Giordano Dance transforms historic church into modern marvel

Giordano Dance transforms historic church into modern marvel

Eight years after being hired as Giordano Dance Chicago’s Executive Director, Michael McStraw and business partner/Artistic Director Nan Giordano have already transformed the dance company by pushing it to take artistic risks and expand its influence worldwide. Now, the duo is poised to make over the organization yet again.

“It is exciting and terrifying all at once,” McStraw says.

Exciting because Giordano Dance Chicago (GDC) is in the midst of redeveloping the former Hermon Baptist Church in Lincoln Park into its new home. But terrifying, too, because what started as a desire to find a new facility for the dance company has evolved into an ambitious vision to create a comprehensive center of dance where one can do more than take classes – such as learn about dance, take in an informal showing, or participate in a residency or mentor program. GDC is a world-class dance company and a driving force in Chicago’s thriving performing arts community. The company continually pushes the boundaries of jazz and contemporary dance. Located in Evanston until 2012, it has since moved into Chicago’s Loop then South Loop neighborhoods.

GDC began working with IFF’s Real Estate Solutions team in 2016 to help the agency explore options for finding a new home. Scenarios and ideas considered included renting new space, purchasing a to-be-determined building, and partnering with similar organizations to create a type of “center for the arts.” Amidst this textbook approach to pursuing a development project, a supporter introduced GDC to the 121-year-old church and offered to purchase it for the company.

And, with that, the textbook was thrown out the window.

“One thing I have learned throughout this effort is that the textbook process for planning for, acquiring, and constructing a new building probably doesn’t happen for any of us,” McStraw says.

But McStraw and GDC were prepared to pivot. The company had been considering a move for several years and, in addition to working with IFF, had talked to other centers of dance around the country to learn from their experiences. The conclusion: there is no “right” way to do these projects.

“I don’t know if anyone does it the way it is supposed to be done,” McStraw says. “Nothing really follows a typical or linear process. When you have something that interrupts the normal path, it may give you benefits, but it also upsets the normal curve of the process.”

For Giordano Dance Chicago that interruption came by way of the donor’s purchase of the Hermon Baptist building. At that point, the vision for the facility grew and people began to look at GDC differently, seeing them as an “organization about to blossom.”

“If we followed a more normal process, we first would have increased staff and built more significant reserves, but that isn’t the way it worked,” McStraw says. “There is a lot of chicken and egg going on.”

GDC is working hard to progress the project and its capital campaign without undermining its general operating budget, staying lean where it can while working through unanswered questions about building plans and future operating needs. Giordano has retained a team to provide pre-construction services translating bKL Architecture’s design for an angular glass and metal exo-skeleton enveloping the church façade into a larger, dance-centric space.

“We are charging forward knowing it is going to be rough at times, but good golly, we have a building,” McStraw says.

He encourages other nonprofits to “not be afraid, but make sure you understand the pieces you are lacking and what investment is needed to bring you up to speed.” As Giordano Dance Chicago prepares for its first-ever capital campaign, McStraw has learned that you cannot be too ready to answer questions about everything from construction costs to operating expenses.

In GDC’s case, preparation comes from the understanding that its current eight-person staff will need to evolve and grow to absorb and care for the planned 23,000-square-foot building. General operating costs will increase but be offset by revenue generators included in the project: a 3,000-square-foot retail space in the basement of the building, rooftop special event space, and dance school tuition/fees.

McStraw envisions the next life for the church building to be a community center – a structure designed around dance instructors, supporters, and students. Feedback from the community has been positive with many neighbors in this heavily foot-trafficked area asking when they can sign up for classes.

Class registration won’t be starting just yet, even though GDC has acquired the building, held a ground-breaking on March 16, and moved its eight-person staff into the basement of the building. But the company does plan to create a Sanctuary Series of events, programs, and activities that build relationships with Lincoln Park residents by getting them to experience the arts.

For McStraw, the excitement comes, in part, from being able to move the company into the “deeply spiritual space” of the church, a backdrop suiting the artistic activities to be housed within its walls. He says he also loves this type of work – strategic thinking and making sure you are prepared to answer all types of tough questions.

So far, the project has expanded a circle of excitement around GDC and has attracted new board members. McStraw says: “Supporters, in general, who may not be new, are understanding that there may be a way for them to help us in a way that they had never thought of before.”

McStraw says IFF’s feasibility study has been a great tool for communicating about the project and building support. Aspirational statements for the planning have moved away from simply “we are going to open a school” because, as McStraw says, “this whole wide world of economic opportunity has opened up to us.”

FGC’s upcoming events include its “Live In The Momentum” series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on October 26 and 27. For more information, please visit www.giordanodance.org.

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