For almost an hour on Thursday I listened to Spertus' president and CEO Hal Lewis tell Spertus' side of the story. As he went on I became more and more shrouded in Jewish guilt for having glibly said the place isn't what it used to be in a recent post entitled "Sadness at Spertus"--which you can read here. Spertus may not be what I was used to anymore with a full-blown museum and major traveling art exhibitions and a lot of liveliness--but it's got a new and different life. Something we are all entitled to have without bloggers calling us out. So I'm sorry.
There are reasons things have changed. It's the economy, stupid.
"We had to deal with any number of realities brought on by decisions made by the old leadership and the new economy
," said Lewis. "We are doing an incredible job of recalibrating."
In other words, the decision to build a high-profile building on Michigan Avenue turned out to be not so hot
when the economy tanked. But to be fair, who knew? Spertus leadership was certainly not alone in relying on a fueled economy. No one anywhere was paying much attention to the bubble that was about to burst.
Lewis said I came on a bad day recently. The classes that Spertus offers take place after 6 PM. When things liven up considerably in the building. I was there midafternoon. He also said I never mentioned anything about an exhibit that was hanging about the lawyers of Nuremburg. And he's right--I was jaded because I'd already seen it hanging at the American Bar Association building last year. But it is a remarkable exhibit, packed with background information about these historical figures and has a wonderful (free) booklet that accompanies it.
"It can be cavernous here in the daytime; there is too much space," said Lewis, who went on to explain that Spertus has decided to take in several "roommates." Roommates now range from the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
--which offers 30 weeks of classes in the building throughout the day and throughout the building. When I came, the art school was on break.
"We've made lemonade," said Lewis. "We are enormously proud to have been able to find new tenants--non-profits that are consistent with our financing."
Lewis is also proud that Spertus' shop has changed its hours, trying to provide a unique shopping experience during times that people like to come downtown to shop--ie, on Fridays. And I, as a blogger, will tell you it is a beautiful store that my friends and I have patronized many times for everything from toys to jewelry to books. It is lovely--and I heartily recommend it as a shopping destination on the 600 block of South Michigan Avenue.
There is disappointment, Lewis said, that the children's center (not a children's "museum," lewis was quick to point out) has closed--but "it was not a revenue-driving component of the organization," he said. "We said, 'how can we continue to be here in accordance with our dreams
, our goals of learning and serving, of being a sweet spot for adult learning--in less than perfect circumstances?'" Lewis says he mourns the loss of family programs but at the moment, there's not much he can do. In order to have that sort of thing, you need big donors, endowments and a less volatile stock market. "The economy going south has been tough on many levels. No one could have imagined it."
As far as the tuition income that Spertus derived from offering education
and advanced degrees in non-profit management, the economy has been harsh, too. It's a vicious circle--the less money non-profits have to spend on educating their employees, the less money non-profits like Spertus derive from filling that niche.
Dreams of fundraising for the building and consistent rentals/catering/corporate meetings in some of the beautiful spaces at Spertus have been off, as well. Weddings and bar mitzvahs aren't as grand as they were in recent years. "It's been the picture of a perfect storm," Lewis said of the current economic situation. "The building was built with a different set of assumptions." And ergo, not much money is available for major traveling art exhibitions to be mounted. Lewis points out that Spertus' very special library
The bright side is that even though Spertus' commitment to Jewish learning and culture may not be manifesting in ways we Spertus fans are used to--their museum collections are packed away--there is still a commitment. Lewis says programming is not limited to the downtown building any longer and that there is teamwork with other outlying Jewish organizations in Chicago and the suburbs. "Jewish learning isn't limited geographically, it's not 'building-centric.' We are very adept at recognizing these realities," he said.
Last but not least, Spertus is not simply concentrating on its roommates and rentals, but on good programming for everyone
. What's coming in the future? Spertus Prime: a year long series of prominent speakers such as filmmaker Paul Mazursky, journalist Cokie Roberts and Israeli politician Tzipi Livni--as well as other cultural programs of all sorts. Even though speakers cost money, Spertus is committed, said Lewis. "These are the new realities, and signs of health, of diversity, and of an organization that keeps asking questions."
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