Enhancing Assets teaches artists how to shine spotlight on their creative workBy Jennifer Carnig
Just five months ago, Charles Berg and two of his friends started a theater company, EP Theater, in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Pilsen. The group’s mission is grand—“to create the future of theater,” Berg said, but their resources are small. These three friends are EP Theater and the three men only scrape together, at best, a few thousand dollars to support each show, to pay the actors’ stipends, for costumes, promotions and rent on their 50-person South Halsted Street theater.
What’s more, the three are writers, actors and directors, not accountants, marketing managers or public relations specialists. They all are short on time—Berg is a waiter by day—and lack the business training to make their artistic dream a reality.
That’s why Berg was so excited to hear about Enhancing Assets, a program of the Civic Knowledge Project, the two-year-old community connections office of the Division of the Humanities. What began as a project to map humanities programs on the South Side has quickly become an established resource for small arts and cultural organizations on Chicago’s South Side.
Through Enhancing Assets and the Graham School of General Studies, Berg and six other students took a free four-week public relations class especially designed for arts organizations. In addition to developing a media plan and learning how to write an effective press release, Berg got what he and his company were really looking for, reviews in TimeOut Chicago and the Chicago Reader.
“It’s a good start,” the 28-year-old said, before admitting excitedly that his ambition is to “create a brand name” so that when people hear “EP Theater” they immediately think “innovation.”
Berg is getting some of the tools to do that through Enhancing Assets, a program that grew out of a conference that Danielle Allen, Dean of the Division of the Humanities, hosted in 2004 as a faculty member. The conference, “Cityspace: The Past of Urban Renewal and the Present and Future of Community Development,” drew 450 scholars, activists, city planners and community members to campus with the goal of assessing urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s, as well as discussing the goals of today’s community development projects.
At Cityspace, Allen met members of several cultural and arts organizations, and they all expressed the same concerns: No one knew where to turn for help when problems with insurance, legal questions or management issues arose. Many expressed a desire for contact with other not-for-profit arts organizations so they could share advice and stories.
That was when Allen realized the University could provide these arts organization leaders with a place to meet, talk and pool resources, as well as an opportunity to consult with legal, financial and public relations professionals to learn how to lead their organizations to their maximum potential.
In an effort to meet the needs of the community, Enhancing Assets has so far offered two quarters of public relations workshops. But a new grant from the Chicago Community Trust is making it possible for the University to expand the program. This spring and summer, the Civic Knowledge Project will once again offer classes through the Graham School, this time offering courses on a variety of subjects.
Though class topics are being finalized, possible subjects include board development, audience development, grant writing, technology in the arts, and human resources and staffing issues, in addition to again offering the popular public relations class.
The gem of the new class lineup is a documentary film course led by Judy Hoffman, a Visiting Lecturer in Visual Arts, and Margaret Caples, executive director of the Community Film Workshop. In addition to learning documentary filmmaking techniques, students in the class will develop their own six-minute videos they can use to reach out to possible donors and new audiences.
“These classes are a giant step forward on what we can offer local arts organizations,” said Elizabeth Babcock, the Executive Director of the Civic Knowledge Project. “There is currently no resource specifically for South Side arts and cultural organizations. We’re the first one.”
Babcock explained that many of the groups she works with are so small that they cannot get financial support or grants because no one knows their potential. But they also cannot take that next step of being able to demonstrate their reach and value without help. If the organization has no staff, for example, it can be difficult to keep up with the paperwork necessary to maintain not-for-profit status, to hold regularly scheduled events or get media attention.
“What I hope is that these workshops empower people to speak for themselves and to tell their own stories so they can make themselves known on their own terms,” said Deva Woodly, the fifth-year Political Science doctoral student who is leading the public relations classes.
Armed with worksheets and a list of assignments, Woodly has the participants bring in projects and press releases they are currently working on. Students critique each other’s media materials and work on the issues their organizations are dealing with in reaching out to the press.
On a recent Wednesday night, class members dissected a media alert on an art exhibition opening and created calendars so they could schedule when to send out public service announcements and make pitch calls to reporters.
“It’s amazing because they all are working for the improvement, enrichment and recognition of a community that has, for the most part, gone without improvement, enrichment and recognition,” Woodly said. “The existence and ability of these organizations to find and maintain themselves despite that is totally inspiring. Even if funders don’t know them or their audience isn’t large yet, they’re here and that’s a feat.”
However, for Berg and EP Theater, that is not enough. The company needs the press not only to help fill seats, but also to attract “new, exciting playwrights.”
So far, the new playwright the company has premiered is one that Berg is particularly excited about. His first professional full-length play La Bella Vita hit the stage in January and February.
“This is a good start,” Berg said with a smile. “It’s a very good start.”
For a list of classes being offered as they are announced, visit the Civic Knowledge Project’s Web site, http://civicknowledge.uchicago.edu. For more information on the program or to find out how organizations can get involved, contact Babcock at (773) 834-3929 or firstname.lastname@example.org.