Out in the Cold

Live music at Chicago's HotHouse

HotHouse, a non-profit arts center in Chicago, embodied how beneficial a commitment to the arts could be, and surely this would override any business issues, I thought. I thought wrong.

Most of the dumb things I've done in a car have had witnesses, like my disastrous first time negotiating with a tollbooth, or the infamous hand-signal-induced flat tire the day before my driving test. But my most idiotic moment was a private one, and one I kept hidden for years. At the risk of setting myself up for astronomical insurance rates in the future, I'm ready to come clean.

I was about 17, and excited to see some friends performing in their short-lived ska band Gym Class Heroes (they had the name first, I'm pretty sure) at the then-newly opened Center for Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. I was so excited (late, too) that I pulled into the first available parking space and immediately lurched across the street towards the sound of bleating trombones. About 60 sweaty minutes later, I did a routine pat-down of my person to make sure everything was in order post-skanking, and my stomach dropped. My keys were gone. After some frantic searching within the venue, I headed outside to find my dependable old Infiniti G20 purring away right where I'd left it an hour before, keys in the ignition and doors unlocked -- a getaway car with no driver and no crime in the works. Good thing, too; I can't imagine what I would have told the cops.

So why was my car still there? I'd like to think that the Center was generating enough goodwill in the area with its events that no one would even think of making off with someone else's ride. Actually, Natick's not really a high-crime area to begin with; had this been downtown Framingham, I might not have been so lucky. Really, luck is probably the only explanation.

But a small part of me wants to attribute some credit to the Center (I know, I'm beginning to sound like Mr. Mack from Boy Meets World). I was only there a few times, but with each visit I felt like I was part of something that was contributing to a more positive, more connected community. This comes from a longstanding desire to believe that arts events have a meaningful impact on the communities in which they take place, something beyond pure in-the-moment enjoyment or even tourism revenues. I've always felt this way, but I've never quite known if it's true, or at least I've never been able to articulate my theories.

Thankfully, researchers have begun to tackle the question of what makes "culture" so important to communities and how exactly its impact can be measured, both economically and socially. One recent study done by the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center examines the impact of a major art exhibit in a struggling neighborhood in Chicago, finding a causal relationship between the exhibit's success and the revitalization of the surrounding area.

More broadly, the Cultural Amenities Project seeks to identify the unique elements of the culture industries in various cities (comparing, say, Nashville's country scene with Seattle's more cosmopolitan offerings) that contribute to urban development, and to find ways to support this type of development on a neighborhood level. Then there's the impact that participation in cultural events has on the participants themselves -- a 2003 study conducted by the Urban Institute found that the more people participate in arts and culture, the more likely they are to engage in other activities that support community life, such as local politics and education.

The average concert-goer might not care that the event he's attending is building social capital. But this kind of information is very useful to potential supporters of the arts, including city governments. The City of Chicago announced in May that, for the third consecutive year, it was awarding CityArts grants totaling over $1 million to various arts organizations. Among the 55 beneficiaries in 2007 was HotHouse, a non-profit arts center that used to be one of my favorite music venues in the city.

I say "used to" because HotHouse announced in June that it would be closing (or, in the words of the press release, "moving" to an undisclosed new location) as of the end of July due to a dispute with its landlord. This didn't exactly come as a huge surprise; after all, the non-profit arts center had been having problems ever since last year, when its founder, Marguerite Horberg, was forced out by the board. Although I'd heard rumors of a potential shutdown for a while, I never quite believed it would happen, not when there was so much great stuff happening there. More than any place I'd been to, HotHouse seemed to embody how beneficial a commitment to the arts could be. Surely this would override any business issues, I thought. I thought wrong.

The venue is a small spot in Chicago's South Loop neighborhood with just two main rooms: a multi-use area holding both visual art exhibits and coat racks, and a bright red performance space with a barely elevated stage which hosts jazz and world music acts as well as various community group events. For 18 years, HotHouse has been committed to providing a forum for "dis-enfranchised cultural voices as well as the more esoteric and difficult creative ambitions that by their nature and intent may never have mass commercial appeal." This mission leads to a diverse array of talent (not to mention multi-ethnic audiences); over the two-plus years I've been going there, I've seen everyone from eight-string guitar master Charlie Hunter to Senegalese legends Orchestra Baobab. Maybe my favorite memory was going to see Miles Long, the funk band led by none other than Malcolm Jamal-Warner. Let me tell you, the ladies really love how Theo has matured...even if he can't rap.

The best thing about HotHouse is how much the performers seem to love being there. Shows feel less like stops on a tour than friendly neighborhood visits from performers who just wants to share their talents. You may be just a paying customer (or not, if you're lucky enough to snag an ushering gig and get in free), but the night usually seems like more than a business transaction. It's also one of the few places I know of where you can grab a trendy urban wheat ale at the bar while flanked by a couple men in traditional African dress (I do wonder if my fondness for the place is magnified by the "exotic" music on display -- it did sometimes feel like a live version of NPR's World Café).

I don't want to paint the place as some kind of utopia; though it was absolutely a labor of love for its management, obviously there were some problems behind the scenes. I won't speculate on its actual cultural impact, beyond the one it had on an impressionable guy like myself. I can't say that it had a hand in helping to make the South Loop a burgeoning real estate hotspot, either. There will be some who won't even notice it's gone. But I'll certainly miss it, not only because my social calendar will be far less exciting, but because gone with it is another part of my innocence, the part that wants to believe that a fervent dedication to the arts can trump all other interests.

The gallery at the HotHouse

Perhaps it's a necessary reality check, especially for someone hoping to make a career in a creative field. It's good to understand that equally important to that dedication is the ability to recognize and negotiate with the outside forces that allow you to do what you do. Talent and passion are no substitutes for a keen business sense (and even if you have both, things don't always work in your favor).

HotHouse moved once before this, so there is reason to believe it will actually open again in the future (you can donate on its website). Until then, it's not like there aren't other options -- though the organization itself was pretty unique in its vision and execution, there are many similarly worthwhile cultural purveyors to take advantage of. Someday, one of them might even have the kind of influence and importance that I want it to...but I'm not holding my breath. I'm also keeping a close watch on my keys.

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