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Spertus Institute Reinvents Itself

Spertus Institute Reinvents Itself

Howard Reich for the Chicago Tribune 

A storied Chicago institution works through a financial crisis
A leaner Spertus regroups

When Hal Lewis became president of Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, in July 2009, the future of the place looked grim.

Spertus owed $43.6 million of the $51.6 million it had borrowed to build its architecturally stunning site at 610 S.Michigan Ave., which had opened to wide critical praise in 2007.

The timing, however, was unfortunate, for the ensuing economic crash meant that Spertus' endowment plunged 22 percent from the previous two years, to $6 million. As a result, Spertus' operating budget for fiscal 2010 took a commensurate nose dive: 23 percent down from the previous year, leaving the institution with a projected operating deficit of $500,000 (against a budget of $5.2 million).

At the same time, Spertus was suffering a very public contretemps, after an outcry in some quarters of the Jewish community over its 2008 exhibition "Imaginary Coordinates." Presented as part of Chicago's Festival of Maps, the show touched a hot wire of Jewish politics: the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Executives of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, which provides some funding for Spertus, publicly criticized the show, and the museum shut it down. This prompted a new wave of criticism, from other segments of Jewish Chicago, as well as from some Arab-Americans.

"At the time Hal came in as president, we had so many problems on so many fronts that it was hard to see the forest for the trees," says Donna Barrows, then and now Spertus' board chairwoman.

Adds Rick Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, in Skokie: "Many of us across the community really did not know what the endgame might have been for Spertus."

But Barrows and Lewis believe Spertus has averted an endgame, addressing its financial problems, dramatically cutting its expenses and, they say, repositioning the institution for future growth.

"Are we completely out of the woods? No," says Lewis. "But we've taken a huge step."

Specifically, Lewis cites 2012 as the second straight year Spertus will have a balanced operating budget (of $4.9 million). In addition, after what Barrows calls "frustrating" negotiations with its bank creditors, Spertus obtained a three-year extension on its Letter of Credit for the building loan.

"I can look any donor in the face and say, 'The money you contribute is being used for programmatic purposes, and we are not spending more money than we have, we are not living beyond our means,'" adds Lewis.

In some ways, in fact, Spertus has been flexing its creative muscles, offering a degree program off-campus in Chicago suburbs and in Pittsburgh and Canada; collaborating with Northwestern University on a new Certificate of Jewish Leadership; and presenting distinctive public programs. Among them: a recent, standing-room-only performance by jazz musician Howard Levy with cantor Alberto Mizrahi, and the forthcoming Chicago premiere of the controversial documentary film "Women Unchained," about Orthodox Jewish women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce. (Disclosure: "Prisoner of Her Past," a documentary film I produced and wrote, was screened once at Spertus in 2010).

Along the way, however, Spertus has had to make stark sacrifices, cutting its staff by 52 percent and curtailing public hours for its library and exhibitions.

At the very least, the moves have significantly altered Spertus' public profile.

"We went from (being) an $8.5 million-plus organization to a $5 million organization," says Lewis. "In a nonprofit, when you eliminate salaries, you eliminate programs. And it's not that we had such redundancies or fat in our budget. What we cut was muscle."

As a result, Spertus opted to reassess its mission and zeroed in on its core strengths, say Lewis and Barrows. This meant relinquishing some programs designed for children and families, which had brought a steady stream of visitors into Spertus.

"As an example, we used to have a lot of middle school students coming through Spertus for Holocaust education," says Barrows. "That's something we don't do (anymore).

"There's now an Illinois Holocaust Museum that can do this very nicely — we don't need to be duplicative. ... We've had to focus, and that has helped us to do the things we do well, most."

Before the cutbacks, Spertus accommodated more than 200,000 people a year. Today, Lewis notes in an email, "It is difficult to say with precision if that original number has changed materially," because of the new ways Spertus now presents its programs in Chicago and around the world.

