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Beverly Arts Center Executive Director Reflects on Her First 100 Days

 Heather Ireland Robinson began as the executive director of the Beverly Arts Center on Feb. 24. She took over the financially-strapped arts center amid a turnaround that aimed to rid the building of its crippling mortgage debt.
Beverly Arts Center Director Reflects After 100 Days
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MORGAN PARK — Heather Ireland Robinson treated herself to a fresh coat of paint on Tuesday after 100 days as the executive director of the Beverly Arts Center.

Robinson, 44, of Chatham chose bright colors for her corner office, which seems only appropriate as she's predicting bright days ahead for the once-struggling arts center at 2407 W. 111th St.

"We've been in survival mode," Robinson said. "Now it's time to put down our roots and ensure we have this center forever."

Robinson took over the post on Feb. 24. Her much-anticipated hiring came five months after the financially-strapped arts center was given a $250,000 bailout by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Funds for the bailout came from the surplus created when 2012 NATO summit came in $10 million under budget. The bailout also included a plan for the Beverly Arts Center to renegotiate its $4.7 million mortgage with Fifth Third Bank.

 Heather Ireland Robinson (l.) took over as executive director of the Beverly Arts Center on Feb. 24. In April, she named Shellee Frazee 55, as the center's first artistic director.
Heather Ireland Robinson (l.) took over as executive director of the Beverly Arts Center on Feb. 24. In April, she named Shellee Frazee 55, as the center's first artistic director.
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The Cincinnati-based bank agreed to forgo $2 million in debt if the 40,000-square-foot arts center could raise $500,000 in one year. A fundraising effort, dubbed the BAC Challenge, was immediately launched.

Residents and business responded both with large and small donations. Local grocer County Fair Foods pledged $125,000 toward the effort. But the bulk of the donations came in lesser amounts, mostly from residents dedicated to preserving the arts within their neighborhood, Robinson said.

"I am amazed at the community support when it comes to the BAC Challenge," she said.

Just three months into the fundraising effort, the arts center raised $275,000, and a new fundraising goal was set at $1 million. Anything beyond the $500,000 pledged to Fifth Third Bank would go to pay down the $1.75 million mortgage that remained, BAC Challenge co-chairman Michael Stanton said.

As the dark financial cloud hanging above the arts center began to disperse, Robinson turned her attention to programming. She named Shellee Frazee, 55, as the first artistic director of Beverly Arts Center in April.

"I'm the left brain. She's the right brain," Robinson said.

Frazee sets the tone for programming at the Beverly Arts Center. She and Robinson are soon to launch a "Conservatory Track," or a series of classes within specific disciplines. Students passionate about dance, theater or visual arts can participate in dedicated tracks, improving their skills with a compounding series of lessons.

"Heather has been a breath of fresh air. She has an arts background, and she understands what needs to be done here," Frazee said.

Robinson also plans to add a marketing specialist later this month. A development strategist will be added by the end of the summer to handle grant writing, planned giving and donor resources.

Robinson realizes that the Beverly Arts Center could rely solely on the residents of Beverly, Morgan Park and Mount Greenwood to fill its 400-seat theater and classrooms. But she also believes that the arts center has an obligation to be engaged in Chicago's greater artistic community.

"Our first name is Beverly, but our last name is arts," she said.

A wide array of programming is needed to satisfy both the demands of the neighborhood and a commitment to the arts throughout the city, Robinson said.

She's also become well aware of the Beverly Arts Center's niche within her first 100 days. The arts center cannot compete with the Chicago Park District when it comes to low-cost activities for children and adults, she said.

But she believes the Beverly Arts Center can offer more specialized classes taught by expert teachers. These first-rate workshops cost far less at the Beverly Arts Center than at other elite programs such as the Sherwood Community Music School at Columbia College Chicago or the Art Institute of Chicago, Robinson said.

Perhaps most importantly, Robinson has brought a different vibe to the Beverly Arts Center. Frazee arrived in Beverly from Davenport, Iowa in 2009. She worked as an instructor and coordinator of the dance and theater programs before being named to her current position. She's seen some dark days, but those seem to be in the past.

"The energy level has skyrocketed. It's fun to come to work again, and it's exciting," Frazee said.

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