Arts patron leaves behind 'Hopie' award / by R. Sheth

August 30, 2007
By Charles Stroch

Like so many other others in Chicago-area non-profit theater, Michael Halberstam benefited greatly from the support, counsel and criticism of Hope Abelson. On Saturday, it will be a year since Abelson -- working producer, philanthropist, grande dame -- died at age 95, but Halberstam, her friend of 20 years, would prefer not to consider her as gone.

"One thinks of her as being indestructible, permanent," said Halberstam, artistic director of Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. "She left so much of a legacy in all the theaters she helped guide and influence."Helping to keep that legacy vital is the Lester and Hope Abelson Fund for the Performing Arts. It is a donor-advised fund at the Chicago Community Trust that Hope Abelson set up in her and her late husband's names a few years ago, but it didn't become fully funded until after her death. The fund's earnings are to be used for a new award that is to be given each year to two emerging arts group. The first pair are to be given in September. Though the award will carry both her parents' names, Katherine Abelson said, it is affectionately known as "the Hopie." According to the trust, the awards will recognize area performing arts groups that have less than $1 million in operating revenues, been in existence at least three years and whose work demonstrates "innovation, inspiration and creativity." They are unrestricted grants, their sizes to be determined each year by the fund's earnings.

The first award, of $25,000, is to be given to Congo Square Theatre Company in a small ceremony before the Sept. 15 official opening of "Elmina's Kitchen," by Kwame Kwei-Armah, in the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts.

The second award, of $15,000, is to be presented to Silk Road Theatre Project before the Sept. 28 official opening of "Merchant on Venice," by Shishir Kurup, in the Chicago Temple Building.

Though the prize isn't the richest, "it's large to us, man," said Derrick Sanders, founding artistic director of Congo Square.

He said the late playwright August Wilson introduced him to Hope Abelson about seven years ago. She would attend the troupe's shows and offer him encouragement during chats in her Gold Coast condo. "She is an icon in Chicago theater," he said. "For us to receive this honor seems like a blessing from her to keep going."

Jamil Khoury, Silk Road's founding artistic director, knew Hope Abelson only by reputation but considers an award in her name "a wonderful validation of what we are doing." Silk Road is to use the money for new theater seats.

Khoury said he was glad to see that the first two Hopie recipients "are committed to reaching out to diverse audiences and using new voices."

Suzanne Connor, the trust's senior program officer for arts and culture, said, "For this year, because it's the first anniversary of Hope's death and her memory is still strong in the theater community, we thought giving it to theater groups was appropriate."

Hope Abelson didn't like to be called a philanthropist. But with the fortune left her by her husband, a liquor company chief who died in 1980, she provided generous support to cultural groups as well as such charities as the American Cancer Society. She had a soft spot for storefront theater troupes and would refer to those she took close as her "babies."

The main vehicles for her philanthropy were the Lester S. Abelson Foundation and the Lester and Hope Abelson Foundation. The former had assets of around $550,000 in 2006; the latter has since depleted its assets through grants, and effectively ceased operation.

In her will, Hope Abelson provided for her daughter, two grandsons and some others. She also bequeathed $200,000 to the Lester S. Abelson Foundation and an amount that was to be determined later to the fund at the Chicago Community Trust. Her papers went to the Newberry Library, said the estate's attorney, H. Debra Levin. Neither Levin nor Katherine Abelson would disclose the amount of the estate or the size of the endowment for the performing arts fund at the trust.

Katherine Abelson continues as president of the foundation named for her father. She serves on the prize committee for the Hopies along with her nephews, Benjamin and Jesse Abelson (the twentysomething sons of the late Stuart Abelson), Connor and Richard Turner, manager of corporate contributions for People's Gas. Katherine Abelson said she tried to devise a catchy name for the award that referred to both her parents, but "Les-Hope" and "Hope-Les" seemed out of keeping with the spirit of the prize.

"I hoped Lester would understand," she said.