What the Mayor might have said at the Goodman

September 16, 2011

The Dueling Critics and a whole crowd of those who are otherwise night folks assembled at the Goodman at dawn (well, 8 a.m.) last Thursday for what was billed as a major important announcement, complete with mayor. (These days no announcement is major-important unless the mayor is there. Conversely, if the mayor is there we're all primed to think that the announcement is major-important. Presumably this Pavlovian response among the press will wear off soon.) 

Jonathan and I spent a considerable amount of time speculating about the nature of the announcement: was the mayor going to give the Goodman a supplementary site--maybe the McDonald's across the street? Close off Dearborn to turn the downtown theater district into a pedestrian mall? Announce a plan for the Goodman to co-fund the CityArts program so smaller theaters could thrive with city help as the Goodman has?

But the announcement was nothing more than that the theater is two-thirds of the way toward its goal of raising $15 million and is therefore confident enough of being able to do so that they're ready to "announce" an endowment campaign. An endowment will make sure there's perpetual support for the theater's work in developing new plays, encouraging non-white artists, doing outreach and education, keeping the building up to date and so forth. Professional practice in these matters is not to mention that you're trying to raise money until you've already raised most of it, at which point you can do what Rahm did at the Goodman: point a finger at the audience and say, "Finish the job!" As far as major-important announcements go, I coulda stood in bed.

But imagine a different scenario. (Spooky alternative-reality music here.) Say the Goodman calls us all down there to hear Rahm announce the city's latest generous gift to the theater: the land on which its building sits. Rahm the Liberator frees the theater from its onerous $1-a-year rent payment to the city, and simply hands over the land. What generosity! What public-private partnership! What a deal!

But then imagine that Rahm goes to the Illinois Department of Revenue and asks it to decide that the now-property-owning Goodman should be the now-property-taxpaying Goodman. No matter that the theater is a nonprofit: if it's not a "charity" under the Illinois Constitution, the Goodman's trustees will need to turn their attention from raising endowment to raising money to pay taxes on one of the most valuable chunks of land in the city. Imagine Bob Falls in a gorgeous velvet dress made out of theater curtains, pleading with Rhett, uh, Rahm: "I need $300,000 to pay the taxes on Tara!" Yet the mayor would appear amazingly generous, giving this poor little theater its home. "I can't pay the rent!" "But you must pay the rent!" "I'll give you the deed and you won't have to pay the rent," says Dudley Do-Rahm.

Most likely no such scheme was ever contemplated. But perhaps the press event's emphasis on outreach ("Look at how many tickets we give away!"="Look how charitable we are!") was designed to protect against something like it. Falls and Roche Schulfer didn't get where they are by being fools; they'd know enough to look this particular gift horse in the mouth if she ever came trotting over from City Hall.  On the other hand, declining a donation is a complicated thing, and crossing a Mayor who's used to having his own way is no joke. 

Stay tuned for future developments--which will almost certainly (spooky alternative-reality music here) look nothing like any of us can imagine.