Discussing the potential for a downtown arts district are, clockwise from left, Jennifer Armstrong, Illinois Arts Council; Scarlet Swerdlow, Arts Alliance Illinois; Jill Brazel, Evanston Arts Council; Rocco Landesman, National Endowment for the Arts; Alderman Coleen Burrus; Terry Scrogum, Illinois Arts Council; Carolyn Dellutri, Downtown Evanston; and Dave Davis, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s office.Photo by Mary Mumbrue

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Rocco Landesman, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Terry Scrogum, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council, and others interested in the arts in Evanston took a brisk walking tour in downtown Evanston on Jan. 19 to see the potential for an arts district there. 

A wind from the north and frigid temperatures may have stimulated the imagination of the group of some 20 persons as they trekked around what could be the edges of a downtown arts district.

Before the tour, Mr. Landesman discussed with representatives from the arts, business and the City the state of the arts in Evanston and the plan to create a downtown arts district. 

The NEA has provided funding for an architectural and financial feasibility study of establishing a performing arts district downtown that would include a stronger performing arts presence, City Planning and Zoning Manager Dennis Marino told the RoundTable. The study will begin in March, he said.

Jill Brazel, chair of the Evanston Arts Council, described the Art Under Glass program, which uses vacant storefront windows to showcase work by local artists. The program began in the 708 Church St. building, she said, which had been vacated by many tenants when a developer received approval to construct a 38-story residential tower there. The owner and manager of the building were very helpful, she said, and the Arts Council is “trying to spread the program throughout the community.”

Backstage Evanston “is a showcase of all the arts in Evanston,” said Penny Rotheiser, chair of the Arts and Business Subcommittee of the Arts Council. At this annual event, music and performance groups offer audiences a taste of their upcoming seasons.

The Technology Innovation Center, home to more than a dozen start-up high-tech companies, will have a tie to the arts in a “maker fair,” planned for this summer, said Carolyn Dellutri, executive director of Downtown Evanston.

Mr. Marino described the growth of the downtown area over the past 20 years and added that a missing piece is a performing arts center.

More expansive, Mr. Marino said, would be the opportunity to create a performing arts district in the downtown area, which would benefits arts groups and downtown Evanston both.

Mr. Marino said, “A performing arts center would strengthen both business and our ability to attract more residents to the downtown area. …We are very excited about Grace, a 500-seat music performance venue planned for 1026 Davis St., the present site of Tom Thumb Hobbies and Crafts. “The [owner and] operators of Grace are very experienced.” (See Aug. 31 Evanston RoundTable or evanstonroundtable.com.) The owner, David Colker, is an Evanston resident.

Mr. Marino said the City is also interested in “help[ing] finance [small] arts groups [to] get off the ground.”

Many stakeholders would be involved in creating an arts district, Mr. Marino said. “We will make this a public process … a strategic process.” 

“There is a model for this in Chicago,” said Mr. Landesman. “For me it began in 1989, when Mayor Richard M. Daley took all the vaudeville houses and created a performing arts district, which I think was the spearhead for the revitalization of Chicago.”

Ninth Ward Alderman Coleen Burrus said, “We’re looking at this City-wide, holistically. We’re looking at live theatre on Howard Street, using TIF (tax-increment financing) and economic development funds. We want to make sure the arts are throughout Evanston and will cobble money together to find the funding.”

The half-hour walking tour from 820 Davis St., abbreviated because of the cold, took visitors along the perimeter of the proposed arts district to provide a contextual overview of the downtown and show potential sites that may be the subject of the NEA study, said Mr. Marino.

Possible venues for a performing arts center were the former Varsity movie theater building, 1706 Sherman Ave.; the Heil, Heil Smart & Golee building, 1515 Chicago Ave.; and the upper floor of 614 Davis St., formerly occupied by Giordano dance studios.  The upper balcony of the 1,800-seat Varsity movie theatre remains above the storefront that houses The Gap.

Mr. Landesman said he thought the chances for success in creating an arts district “are great.”

As he departed the walk, Mr. Scrogum told the RoundTable, “I won’t wish [the community] good luck. I know Evanston will succeed.”