MAD Money/Shaky Coalition/Elsewhere in the News... | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

MAD Money/Shaky Coalition/Elsewhere in the News... 

The $62 million Music and Dance Theater in Millenium Park is far from built, but general manager Joyce Moffat says its short first season is almost booked solid. It helps that the city's a major tenant.

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MAD Money

There was something disorienting about the press release announcing Joan and Irving Harris's whopping gift to Music and Dance Theater Chicago back in February. It wasn't just the flash of a record-setting $15 million donation wrapped up in a $24 million construction loan. It was the explanation that followed, assuring readers that "construction of the 1,500 seat theater in downtown Millennium Park will begin on February 1." The release came out February 4, and work on the site was already under way. General manager Joyce Moffatt, who had been trying for seven years to get this $62 million project (originally budgeted at $40 million) off the ground, says she got the real go-ahead in a riveting phone call six weeks earlier. "Joan called me on the 19th of December and said, 'Mr. Harris and myself are going to do this.'"

Moffatt kept quiet about the gift until it was signed and sealed, then sat on her news over the weekend so it wouldn't be "buried" in a Saturday paper. In the four and a half months since, a little over $1 million of the $18 million MADTC still needed to raise has come in, and Moffatt has begun booking the first season, scheduled to start in November 2003. Whether there will actually be tenants for the theater has been the subject of speculation, and the dates are still being "firmed up," but Moffatt says that with the exception of Thanksgiving week, Christmas week, the first week in January, and a few odd weekdays here and there, the season is complete. Filling the schedule was made a lot easier not only by the late-fall start, but by the city, which has conveniently turned into the theater's major tenant. The mostly underground facility, nestled into city property, has a 99-year lease that gives the city occupancy at cost for June, July, and August, traditionally the most difficult booking period. The city apparently doesn't have a clue as to what it'll do with the theater during those months, except for some use of the backstage facilities by the Grant Park Orchestra. Word is Grant Park Festival kids' concerts could be held there (watch out for gummy bears and juice boxes), and it might be a bad-weather venue for regular symphony concerts, though it's short thousands of seats for a full Grant Park audience.

Joan Harris is putting her money where her dreams are; the concept for MADTC came to her more than 20 years ago, when she was board chairman at Chicago Opera Theater. She and the heads of several other midsize performing arts organizations had tried to find a downtown venue they could share. In 1990, after a number of failed attempts, Bruce Newman of the Chicago Community Trust put together a group of foundations to help. MADTC was incorporated in '93, Moffatt was hired in '95, and the Millennium Park site was settled on in '98, after a plan to build on Cityfront Center property turned into a fiasco. Chicago Opera Theater is MADTC's main noncity tenant, committed to using the theater for ten weeks in the first season. But two other companies among the dozen MADTC expected to call the Music and Dance theater home have backed off or are holding off. The Joffrey Ballet will continue to make its home at the Auditorium Theatre, which has a larger stage and more seating capacity. Joffrey might find a way to do something at MADTC outside its regular season, a spokesman says, but has made no commitment. There's also been no commitment from the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, which seldom produces anything on its own. Among the remaining ten, Hubbard Street Dance Company is in for two weeks; Performing Arts Chicago and Muntu Dance Theatre for about a week; Chicago Sinfonietta for three or four performances (plus possible rehearsal time); and Dance Center of Columbia College, the Mexican Fine Arts Center, and the Old Town School of Folk Music for one to three days. Ballet Chicago has signed on for a weekend in the fall of 2004. It's a stretch for all of them: with the rent set at $4,000 a day (even for rehearsal and setup time), plus union rates (necessitated by the size of the house but yet to be negotiated), everyone's wary. It could be fab--or it could be mad.

Shaky Coalition

A bright yellow sheet of paper headlined "Urgent Request" fell out of the June 6 issue of Chicago Artists' News, the monthly newspaper of the Chicago Artists' Coalition. Since last fall's economic downturn the CAC's been faced with "SEVERE CASH FLOW PROBLEMS," the insert proclaimed, most-ly due to delayed grants. After 27 years, the note said, "WE WILL NOT BE ABLE TO CONTINUE with-out help from the art community we serve." Executive director Arlene Rakoncay says, "It was urgent. It was dreadful for a while. We were really scared. We could barely make payroll.

I thought, oh my god, we can't pay these bills. We needed to raise over $10,000 to get through our fiscal year [ending June 30]. But our members came through. I think we're going to end the year in the black." CAC's only full-time staff member, Rakoncay works with three part-time staffers and volunteers to put out the newspaper, run the resource center (including a Web site), and pull off special projects like an annual art exhibit and last fall's publication of an artist's self-help business book. With government cutbacks and corporation money scarce, she doesn't expect next year to be any better. Sara Lee Foundation, which has funded CAC operations for years, "has changed its guidelines," Rakoncay says. "We're waiting to see if we'll get money from them. All these corporations want to fund projects, but we need money for administration. You can't do programs if you can't pay staff."

Elsewhere in the News . . .

It's a first, and it took newcomer the Boeing Company to make it happen: the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art are working together on their shows of German artists Gerhard Richter and Andreas Gursky, both opening this weekend. The two museums, suddenly struck by their common interests, are collaborating on promotion and advertising and are offering a mix of free and discounted admissions to each other's exhibitions, which are underwritten by Boeing. Meanwhile the Art Institute is blaming a salary freeze (effective July 1) in part on two years of disappointing attendance, exacerbated by September 11. And there's no blockbuster show next year to give it a goose....Cartoonist Stuart Helm lost his fight against a temporary injunction sought by Kraft Foods and had to pull the King VelVeeda name off his Web sites....The second installment of Theater Dish--an intended-to-be-quarterly evening of food, discussion, and networking--will be served up Monday, June 24, at Bailiwick Arts Center. Snacks'll be served at 6, and the discussion starts at 7; it's free for theater folk, but reservations are required. Call 773-883-1090.

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

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