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As City officials redouble their efforts to harness the economic potential of Evanston’s arts community, a debate over the future of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center has left two of the City’s cultural mainstays – the Piven Theatre Workshop and the Noyes Center’s diverse group of individual artists – at odds. 

At the core of the disagreement are two competing proposals to address the 120-year-old building’s much-needed capital improvements. One plan would keep the Noyes Center virtually as it has been for 35 years, with one exception: Piven Theatre Workshop would look for a new home elsewhere, potentially outside Evanston.  The other proposal would allow Piven to build the new black-box theater it has long desired, but would lead to some tenant displacement.

Piven’s proposal, which City officials have openly endorsed, would also require an undetermined amount of taxpayer money, in the form of a loan, or substantial rent subsidies or both.  The alternative plan, put forth mostly by the individual artists in the building, would seek to generate the needed capital through increased rent and fundraising, with no expected cost to the City.  

 Two Pronged Approaches

About a year ago, the City began looking at ways to address the Noyes Center’s structural decay. Last November, the two competing proposals emerged; both were developed at the behest of City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz.

“In meeting with the [tenant] group, I tried to say, in order for the building to remain and thrive, it needs to have an investment of capital dollars – short-, medium- and long-term,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said. “And there also needs to be, I think, a greater vision of what, programmatically, needs to happen there.”

A group of tenants, under the leadership of Ken Arlen of Arlen Music, came back with what they call the “Noyes Self-Sustainability Model.” The plan proposes a way to create an annual operating surplus of $194,686, which could be used to offset the cost of improvements by increasing each tenant’s rent by 10 percent.  Rents at Noyes are subsidized in exchange for community service, with tenants paying between $11-14 per square foot.  The Model’s numbers also rely on the tenants’ commitment to raise $25,000 annually, as well as renting the space currently occupied by the Parks and Recreation department to create an additional $128,000 in annual revenue.

That proposal would give more autonomy to a tenant board of directors to review new lease applications and lead fundraising efforts. In addition, it would be responsible for publicizing the free classes, concerts and artwork the tenants donate to Evanston residents each year for their community service requirement.  There would also be a capital reserve fund created just for the benefit of the Noyes Center.  This is crucial because, Mr. Arlen said, the Noyes Center has been running at a surplus (about $32,000 in the black for 2011) for years, yet that money was not set aside for the building’s repairs.

“The City would not have to give up ownership of a valuable asset, and with the new structure, the artists would become an empowered and diverse community with the best interests of the Evanston community at heart,” Mr. Arlen said, adding, “But the biggest one here is at no cost to the Evanston taxpayer. That’s the key.”

For Mr. Bobkiewicz, who supports Piven’s plan, the “Self-Sustainability Model” does not go far enough.

“The sustainability piece is a two-pronged issue,” he said.  “To have the building sustained physically and not programmatically makes no sense.  So the opportunity for Piven to come along and offer an opportunity to do both … at this point no one else who’s currently a resident there has made that kind of commitment.”

In offering its proposal, Piven’s executive director Leslie Brown said they have long considered relocating because they have outgrown their space. She said their administrative offices are cramped and substandard and the space lacks theater amenities such as a box office, a green room and lobby.

“Every theater that I go to, one of the most enjoyable things at intermission is to be able to go out, have a glass of wine, talk to people and then go back in. It’s just a wonderful experience of going to the theater,” Ms. Brown said. “Well, we don’t have that. Our audience stands in the hallway and we don’t have a proper box office to sort of facilitate folks.”

Ms. Brown also said the building’s short leases and restrictions on subleasing and liquor licenses are impediments to Piven’s growth.

“It’s important for us to have the ability to diversify our revenue stream,” she said.

The Piven plan would nearly triple the workshop’s footprint in the building. It includes a new black-box theater, a lobby, a green room, offices and classrooms to be located on the first and second floors at the south end of the building.  The plan would cost approximately $3 million.  Included in that total, Ms. Brown said, are “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in pro bono work and in-kind donations, including design, accounting and legal services. 

Both Mr. Bobkiewicz and Ms. Brown acknowledged that the City would have to lend Piven an undetermined sum of money for the expansion.  Ms. Brown also said she hoped the City would offer a long-term lease for a dollar-a-year, similar to the arrangement the Lookingglass Theatre struck with the city of Chicago about 10 years ago for their renovations at the Water Tower Water Works building. That way, Ms. Brown said, Piven can put the nearly $60,000 they pay annually in rent back into the building.

Mr. Arlen praised Piven’s proposal but said that it has one significant drawback. “A state-of-the-art blackbox theater, a beautiful, $3 million infusion into the building. I’m the first person to step aside and say go for it,” he said. “But, not if it’s taxpayer money. Then it’s a different story.”

Mr. Bobkiewicz, on the other hand, sees the theater’s fate as having an impact on the local economy. “People who come to performances, who pay money to see performances, who go to restaurants, who go to shops, that is part of our economic engine. And if we lose that, we can’t replace it by building an auto plant, or car dealers, or retail. The big retail is not in this community. So we have to focus on what we’re known for, and we’re known for the arts,” he said.

