can't get out of, short of declaring bankruptcy. Sulyok says the gallery pays $1,400 a month in base rent, plus another $200 a month for six months of the year to cover property taxes, part of the gallery's agreement with its landlord. So far, attempts to restructure the lease agreement have proved futile. Sulyok says various other insurance and security expenses bring the total cost of maintaining the gallery space to approximately $20,000 a year, a hefty chunk of its $70,000 annual operating budget. About $30,000 of the annual budget comes from earned income, with the rest being provided by foundation and government grants. But those grants have been increasingly hard to get--and the amounts awarded are often smaller than they were in previous years. Sulyok says the organization has tried to make ends meet in recent months with two general operating grants totaling $20,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Earning income has proved even tougher. The gallery regularly presents performance art. But under the current arrangement N.A.M.E. has with its artists, the performer walks away with 70 percent of the box office take. It's even worse for the sale of artwork, where the artist takes home 90 percent of the sale price. Sulyok says he's been hindered in making changes by the "extreme bureaucracy" at the gallery. "You have to submit proposals to the board to approve, and everything seems to slow down," he says.

Sulyok hopes to streamline operations and introduce programming that can "generate more excitement." He complains that the gallery--which has long been a significant force in local conceptual and performance art circles--hasn't been able to attract the casual gallerygoer who visits the MCA perhaps two or three times a year. "We are just too obscure," he says. In recent weeks, Sulyok has met with art collector Howard Stone to enlist his help, but discussions are on hold until Sulyok can put together a new financial plan. "I wouldn't give money to an organization like N.A.M.E. right now," Sulyok admits. He's worried about the message the funding community will receive if both N.A.M.E. and Randolph Street--venues that have taken risks by providing opportunities for younger artists--wind up shutting their doors for good. "It could prove that the whole not-for-profit system in the arts has been a failure."

Gates Closing at Zebra Crossing

The situation looks bad for smaller not-for-profit theaters as well. Zebra Crossing Theatre will close up shop at 4223 N. Lincoln on January 31, and the Chicago Actors Ensemble will suspend operations and move out of its space in Uptown's Preston Bradley Center by December 31.

With a $15,000 deficit, the 12-year-old Zebra Crossing has opted to shut down and try to pay off its debt rather than continue producing, says managing director Bill Endsley. The high cost of maintaining its own space appears to have been a major factor in the group's demise, though several years ago conventional wisdom held that smaller companies needed their own theaters to survive. With an annual operating budget of only $50,000, Zebra Crossing was paying $3,000 a month in rent and utilities to stay in its small 70-seat facility, which it first occupied in the summer of 1994. When the company had a hit show--which wasn't often--the rent wasn't a problem. But most of the time Zebra Crossing found it hard to make ends meet. Renting the theater to others wasn't nearly as lucrative as hoped. Artistic director Marlene Zuccaro parted ways with the company earlier this year, and her position was left vacant. The board also had dwindled from seven to four members.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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