Hemmens a center for local arts
By Janelle Walker For the Courier-News February 18, 2013 3:04PM
Golden Dragon Acrobats came to the Hemmens Cultural Center, in Elgin on Feb. 13, 2011. | Courtesy of the Hemmens
Updated: March 20, 2013 6:13AM
Second in a two-part series on Elgin’s Hemmens Cultural Center, from its present state to what its future might be.
ELGIN — There is a lot of arts programming going on in Elgin. For many of those programs — dance, children’s theater and music — its epicenter is the Hemmens Cultural Arts Center.
In fact, said Hemmens manager Butch Wilhelmi, a variety of renters have the 44-year-old building booked nearly every weekend through the beginning of August — and not just the Elgin Symphony Orchestra.
Those weekend renters include The Cat’s Pajamas vintage fashion expo, wedding receptions and Green Room Improv in Exhibition Hall — the Hemmens basement. On the main stage, there are recitals for several area dance schools, talent competitions, musical programs, and the return of Elgin Summer Theatre.
In fact, there are only two weekends this spring that have not had some sort of programming at Hemmens — the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend and Easter weekend. Over the summer, August is blocked out as exhibition hall floor improvements are scheduled. Weekend availability opens up again around the holidays — Thanksgiving, and the weekends before Christmas, of Christmas, and New Year’s.
In 2012, only nine out of 52 weekends were left unbooked.
Those renter numbers do not include the number of programs and events scheduled on weekdays, either, Wilhelmi noted.
Five days a week, the Salvation Army’s Golden Diners program rents the Hemmens kitchen to prepare meals for 800 senior citizens in Kane and McHenry counties.
No tear-down plan
The city does not yet know the full final financial impact of its decision last year to discontinue city-sponsored performances (called a presenting season), require every user to pay a fee and no longer offer discounts to non-profit and long-term renters, said City Manger Sean Stegall.
While the Hemmens is on the same January-December budget as the city, its year is scheduled around a typical, September-through-June arts season, Wilhelmi said.
In 2012, however, the building’s revenue was $557,800, on expenditures of $1.4 million — leaving a $857,000 deficit.
The 2012 budget expected a reduced revenue for the building — just $276,800, and expenditures of $798,000 — leaving a deficit of $521,000 for the year.
Taking away non-profit discounts was to “understand the context of all budget decisions being made — what is our true subsidy for performing arts in Elgin,” Stegall said.
A statement attributed to Elgin Symphony Orchestra’s Chief Executive Officer David Bearden that the Hemmens might as well be razed if the ESO were to cease operations there does not make financial sense for the city, Stegall said.
While keeping the Hemmens viable costs the city money, “what the community gets as a whole is another discussion,” Stegall said.
Dance and theater
Many renters — including some long-time users who saw their 35 percent non-profit discounts go away this year — still continued their rental contracts with the Hemmens in 2012-13.
One of those is the South Elgin-based Sherwood School of Ballet. The private dance school has been holding its yearly recital at Hemmens since the building opened in 1969, Nancy Sherwood said. “I think our name is on a plaque there,” noting the school’s long-time contribution, she said.
As a for-profit business, Sherwood Ballet does not receive any discounts for performing there. As a long-term renter, Sherwood does have first refusal for rental dates. She picks the third weekend in May.
“To us, (the Hemmens) is invaluable,” Sherwood said. “We wouldn’t know what to do if we didn’t have that place to go to. We started at the high schools and outgrew those.
“From there, we went to the Hemmens, and it has been perfect. We would be up a creek without it … (as would) all of the dance studios in the area,” she said.
At one time, her studio’s recital would have 800-person audiences, filling up the 1,200-seat Hemmens’ first floor, she said. Those numbers have dropped during the recession, she said, but it is still one of the only area venues to hold the number of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents who attend.
“There is nothing wrong with that building. We think it is great,” Sherwood said.
Children’s Theatre of Elgin has been renting the Hemmens twice a year since 1988, providing young area thespians a performance opportunity and area students an opportunity to see local theatre.
Because of the city’s art program budget cuts, the CTE lost its contract for services and its 35 percent discount, said CTE office manager Susan Heaton. At one time, those discounts and city contributions totaled $18,000 a year for the CTE, she said.
“Our first productions were kind of a partnership with the recreation department of Elgin. They were interested in a theater offering but were not able to produce that themselves,” she said.
In the past 25 years, CTE has produced 50 shows at Hemmens. Another two shows each year are performed at Elgin Community College’s theater — a smaller space that cannot accommodate as-large crowds.
Neither does ECC lend itself to the school shows. This year, the production of “Seussical, Jr.,” set for April 12-14, will have two school shows — daytime performances for area schoolchildren — and both have already sold out. Another has been added, which is also selling well, Heaton said.
At one time, School District U46 allowed teachers to use buses to take their students to the school shows. Those opportunities also have been cut. In response, CTE offered discounted tickets to U46 schools within walking distance to ensure students had a chance to see live theater, Heaton said.
The night performances also sell well. Over one weekend, Heaton said, CTE can sell 800 seats for each show.
“For ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ one year ago, we had 5,000 people including the school shows,” over six performances, she said.
Because the city is no longer offering a presenting season at the Hemmens, Heaton believes that has led to more residents attending the children’s performances.
But with no more city funding and the loss of its discount, the CTE also has had to kick up its fundraising and cut costs, Heaton said. One production can cost — with royalties, rental, costumes and staff — $40,000, she said.
“We cut expenses, and we are also very careful in selection of productions … so hopefully we will be able to break even. ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Peter Pan.’ Things that are familiar and will sell,” Heaton said.
The group has raised ticket prices for evening performances to $9 for children and $11 for adults and is soliciting more contributions and pledges to make up for lost city funding.
“Our whole goal is to keep it affordable for families, period. We do whatever we have to keep those kinds of costs down so families can enjoy live theater,” Heaton said.
Wants in, too
Kathy Dixon, of Dixon Dance Academy in West Dundee, contracts to operate The Centre of Elgin’s youth dance program. The yearly recital for that program is also held at the Hemmens.
“If we didn’t have it at the Hemmens, I don’t know what we would do. Maybe hold it at ECC, but it would cost more money,” Dixon said.
Simply not having a recital could be a death knell for the program, she said. Through the city-owned Centre, two sessions are offered — one with and one without a year-ending recital. The sessions with a recital are twice as filled as those without, she said.
“We usually fill the Hemmens up to the balcony,” Dixon said.
If the Hemmens were to close for any reason, there are other locations, she said. But they cannot hold the same audience and would likely need longer rentals to fit all families — costing parents and programs more in the long run.
Neither do other facilities have Hemmens’ staff, Dixon said.
“At the Hemmens, the lighting is so much better — superior — and the technicians are wonderful there. It is low-stress for me as a dance teacher. It is the difference between students running it versus professionals who know the equipment,” Dixon said.
Her private studio in West Dundee does not hold its recital at Hemmens, but not for lack of want, Dixon said. There are no open weekends available that fit closely enough with the school’s schedule, she said.
The Hemmens is, she said, the center of arts in Elgin.
“I have been to the ESO once … in 20 years in Elgin. I have been to the Hemmens thousands of times for other events,” Dixon said.