Sharpening the Cutting Edge
Performing Arts Chicago gets a make-over.
Anything can happen when you cross cultural and artistic worlds--even great art. Theatrical innovator Robert Lepage knows this, for on one of his four previous visits to Chicago, he found himself quite taken with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. From that, Lepage has created Geometry of Miracles, a revisionist chronicle of 30 years of Wright's life which runs at Performing Arts Chicago from April 26 through April 28.
Susan Lipman knows of mixing cultural and artistic worlds as well. In her 19 years as Executive Director of Performing Arts Chicago, she has provided opportunities for countless artists and audiences to bring their work to town and be seen, understood, and appreciated. For example, not only has PAC has produced every one of Lepage's appearances in Chicago, but performances by singer Ute Lemper (who plays one night this April 15), dancer Bill T. Jones, and the great mime Marcel Marceau. PAC's website, located at www.pachicago.org, boasts of a roster of internationally renowned artists with whom PAC has long-standing relationships--from Mummenschanz to Anne Bogart to minimalist composer Steve Reich.
That PAC successfully brings international avant-garde performance to the City of Big Shoulders is remarkable enough. But what's even more remarkable are the many transformations PAC itself has experienced as a presenting organization. "What I love about Performing Arts Chicago is that it has the courage to reinvent itself," says Lipman. "To be one of the strongest chamber music organizations in the country and then to say, 'no, we have to build wider audiences--and to have a board that backs that--is the most daring, creative, challenging thing an arts organization can do."
The reinvention Lipman speaks of took place in 1992, when PAC threw off its chamber music clothes and embraced international performance. Before that, it was known as Chamber Music Chicago, and before that, it was called the Fine Arts Music Foundation, which was founded in 1959. "I really have great respect for an institution that can take those kinds of systemic risks," says Lipman. "You're challenging and questioning the purpose of your mission--that's bold."
Before the mission redefinition, however, Lipman and her board conducted a year-long study. "I took a look at what was happening in this country and realized that Chicago's makeup and character is defined by its geography," she explains. "We tend to look in." Lipman also looked around Chicago's celebrated neighborhoods and found they were changing--from descendants of white European immigrants to new immigrants from Central and South America and the Far East. "I thought, 'Why can't we tell different stories on stage? Why can't we tell the stories of the people who are moving here?'" While the study agreed that Chicago audiences wanted to see artists from all over the world, PAC also discovered that bringing in and producing avant-garde work can be a very expensive proposition, and that finding funding for such work can be nightmarish.
To be sure, PAC has had a great deal of support, both from ticket sales and from outside funders. In 1996, the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund identified PAC as one of the top 20 presenters in the U.S., giving them $400,000 in recognition of that fact. Yet while PAC's budget is still a relatively healthy $1.3 million, that figure is down from a 1997 high of $2 million. The downsizing occurred as the result of the partial retirement of debt that Lipman characterizes as in the "medium six-figure" range--a figure large enough that the board at first considered shutting down the organization entirely. "The fact is, this organization had a choice," says Lipman. "But this board said no; we're not going to give up."
Such tenacity is now starting to pay off. Despite a small remaining debt, Lipman no longer worries about her organization's survival. In fact, PAC announced an alliance last fall with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one that will allow artists to participate in longer residencies. And, for the first time in its history, PAC is going to get a home: The 1,500-seat Music and Dance Theater Chicago (which is scheduled to break ground in a few months) will house PAC along with 11 other arts organizations.
Lipman is especially excited about the partnership with the School of the Art Institute, seeing it as the next step in PAC's evolution. "We're going to change and I can't tell you how we're going to change, but it's starting to happen now and it is the most exciting thing," she says.
The alliance will allow PAC to support artists for longer than just a few days, allowing them to teach master classes and conduct workshops with Art Institute students. They may also be able to focus on developing work with those students, work that PAC might then premiere. "That's a whole new area that delves even deeper into the creative process," Lipman says.
As a compliment to this, PAC will also be reaching out to local artists, helping avant-garde Chicago troupes--some of whom are known around the world--build reputations in their own city. For example, this summer PAC and the Art Institute will sponsor a performing arts residency with Goat Island Performance Group. They will also host an international festival of puppet theatre.