Audrey Wells piece

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smile Audrey

Champaign-Urbana, a cultural outpost on the prairie, the Timbuktu of its day, treasures and protects its gems. The Art Theater is one of those gems. Without driving to Chicago or making one’s way to the cinema meccas of New York City or Los Angeles, local folks can see the latest, coolest independent and international films on the big screen. No, it’s not a megaplex with an IMAX. Instead it is a cozy theater right in downtown Champaign that serves locally-grown popcorn, alcoholic beverages if that’s your thing, and plenty of sugary treats. And it has a screen larger than one on anyone’s television, computer, or phone. Size matters.

So it is that when the very existence of this beloved gem of a theater was threatened, the community came to the rescue. Now proudly and aptly named the Art Theater Co-op, the theater boasts more than 1300 owners and is alive and well to tell its story, or rather, have its story told for it. (It’s busy showing movies.)

First, let’s rewind for some brief history. On 11/12/13 the Art Theater will celebrate its 100th birthday. When it opened in 1913, it was called the Park Theatre. In 1958, after the Park closed, the Art Theater Guild out of Ohio bought it, renamed it the Art Theatre, and made some big changes. Out with the typical Hollywood fare; in with international and independent films. Roger Ebert and the rest of the community was introduced to great directors such as Ingmar Bergman from Sweden, Federico Fellini from Italy, Francis Truffaut from France, and Akira Kurasawa from Japan.  Reading subtitles became cool. The Art served free coffee and had artwork in the lobby. Hip movie-goers went to the Art. Except for a hiatus from 1970 – 1987 when the Art turned to the adult film market to stay alive, the theater has been what is called an art house cinema.

Jump forward to 2010. Film lover and business-person Sanford Hess became operator of the theater. Sanford took over from Greg Boardman, who had installed an excellent sound system and started hosting film festivals. Hess took the Art to even greater heights. He personalized the experience by addressing audiences before a film started. He got a liquor license. He added late night screenings of classic and cult favorites like The Big Lebowski. Hess started a documentary festival. Some folks may remember seeing The Interrupters at the Art, a moving documentary about peace-making on the streets of Chicago. And Hess gave the theater its American spelling: theatre became theater.

Sanford Hess’s personal connection to the audience of the Art Theater plays an important role in the story of the Co-op.  In addition to talking directly to people, he maintained a website, a Facebook page, and an email list. Early in 2012, using the means above, he warned of a possible, impending shut down of the Art. The distribution method of movies was on the brink of radical change. In the next two years or so, all movies would be digital and would require specially designed and installed projectors. What was the dollar cost for shifting to the new system? Roughly $80,000. That was a lot of money to raise. Rather than increase ticket prices or charge $15.00 for a big of popcorn, Hess would have to take out a loan for the money. Sorry, he said. I can’t afford to do that. His message to patrons: when the lease on the building is up at the end of 2012, the business will close unless — or until — another owner steps forward. Sanford Hess could have simply closed the Art Theater business and walked away. Gratefully, he gave the Art’s patrons a heads-up.

One of the heads that perked up at Sanford Hess’s news sits on the shoulders of Ben Galewsky, a key character in our saga of the formation of the Art Theater Co-op. Then chair of the board of directors of the Common Ground Food Co-op, Galewsky had helped with Common Ground’s move from the basement of the Illinois Disciples Foundation to its current and more prominent location at Lincoln Square Village, where it even went through an expansion. Galewsky speculated that the co-op business model could apply to the Art Theater. He approached Hess with the idea who thought it was worth a try.

The next step involved organizing an interim board charged with investigating the feasibility of a co-op and then charging ahead to get it started. Hess and Galewsky approached locals they thought could help. After some research and discussion into the feasibility of the project, they agreed to go forward.

Sub-committees were formed to write the business plan, handle outreach, compose by-laws, and investigate digital projection. The group turned to Indigogo, an on-line source for e-begging, and quickly raised the stated goal of $2,000 for administrative costs. Those who pledged had the opportunity to help choose a film for the kick-off event to recruit owners to the Art Theater Co-op. The big event was December 16, 2011 and the film, the Coen brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou? The ease of reaching the goal on Indigogo gave hope to the interim board that the community would support a co-op. By March of 2012, 500 people had become owners. The interim board disbanded and the first elections were held for the inaugural board of directors.

The cost of a share, giving a new owner full rights of participation, is $65. Under the law, people can, simply to keep the co-op strong, purchase up to nine shares. Through word of mouth, at the Art Theater, on the website, and tabling at the Urbana Farmer’s Market, Ebertfest, and Common Ground, the stated goal of $100,000 was reached by July 2012. Approximately 1200 people had signed up as owners.  The Art Theater Co-op, still gestating, was soon to be born.

In August, Austin McCann came on board as the General Manager. Austin had made his mark on the community working at the intersection of the arts and social justice. His love of the arts, knowledge of film, and enthusiasm gave the Co-op a strong start. On September 7, 2012 the Art Theater Co-op was born!

Over one year old now, the Art Theater Co-op thrives. The new digital projector was installed in August. Over 1300 people are owners. In March 2013, board elections will be held.

The Art Theater turns 100 on November 13, 2013. Most single screen theaters of its ilk long ago closed their doors, either in the 1950s because of television or the 1980s because of VCRs. But the Art lives! Why? Because of the strength of the Urbana-Champaign community. By hundreds of people pitching in a small amount, an enormous achievement is shared by all.

How can folks help keep the Co-op going strong? Go see movies there! Become an owner if you have not. Add to your shares if you are already an owner. Encourage others. Contribute ideas. Run for the board. Sign up for the email list. Enjoy the late night festivities. Buy a copy of the upcoming book that chronicles the theater’s history: The Art Theater: Showing Movies for 100 Years. Let’s keep it going for another 100!

Audrey Wells

On the Art Theater Co-op Board of Directors

One of three authors of The Art Theater: Showing Movies for 100 Years

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