The most recent attempt to quantify the economic viability of Evanston’s arts community was in 2006, when the Evanston Community Foundation, in partnership with the Illinois Arts Alliance, conducted a comprehensive survey.  From the 25 responses, the survey calculated an annual contribution of $25.1 million to the local economy. Projected out over all 89 nonprofit arts organizations in Evanston at the time, the study found that the economic impact could be as high as $89.3 million.

In addition to the use of taxpayer funds, another point of contention is that Piven’s plan, if finalized, would displace at least five tenants on the first and second floors.  Faced with the prospect of moving, some felt that the City was not taking their “Self-Sustainability” proposal seriously.

 “It’s frustrating from our point of view, not to be heard,” said Elise Lerman, who has been painting and drawing at Noyes for more than 20 years

Not an Average Joe

Much of the tension, however, seems to arise from the historical perception of the Noyes Center and whether the Piven expansion would alter the building’s original intent.

Since the late 1970s, when the building was converted from an elementary school to an arts center, Noyes has accommodated a wide variety of artists. Sculptors and painters, voice coaches and theater groups, musicians and puppeteers have all leased space there, some for just a few years, others for decades. It is this diversity of artists, many said, that has made the Noyes Center a special place.

It was the leadership from Evanston filmmaker Richard Cusack (John and Joan’s father) and Joseph Zendell, who was a leading arts advocate in Evanston and executive director of the Evanston Arts Council in the 1980s, that made it happen.

“They had a vision of creating this space that would just be this hub of activity of all different types,” said Jim Hirsch. Mr. Hirsch, currently the executive director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, was the director of the Old Town School of Folk Music’s northern branch when it was one of the building’s original tenants. “I think the vision was that the community would really flock to this building and see it as a wonderful amenity. … They saw it as an engine for the arts in Evanston.”

And an engine it has been. According to the City’s website, the building “has played a pivotal role in Evanston becoming the ‘city of the arts.’” Mr. Zendell died in the early 1990s, however, and current and former tenants said his death was a significant loss for the Noyes Center. 

“Joe was a dynamic person and a great leader,” said Bridget McDonough, general manager of Light Opera Works, which moved to Wilmette in 2011 after 31 years at the Noyes Center. “He built up a lot of things that people take for granted and he did a lot for the arts in Evanston.”

Artistic diversity, while one of the Noyes Center’s most lauded traits, has also posed a challenge with so many varying needs in one building.  The theater groups operate mostly at night and rely on drawing crowds. Individual artists and writers, on the other hand, require only light and the tools of their craft.

“Everybody has different goals and objectives and different ways in which they operate, so already it was difficult to get consensus,” said Piven’s Ms. Brown.

With the tenants now facing perhaps the most significant changes in the Noyes Center’s 35-year history, this underlying tension appears to be contributing to the current debate about the building’s future.

Artful Economics

“I think the arts are an important part of Evanston and I think to lose a major contributor like Piven would be really sad,” said Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who was recently honored at Piven’s annual fundraising benefit last month with the first engraved seat in Piven’s new theater, should their proposal receive the City Council’s blessing. “It requires change and change is always difficult,” she added.

First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, in whose ward the Noyes Center lies, declined to comment or send a written statement, despite multiple opportunities.

But City Manager Bobkiewicz said the process will remain open as it has all along.

“Once we have a deal that makes sense, it will be aired, people will have a chance to comment on it, and ultimately it will be the City Council’s decision,” he said.

Some tenants, however, said it looks as though the decision is inevitable. 

 “The way it’s going, we’re all a little nervous,” said Leslie Hirshfield, an artist and art teacher at the Noyes Center.  “My feeling is that everybody who wants to stay should be able to stay. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

What is clear, however, is that City officials are targeting the arts as outlined in the City’s 2012-2014 Economic Development Plan. From City Lit on Howard Street to downtown Evanston’s study of performing arts venues; with the pending relocation of the Evanston Art Center and the proposed changes at Noyes, the arts in Evanston are undergoing a transformation.

“I truly feel like there’s a confluence of things happening now that will support a 100 percent effort and focus across the board in Evanston to really devote time to the arts and to make sure that we’re seen as an economic generator in the city, that our facilities are no longer insufficient for our needs,” said Ms. Brown.

At their last meeting on July 9, the City Council approved $25,000 for a “Roadmap to the Arts” in Evanston. The study’s goals appear to be similar to the project that Joe Zendell stewarded in the mid-1980s. It was called Evanston’s Long Range Cultural Planning Project. In the Evanston Review’s article about it, Mr. Zendell was quoted as saying: “Our expectations are very high. We feel this Cultural Plan will have a major impact on providing a more consistent delivery of arts services to citizens, providing a greater opportunity to artists for jobs … and stimulating our overall economic development.”

As the fate of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center winds its way through the City channels, and Evanston’s storied arts community is once again the focus of economic development, Mr. Zendell’s legacy seems to take on added meaning.

“He worked so hard to try to make everything work,” said his friend Mr. Hirsch. “It was not always easy. There were a lot of issues to deal with, a lot of politics to deal with.”