Some believe that the tenor of Spertus' public programs has changed. Though the ongoing "Uncovered & Rediscovered: Stories of Jewish Chicago" expansively traces the history of Jewish life here in a series of exhibitions that will continue to unfold in coming months, it clearly doesn't carry the provocative edge of the dust-raising "Imaginary Coordinates."

"During the economic downturn, we've moved away from big, loaned shows and focused on our very best holdings that have not been exploited and shared with the public," says Ilana Segal, Spertus' curator of collections. "It plays to our constituents and strengths.

"When we conducted focus groups on reinventing Spertus, (Chicago Jewish history) was one of the things that people felt they wanted to learn about. We got a sense from our constituents that they were enthusiastic about it."

Indeed, true to his word, Lewis — upon taking the top job at Spertus — immediately began what he called a "listening tour," to hear what Spertus devotees in Chicago and beyond wanted from the institution. The data inspired the "Uncovered & Rediscovered" project and underscores Lewis' efforts to "listen to the market," as he puts it.

But shouldn't a major cultural institution project an agenda of its own, rather than merely feed the market what it wants?

"I agree completely," says Lewis. "We listen carefully to student evaluations, but students don't hire faculty. We listen very much to what the voice of the nonprofit community and greater Chicago tells us, but we set our own curriculum.

"If implicit in your question is that we are only market-driven, I think that's wrong. I don't think we are that way."

To illustrate the point, Lewis points to a forthcoming program by Shalom Auslander, the author of "Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir" and Spertus' upcoming Chicago premiere of the "Women Unchained" documentary.

"We made a decision to premiere this film, knowing full well that it will arouse the ire of some people," says Lewis. "So do I listen? Yes. But I'll never let our commitment to raising hard questions diminish our experiences."

Not everyone is wholly persuaded.

"The mission has changed," says Rhoda Rosen, who was director of the Spertus Museum during the controversial "Imaginary Coordinates" show and now is associate director for the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University.

The "Uncovered & Rediscovered" show, adds Rosen, "may well meet their (current) vision very well.

"The mission at the time I was brought on was to re-envision what a Jewish museum might be ... this notion of what an ethnic, cultural-specific museum could be as part of the wider mission of public life."

Whether or not one accepts Lewis' view that Spertus remains an institution determined to challenge the cultural status quo, the numbers affirm that he, Barrows and their board have begun to stabilize the institution financially, while Spertus has expanded in some areas. Currently, 30 to 40 percent of its public programs now unfold off campus, in the Chicago suburbs; and its master of arts in Jewish professional studies degree is offered in the Chicago area, elsewhere in the U.S. and across Canada. In essence, Spertus has reconceived how it reaches its public. "I think we'll continue to export that to other communities," says Barrows.

"I think it puts Spertus on the map as a Chicago organization that's not limited to Chicago."

Yet that $43.6 million debt, financed by tax-free municipal bonds, remains. The bonds don't come due until 2035, but at some point Spertus will need to do more than just service its debt (which it's doing now, in part, by leasing its classroom space during the daytime to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and office space to Meadville Lombard Theological School).

What to do about the debt?

"I don't have any doubt that a solution will have to be completing the fundraising campaign — raising sufficient dollars to ultimately complete the vision of the people who built this building originally," says Lewis.

"I will say categorically, and most people who know anything about fundraising would say this is not the time to begin a massive capital campaign. Spertus as an institution is still in the process of rebuilding.

"I see the past couple of years as stabilization and see us going into a period of growth and restoration. I believe we have to wait until the economy improves and until Spertus has once again established itself to be able to compete aggressively in philanthropy."

In the meantime, though, Spertus continues to adapt to new realities — an institution born in 1924 inventing new strategies in the 21st century.

"I've always felt, and I believe strongly, that our community deserves a strong and vibrant Spertus Institute," says Hirschhaut, of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

"And Hal has steered the institution through very precarious waters."

No small feat. #

Friday, January 27, 2012