Long-term Partnership with IFF Sees Chicago Arts Nonprofit Through Multiple Phases of Growth to First Owned Facility February 21, 2023

In a Nutshell

What: After more than 20 years operating without a facility of its own, a long-term partnership with IFF has helped Chicago Human Rhythm Project navigate several key decisions over the past 12 years as the organization leased its first space and then purchased a building that has expanded its reach, amplified its impact, and increased the organization’s sustainability.
Sector: Arts and Culture
Location: Chicago, IL (Calumet Heights)
Size: 11,000 square feet
Cost: $800,000 for the acquisition of the Mayfair Arts Center and initial building repairs
Sources of Funding/Financing: IFF loan, Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant, agency equity
IFF Support: Site search, feasibility study, and owner’s representation (2011-2014), $759,721 loan closed in July 2021, predevelopment support and owner’s representation (March 2021 to April 2022)
Design: TNS Studio
General Contractor: Trellis Group
Impact: A cost-neutral expansion that doubles program space; builds equity for long-term growth; helps to drive economic development in Calumet Heights; serves more children, teens, adults, artists, and nonprofits; and develops a replicable model for sustained, integrated, and equitable cultural investment.

As Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, the Chicago-based arts group has much to be proud of. What began with a single performance in 1988 to raise money for people affected by HIV/AIDS and to center the diverse rhythm community has evolved into a multi-faceted nonprofit organization that reaches tens of thousands of Chicagoans each year through performances, education, and programming focused on contemporary percussive arts, social reconciliation, and economic development. And while getting from point A to point B has been an achievement in and of itself, there’s just as much reason to celebrate where the organization is headed.

That’s because, last year, CHRP relocated to its first owned facility – the 11,000-square-foot Mayfair Arts Center (MAC) in Chicago’s Calumet Heights neighborhood. In doing so, CHRP has more than doubled its space, preserved the legacy of a storied institution that plays a vital role in its South Side community, and positioned the organization to double down on its mission to bring diverse individuals and communities together to share a common experience through rhythm.

CHRP’s move was supported by IFF’s real estate team and enabled in part by an IFF loan of approximately $760,000, continuing a long-term partnership that has helped the nonprofit successfully navigate several key facility decisions to expand its reach, amplify its impact, and increase the organization’s sustainability.

Putting a stake in the ground with the American Rhythm Center

Operating for more than two decades without a permanent facility for programming, CHRP rented space on a short-term basis when needed for seasonal dance festivals and classes, staged performances at venues like the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and offered dance programming at a variety of Chicago Public Schools. A longstanding office at the Athenaeum Theatre provided CHRP with the space it needed for administrative functions, but the financial crisis of the late 2000s prompted the organization to consider whether a model that had sustained the organization since its earliest days was in need of a refresh.

“The financial collapse of 2008 caused many arts organizations to look for ways to survive a really challenging time, and that’s what caused us to consider tying our boat together with other arts organizations to get through the storm and grow together,” explains CHRP Co-founder Lane Alexander. “The idea to create a shared collaborative space is what led us to the Fine Arts Building downtown on Michigan Avenue.”

With support from IFF’s real estate team, which conducted a feasibility study and site search, CHRP leased 4,600 square feet in the building – which has served as a creative hub for Chicago’s artists since the early 1900s. To update the aging space, CHRP embarked on a significant renovation project with IFF serving as its owner’s representative to create three modern dance studios plus administrative space, that, collectively, came to be known as the American Rhythm Center (ARC).

[The] disruption [of the pandemic is] what opened the door for us to move even closer to our mission of serving the people, organizations, and communities that haven’t historically been inside the institutional nexus for arts and culture in Chicago.

Beyond the creative combustion for its own programming, gained by co-locating in a building with a diverse group of fellow arts organizations, the ARC provided CHRP with the opportunity to expand its mission. The organization accomplished this by supporting diverse dance artists and subsidized studio rentals in an incubator and business development center for emerging dance companies and independent artists – who benefited from high-quality rehearsal and administrative spaces, as well as education programs designed to nurture business growth.

Together, these new activities contributed to meaningful growth for CHRP, with the organization increasing its annual revenue through rental income and tuition payments for classes by more than $280,000 between opening the ARC in 2012 and 2020. In turn, CHRP was able to increase its support for artists in residence, furthering its goal to contribute to the cultural tapestry of the city.

While the ARC was transformational for CHRP and many of its resident partners, operating it in the heart of Chicago’s business and retail district was not without challenges. The organization’s lease required monthly payments of nearly $11,000, which, though manageable in good times, created a hard cap on the residency program once at capacity and limited CHRP’s ability to increase pay for its staff. These factors were the driving forces behind the development of a new strategic plan in 2019 that called for CHRP to consider relocating the ARC to help the organization continue to grow. It was a decision that proved prescient soon after when the pandemic abruptly halted in-person activities.

