Photo Caption -
THE OWNER OF the Charybdis Multi-Arts Complex addresses residents who attended a public meeting held June-27 to discuss the fate of the center.

Owner Gregor Mortis is flanked by Alderman Patrick Levar (left), who called the meeting, and attorney John Pikarski, who represents the owners of the building that houses the arts center.

Levar called the meeting to hear residents’ views of whether a zoning change should be granted to allow the arts complex to obtain a public place of amusement license.

Nadig Press - Wednesday July 4, 2001
Front Page

Arts center sparks debate

News Analysis

By Brian Nadig
Staff Writer

The Charybdis Multi-Arts Complex, 4423 N. Milwaukee Ave., has many obstacles to overcome if it is ever to obtain the proper license to operate, and it could be many months before performances resume there.

It appears that the city is pressuring Charybdis’ landlords to evict the art studio. The landlords were recently cited for about “30 to 35” building code and permit violations for properties owned by them in the 4400 block of Milwaukee, according to a spokeswoman for the city Department of Buildings.

Based on comments made by the standing room-only crowd at a community meeting held Wednesday evening, June 27, at the Copernicus Cultural & Civic Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., the controversy surrounding Charybdis won’t be resolved any time soon. The meeting lasted 3 hours, and its host, Alderman Patrick Levar (45th), had to calm the crowd several times.

Charybdis became a for-profit company in 1996. Its owner, Gregor Mortis, says that artists deserve the right to make a profit and that he refuses to let creativity be stymied by the need to attract corporate and government grants. The studio has many supporters in the community, including parents whose children use the complex, which features a variety of attractions for both children and adults.

HOWEVER, IF Charybdis wants to be a for-profit company, it must play by the same rules as other corporations. Since moving to its new location in Jefferson Park last September, Charybdis has been operating on its own terms not those mandated by the city for businesses.

When people dine at a restaurant, they assume that the establishment has the proper licenses and has been inspected by various agencies, including the fire and health

Departments. The same assumption applies to people attending a performance at Charybdis, but the arts complex apparently avoided the inspections needed for a public place of amusement license.

Charybdis opened without the amusement license and, under city ordinance, is prohibited from hosting performances until the license is issued. Mortis cannot even apply for the license until a zoning change is made and a special use permit is obtained.

Charybdis did obtain a general business license for the retail sale of art, but that license apparently was not issued until several months after its opening.

Mortis admits that he is still learning the ropes on how a business becomes licensed, but he also admits that he was aware before he signed the lease for Charybdis’ current location that a zoning change was needed.

As part of the application process for a public place of amusement license, the city conducts a series of inspections and sets an occupancy figure for the applicant’s premises. The occupancy figure serves many functions.

Under the guidelines for the license, Charybdis must provide off-street parking. The number of required parking spaces is usually about 10 percent of the capacity of the establishment.

One revenue department official said that capacity at Charybdis could be significantly higher than that of the bowling alley, which previously operated there because the lanes have been removed.

One of the reasons Charybdis moved to its new location last year apparently is that it needed more space. Its popularity appears to be on the rise, and while parking may not be an issue now, it could be in the future. Charybdis avoided the city’s parking guidelines when it failed to obtain a public place of amusement license prior to opening.

Another issue is the collection of amusement taxes. So far it appears that Charybdis has not paid any amusement taxes to the city, and Mortis said the city is not entitled to “its cut” until Charybdis starts making its own profit. While some performances may be exempted from the city’s amusement tax laws, those decisions cannot be determined until Charybdis receives an amusement license. Some of the exemptions are based in part on the size of the theater.

ANOTHER ISSUE is the consumption of alcohol at Charybdis. According to a revenue department spokesman, once a business obtains a public place of amusement license, it can apply for a liquor license or allow patrons to bring alcohol for their own consumption.

Mortis has said that patrons are allowed to bring liquor to Charybdis because it is competing with bars for customers. While he has said he is willing to ban the consumption of liquor at the center, could the city hold him to that promise?

The question now facing residents is whether to give Charybdis a second chance.

Levar plans to survey residents within 500 feet of the site on whether they support a zoning change. An attorney for the landlords said that the change is needed to make the property uniform and competitive with other nearby parcels on Milwaukee regardless of whether or not Charybdis remains there.

Even if most residents were to support the change, it may be too late to save Charybdis. All revenue producing performances at the center have been canceled since cease-and desist orders were issued by the city in May.

Mortis is faced with the possibility of having to pay more than $30,000 in fines for license related violations. Additional charges are being contemplated.

ALTHOUGH officials won’t reveal what other charges are under consideration, it became clear by reading between the lines of comments made at the June 27 meeting that some feel that Charybdis crossed the line between “art” and “adult entertainment” during the activities which took place there May 20.

Officials say that the case against Charybdis is pending and that they cannot discuss the details of what inspectors saw during a raid on May 20. Mortis is on the record saying that one woman removed her top and covered herself with paint, and he says that other rumors regarding lewd behavior at the center are false.

The next court date for Mortis is July 31. Meanwhile, opponents of Charybdis have distributed copies of pictures taken from its web site. The pictures, which recently have been removed from the web site, include one of a naked woman sitting on a man’s lap, which Mortis said was taken at a private bachelor party.

While some of those at the meeting appeared offended by the pictures, others said that a business should not be shut down for a few nude photographs found on the Internet. Some said that the area already has too many vacancies and that Charybdis could spur an influx of artists moving into the community.

The issue of art and its relationship to pornography is a complicated, and city attorneys may decide to avoid this “gray area.”

Authorities also confiscated a tape, which a patron made during the May 20 interactive show at Charybdis. The tape, which may include footage of body painting and other activities, could tip the scales of public opinion one way or the other.

The fate of Charybdis has the potential of creating division within the neighborhood, as evidenced by the varied comments made at the community meeting. Some say the best solution is that those objecting to Charybdis’ art don’t have to go there.

Both opponents and supporters of Charybdis can agree on one issue: The Jefferson Park business district is in need of new development. The community must decide if Charybdis should be included in these plans, but first, residents have several tough questions that must be answered.

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