Chicago arts non-profit fights to capture public attention amid pandemic

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Eli Schmitt

Homeroom arts non-profit put on a show called “Water Music on the Rocks.”

Dreary, rainy weather failed to deter patrons of Homeroom’s return to in-person art performances on Oct. 3.  

There in the sand, 50 people huddled on socially distant black circles and witnessed a piece called Water Music on the Rocks.   

Covid-19 restrictions meant they comprised a sold-out audience at Hollywood Beach on Chicago’s North Side.  

“It was very exciting that we were able to keep something normal in what has not been a normal year,” said Sarah Finch, the non-profit’s executive director.  

Homeroom strives to create original art that creates conversations through collaborations with organizations citywide.  

One such collaborator is 6018 North, an arts non-profit that operates from a decaying mansion in Edgewater.   

Water Music on the Rocks – described as a “series of live performances that respond to and highlight Chicago’s proximity to water” – emerged from the partnership.  

The performance started at 6018 North, near the Thorndale red line stop.  

From there, a New Orleans-style funeral procession, honoring the lives of Black and Brown people killed by the police, began to march down Winthrop Avenue.  

Trumpeter Alexander Massa led his band towards Hollywood Beach, blocking traffic and slowly growing the congregation.  

Once there, the audience heard hypnotic percussion from Ben Lamar Gay and Rob Frye, as well as experimental and distressing sonic collages from AJ McClenon while they spoke about white supremacy.   

Simon Anderson, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, led the audience in a meditation on water, the performance culminated in members of the audience kneeling in the wet sand to honor the power of water.  

The show concluded with a powerful improvised movement piece by Anna Martine Whitehead, a dancer whose work explores her identity as a Black queer woman.  

Themes of being like water flowed through all performances, inviting audiences to think about how to incorporate the malleable attributes of water into their life, especially now during a pandemic.    

Water Music is a success story for the arts community in Chicago. The community has been forced to change dramatically to survive. After restrictions in March, Homeroom had to cancel all planned in-person events, and in the process lost possible donations and attendance.   

The biggest blow came when Homeroom had to scrap its annual fundraising event, which helps keep programming available to the public.     

Homeroom has now worked double-time to secure funding for the organization.  

“It’s been challenging,” Finch said. “We’ve been trying different virtual ways to raise money: artist sponsorships, donations from virtual streaming and an annual campaign coming up so well see if there’s an effect on our regular donors.”   

Attracting attention is another challenge.   

“There’s so much going on in the virtual space not only in terms of streaming performances but also online activity and communications in general that it’s hard to get notice or interest,” said Artistic Director Paul Giallorenzo.    

With so much competition for eyeballs and ears in the arts community, organizations must use more than social media to attract people to events.  

Word of mouth and a shout out on WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, helped Homeroom and 6018 North put Water Music on for a sold-out crowd. 

Giallorenzo said Homeroom’s uniqueness stems from its hybrid method of collaboration and its mobility.  

“What has come out of necessity has created opportunities and ways to use platforms to show art,” said Finch.