“We had already made the decision to look for a space in a more affordable area of the city, and that was accelerated by the pandemic,” says Alexander. “It really became impossible to sustain our work without being able to use the ARC but still having to pay the rent. But that disruption is also what opened the door for us to move even closer to our mission of serving the people, organizations, and communities that haven’t historically been inside the institutional nexus for arts and culture in Chicago.”

Helping CHRP step through the door was long-term collaborator Peggy Sutton, an appreciation of history, a facility with the potential to support the organization in new and exciting ways, and access to capital and real estate support necessary to realize that potential.

A new lease on life for a cultural treasure on Chicago’s South Side

CHRP’s purchase and move to the two-story brick building at the corner of 87th St. and Bennett Ave. that’s now known as the Mayfair Arts Center is the start of a new chapter for the organization, but, for the facility itself, it’s the continuation of a legacy with roots stretching back more than 60 years. Prior to CHRP’s acquisition, the building was the longtime home of Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts, a storied dance school founded in 1957 by Tommy Sutton, a legendary performer and choreographer Alexander describes as one of three “tap masters” for which Chicago is known.

After retiring in the late 1970s, Sutton turned over leadership of the academy to his daughter, Peggy, who went on to nurture the dreams of thousands of aspiring dancers on the South Side, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, in an environment described in a 2021 See Chicago Dance story as “a safe and positive space…particularly [for] young dancers of color.” With a precipitous decline in enrollment caused by the pandemic and more than 40 years of service leading the academy, Sutton made the decision to retire and sell the school’s longtime home. When she called Alexander in November of 2020 to share her plans, the conversation quickly turned to saving the Mayfair legacy while also helping CHRP achieve its long-term goals in a new facility.

Having this arts center on the South Side where we can give people the chance to see and experience things that they may not have a chance to be a part of otherwise is beyond exciting.

Before committing the $800,000 needed to purchase the building and to complete basic repairs and cosmetic updates, CHRP once again relied on predevelopment support from IFF. After determining that the space was well suited for the organization and could be renovated more substantially in the future to support continued organizational growth, CHRP purchased the facility with the help of an IFF loan, a Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant, and cash on hand.

Then, with IFF remaining involved with the project as CHRP’s owner’s representative and TNS Studio providing the design, the organization set about repairing bathrooms and putting in new tile floors, installing new sprung floors in all five of the building’s dance studios, repairing the roof, and repainting throughout the space – with Trellis Group serving as the general contractor. After doubling its program space and gaining additional administrative space, CHRP’s mortgage payments are less than half of what it once paid in monthly rent – enabling the organization to invest more in its efforts to serve artists, small companies, and Chicago’s South Side residents.

Since opening the MAC in January 2022 – and retaining the Mayfair name to honor the Sutton family legacy – CHRP has re-launched all of the programming it once offered at the ARC. Since beginning limited operation in January 2022 and a grand re-opening last September, 5,400 people visited the MAC for classes and other programming, and CHRP anticipates that number will increase to 15,000 in 2023. The organization has also established formal relationships with five core resident partners, including Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Joel Hall Dancers & Center, Najwa Dance Corps, Emma Mae’s SunRays Studios, and Black Girls Dance, which is led by former Mayfair Academy of Fine Arts Artistic Director Erin Barnett and multiple community partners and independent artists.

A South Side native, Barnett grew up taking classes at the Academy under Peggy Sutton’s tutelage and went on to a distinguished career as a professional dancer before returning to the South Side so that more young people can have similar opportunities. The same is true of Kelli David-Low, CHRP’s program manager at the MAC, who’s another example of how the Sutton’s family legacy lives on through CHRP’s rejuvenation of the facility.

The Mayfair had been an anchor in the community and an economic engine for the South Side for decades, and it was important to us to make sure that the engine didn’t stop running.

“I was fortunate to have parents who worked extremely hard to be able to drive me all over Chicago so that I could take classes and study with some of the most talented people in the city, but not everyone has those opportunities or resources,” explains David-Low. “Having this arts center on the South Side where we can give people the chance to see and experience things that they may not have a chance to be a part of otherwise is beyond exciting.”

While continuing to settle into its new home at the MAC, CHRP is also planning for a second phase of construction that will increase the organization’s capacity and create new opportunities to draw visitors to the community. To accomplish this, CHRP intends to further renovate its largest studio, add two additional studios (one of which will be used for a black box performance venue), add a community café in a new lobby facing its parking lot, and upgrade accessibility through the facility.

“The Mayfair had been an anchor in the community and an economic engine for the South Side for decades, and it was important to us to make sure that the engine didn’t stop running,” says Alexander. “We’re working with our partners and businesses along 87th Street to figure out how we can work together to bring more people to the area, which will improve public safety and drive economic development. We think the Mayfair Arts Center can do a lot of good in addition to arts education, creation, and performance.”

Read about additional arts and culture organizations supported by IFF