The Athenaeum Theatre will reopen next month with new leadership, a new direction and a new name. Now called the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture, led by executive director Lawrence Daufenbach, the historic venue will undergo a series of renovations, beginning with a $4 million first-floor renovation to create a new events space.
“If you look back to when it was built,” Daufenbach said of the building, “it was a lot more open rooms and meeting spaces and gallery areas. So this was a way to have a community space and a bigger multifunctional space for the building.”
This new event space, designed by John Ronan Architects, will be able to seat up to 168 people and will include a bar. Daufenbach said the new space will take up a good section of the first floor of the Athenaeum’s floor plan where one black box studio, a cafe, and the box office currently sit. The company expects the new space to be completed by spring 2022.
Future plans for Athenaeum renovations include newly designed black box studios, working with Charcoalblue, whose hands have been all over Chicago theaters, including Steppenwolf Theater Company’s new theater and the Yard at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Additionally, the company is planning renovations for its proscenium Main Stage Theatre.
While Daufenbach said the company has already raised the $4 million for the new event space, the company is gearing up for another fundraising push for these additional renovations. Daufenbach said that all of the funding has come from donors, without the aid of government funds
Daufenbach declined to get into many of the details surrounding the leadership change, but he did note that the transition has been in process for around two years, with him stepping into this role in November 2020. Daufenbach said that there was a desire to find new ways to bring in money to the Athenaeum. When he was joining the company, Daufenbach looked at the overhead and what was needed to take care of the building and saw that there needed to be a substantial change to the organization’s business plan.
“There have been parts of it that needed to be addressed on the capital repair side,” said Daufenbach, noting the building’s years of service hosting productions and rehearsals throughout its spaces. “Creating a revenue model and a way to fundraise was kind of essential for everybody involved, and certainly the parish.”
The Athenaeum is owned by St. Alphonsus Church next door, where Daufenbach and his wife Katie Joy, who joins the organization as its associate director, are both parishioners. Daufenbach, the founder of Daufenbach Camera, a full-service rental house specializing in motion picture camera equipment rentals for film and television, said performance space rentals have always been of interest to him.
The way the company will run these new events spaces and bookings as part of this new revenue model is yet to be determined as Daufenbach continues to build out his new staff. He mentioned the potential of eventually having a full-time artistic director overseeing expanded programming throughout the building. Included in that effort is finding the right people to support the Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture’s new mission.
The name change, Daufenbach said, hearkens back to the mission of the building when it was originally founded by the Redemptorist Fathers of St. Alphonsus, opening in 1911 as “a home for the intellectual, physical, and social intercourse” for their parishioners.[Most read] Five reputed gang members charged in RICO conspiracy that includes brazen fatal shooting of Chicago rapper FBG Duck »
Over the years, the St. Alphonsus Athenaeum’s (as it had once been called) main proscenium stage became its most recognizable feature, with a lengthy history and a marquee that added to that branding. To Daufenbach, the name “Athenaeum Theatre” related too heavily to that one segment of the building. Renaming the building is an effort to emphasize the full scope of possibilities, events, and spaces within the Athenaeum as the company seeks to provide programming that can support the community.
“Events that come to a theater and a performing arts space are going to be that much more important for allowing people to grow deeper after so much that’s gone on in the last few years,” said Daufenbach. “We wanted to lean into the rest of the building and get people excited about what else was going to happen in the front half of the building.”
The Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture (2936 N. Southport Ave.) will launch its new programming on Nov. 14 with “Dante 360,” which will showcase music, performance, and art inspired by the Italian poet. More at www.athenaeumcenter.org/dante