Last spring, it went by the Collaborative Space for Sustainable Development and involved six performing-arts organizations. Per a public announcement today, it’s called the American Rhythm Center, includes nine organizations and has a confirmed home: the Fine Arts Building.
Built for car and wagon manufacturer Studebaker in 1885, the richly detailed landmark stands adjacent to the Auditorium Theatre, facing Grant Park on Chicago’s South Michigan Avenue. Lead partner the Chicago Human Rhythm Project says it’s raised about half of $2.5 million for the ARC’s initial, multiphased capital campaign. The facility will first see foot traffic by the end of CHRP’s 22nd annual “Rhythm World” festival, July 23 through August 5; a grand opening with the founding partners will follow in September.
Those partners are, in addition to CHRP, Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute, the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, Giordano Dance Chicago, Luna Negra Dance Theater, Ping Pong Productions, River North Dance Chicago and Kalapriya, Center for Indian Performing Arts. Phase one of the project builds out and renovates a lobby, dressing rooms and administrative offices, plus three studios ranging in size from 750 to 1,500 square feet. During subsequent construction phases, the ARC plans to add more administrative room and spaces for programs, plus a black-box theater for performances. The architect is JGMA and Ujamaa Construction, Inc. is the general contractor.
In a joint interview by phone on July 5, CHRP founder-director Lane Alexander and new executive director Frank Sonntag explained the thinking behind this model for supporting performing-arts management and education in collaboration, and how it found a home in the Fine Arts Building.
Planning and fundraising for the ARC were accelerated, says Alexander, by Ballet Chicago’s vacation of offices and dance studios at 218 South Wabash Avenue. Two blocks northwest of the Fine Arts, that space had long been central to Chicago’s dance scene, hosting classes and rehearsals during various periods of the Joffrey Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and other area institutions. “It was already in our strategic plan to find a space, but not at that moment. There were still some things to do before we were in position for a move but, as you know, life is not linear.” Alexander explains that that property was larger than CHRP alone required, “and what we found was almost universal need within the community for the exact same thing we were looking for, which was administrative, rehearsal and education facilities all” — he laughs — “in the same place.” With partners on board and fundraising underway, the Wabash building’s owners decided to rent to different tenants. As Alexander puts it, “we found ourselves in the enviable position of having resources but not a space.”
Rooms at the Fine Arts occupied by the Boitsov Classical Ballet and Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra were already being sublet by CHRP for its 2010 and 2011 “Rhythm World” festivals. “And then Elizabeth Boitsov decided to close her doors and [the Fine Arts] went on the list of more than 70 properties that we ended up evaluating for suitability,” says Alexander. “We went looking far and wide, and it turned out that the best place ended up being where we were already doing business.”
“That building is a gem,” Sonntag interjects, “but a little underutilized.” With consensus among the member organizations, a deal was finalized and because the CYSO was already in residence there, the ARC gained a new partner. Repurposing the Boitsov’s two studios on the third floor and creating a third by gutting the company’s offices and storage has been the first order of business, says Alexander, “so classes can begin as quickly as possible and we’re all able to start generating revenue and stabilize operations.” As CHRP programs tap and percussive-dance forms, while other partners focus on dance performed in soft shoes or bare feet, two studios will have multipurpose Timestep floors by Stagestep.
When I ask whether further details about the process and practices might be available to those interested in following the ARC’s lead and emulating its hoped-for success, Sonntag says, “Absolutely, because I think that this will be the way of the future. For the foreseeable future, anyway, it seems like resources are going to be very limited. Collaboration is the name of the game now.” (To his point, four female-led Chicago dance companies, for example, recently announced that they’ve begun a strategic partnership for audience development and resource-sharing called FlySpace.)
Alexander notes that collaboration can take various forms, and that the ARC is dedicated specifically to institutional cooperation as opposed to artistic exchange, “although some artistic collaborations may grow out of the institutional collaboration.” Discussions among ARC members have started about which “back-end” functions might be better combined than sandboxed, such as bookkeeping, fundraising, marketing or programming. Alexander and Sonntag are already talking with educators about opening the project up as “a laboratory” for undergrad and graduate arts-management studies.
“Ultimately, we want to see this grow organically,” says Sonntag. “We don’t want to be the 800-pound gorilla, saying, ‘This is how you’ve got to do it.’ But I can definitely envision the day when we’re jointly marketing this place. I mean, put all of these class offerings together: It’s more diverse than any one of us could do on our own.” MINDBODY software will facilitate unified online registration and class-schedule information, with clear notation of which partner is offering each class. “One of our promises is to make it simple for the student,” says Alexander.
And therein lies the crux of this joint venture: Performing-arts organizations’ education programs tend to be much more reliable and stable as business investments than theatrical presentations, which can hit or flop and, either way, aren’t likely to pay for themselves through ticket sales alone. “So frequently, when resources are limited, the tendency is to contract, to cancel programs and outreach efforts,” Sonntag observes. “What happens then is, the size of your audience diminishes and it creates a downward spiral. In my mind, the beautiful thing about the American Rhythm Center is that we’re enabling organizations to enhance their community-outreach efforts and become stronger financially. It’s a win-win.”
Adds Sonntag, “I think one of the most important things here is that we create opportunities for cross-pollination. We all want to find new audiences, and crossover will encourage that to happen.… The key to this place is that we’re offering something not just to artists, but to the public at large.”
Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s 22nd annual “Rhythm World” festival begins July 23. By its end on August 5, the American Rhythm Center will begin initial operations in the Fine Arts Building at 410 South Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, with a grand opening scheduled for September and further development ongoing.