Onward and upward
A venue owner discovers what happens when good intentions meet government.
Horace Mann, the founding father of Antioch College, coined the institution’s dictum: “Be ashamed to die until you win some victory for humanity.” As an undergrad at the Ohio school, Marshall Preheim dismissed the axiom; now 34 years old, he lives by it, ranking it one of his “top ten spiritual statements.” With any luck (and a damn good lawyer), Preheim hopes more Chicagoans will benefit from his latest venture, AV-aerie—a nonprofit resource center and performance space dedicated to cultural, social and environmental initiatives. Ideally, revenue from rock shows will fund social work. Yet despite his philanthropic aspirations, he finds himself tangled in the city’s red tape.
Preheim has spearheaded the community-minded venue in an approximately 3,500-square-foot space inside the Fulton Street Collective building, on the corner of Damen Avenue. The room formerly housed his Open-End gallery and Ideotech printing facility. Intended as an alternative to the buyer-conscious culture of the local art scene, Open-End began drawing recognition as a viable performance space following a sold-out concert by Will Oldham and Joanna Newsom in 2004. Meanwhile, Ideotech became tethered to a large corporate client. While the work paid the bills, Preheim found it unfulfilling. He opted to “shut down the system”; in May 2007, Ideotech/Open-End closed its doors.
Open-End never had trouble pulling in talent, so Preheim figured he could best realize his broader community mission, not to mention pay the rent, by hosting music and theater events. Dubbed AV-aerie (referencing both the performance aspect, “audio visual,” and the organization’s higher purpose, “aerie”), the reconceived venue launched in August.
In its first year, AV-aerie hosted an impressive array of talent, including performances programmed by the Empty Bottle, such as hipster saloon-punk act Man Man and the International Noise Conference, an all-day experimental extravaganza. However, a major obstacle arose in May following the resurrection of the city’s event-promoter ordinance, a misguided attempt to force cash-strapped independent promoters to buy exorbitant insurance policies in the wake of the E2 tragedy. The ordinance is widely viewed by the local arts community as prohibitive to independent arts programming.
On May 9, two days after the City Council tabled the ordinance due to widespread outrage, two Department of Revenue detectives slapped Preheim with a citation for lacking a Public Place of Amusement (P.P.A.) license, during a local theater group’s preview night. Preheim had forgotten to enforce his usual policy of plastering the space with signage designating the performance as donation-based rather than ticketed, and local officials immediately took note.
By June, Preheim found himself standing in front of the zoning board, where he opted to plead liable for distributing liquor without a license (similar to gallery openings, AV-aerie regularly operates a donation bar during performances), and the P.P.A. violation was dropped. As a result, Preheim is pursuing 501(c)(3)—nonprofit—status, in addition to both liquor and P.P.A. licenses, to ensure there are “no [lingering] questions of legitimacy.”
“AV-aerie is critical to my mental health,” Preheim says. “I can’t let it go.” Since AV-aerie’s launch, Preheim and its board of directors established a green-roof initiative for the Fulton Street building, which led to a project with the Chicago Conservation Corps. Yet Preheim bemoans the fact that the collective of volunteers hasn’t accomplished more.
Assuming he’s able to jump through all of the city’s hoops, Preheim hopes to continue bringing a variety of programming to AV-aerie. More importantly, he’s adamant that the space gain recognition for its philanthropic mission. But for now, Preheim and his dedicated volunteer staff remain in a costly battle. While licenses only run in the high three figures, lawyer fees and prerequisite insurance policies add up. He says, “It’s just infuriating. Just tell me what needs to happen to make it legit. We’re not hurting anybody.”
AV-aerie hosts a private show featuring Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin Friday 11.