THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Dawoud Bey, Lauren, 2008.
Michael Rakowitz, The invisible enemy should not exist (Room G, Northwest Palace of Nimrud, Panel 19), 2018. Relief from Middle Eastern packaging and newspapers, glue, cardboard on wooden structures, 93.31 x 57.48 x 3.15 inches. Photo courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.
Edited by Maggie Taft
When painter Derek Guthrie and Jane Addams Allen launched the New Art Examiner in 1973, the magazine was but one of many new art institutions around town. That year, N.A.M.E. Gallery and feminist spaces Artemisia and ARC (Artists, Residents of Chicago) also opened their doors, with other spaces soon to follow, like Randolph Street Gallery in 1979. Artist-run and federally funded, these alternative spaces energized Chicago’s art scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The culture wars that followed over the next decade and into the early 1990s dismantled these art spaces. In 1991, two years after a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective featuring photographs with homosexual themes sparked a public and political uproar, Senator Jesse Helms proposed an amendment forbidding the National Endowment for the Arts from funding projects that might be deemed offensive.
The Senate passed it, and federal funds soon dried up, affecting individual artists as well as galleries and other spaces that had relied on grants to support their full slate of exhibitions, performances, and other art activity. The government’s efforts to regulate culture shifted the tenor of the art world across the country and weakened local communities.
Institutions that had formed the bedrock of Chicago’s art scene began to disappear. In Chicago, Randolph Street Gallery shuttered in 1998. Five years later, Artemisia closed too. New Art Examiner ceased publication in 2002, gutting Chicago of one of its primary mouthpieces for the arts.
The following excerpts offer snapshots of the transformations that took place during the 1990s and 2000s. All are culled from the final chapter of Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now (University of Chicago Press, 2018), the first history of Chicago art from the nineteenth century through to the present day.
This excerpt, from the final chapter, presents a chorus of artists, critics, and curators explaining what’s happened in Chicago since the 1990s through a series of conversations, interviews, and reflections. As the remembrances and observations suggest, the history of this recent period is still being formed and written.
John Corbett: In the mid-’90s…I asked myself, why do I know so much as an amateur art historian about New York’s art history and even Los Angeles’ art history, and I know so little about Chicago’s? So I started looking around and quickly figured out that the reason was that there was an underdeveloped infrastructure. Art historians hadn’t turned their attention to it, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a rich repository of material. I also just have the collector gene, which sent me out into the world. I realized there was still a lot of stuff in secondhand shops that was primary source material for this history….And then there was the fact that a lot of the people who were part of Chicago’s art history were still alive. It turned out that all you needed to do was call them and they would say, “Come on over. I’ve got an attic or a basement full of whatever.” I did that a number of times.
You also have to figure Jim Dempsey into that whole mix. We had a mutual fascination, and we started talking to one another. That’s basically what we started the gallery for—to explore the history of art in Chicago. …Part of what worked in our favor was that there was a latent need. Institutionally, there was almost no interest. But there were a handful of rabid collectors, and a lot of people who were interested in having the story of Chicago art told to them in segments.
Peter Taub: The focus of MCA programming went beyond performance art—we prioritized the content and quality of artists’ expressions, but in terms of form we focused on interdisciplinary dance and theater, as well as experimental music. And from early on we aimed to produce and present about a third of the projects in collaboration with other Chicago organizations. We always wanted to make the institutional resource of the MCA into a shared platform that attracted and served a broader public....My sense is that a generation of artist-run galleries in Chicago, places like Randolph Street Gallery, N.A.M.E. Gallery, Artemisia Gallery were very much part of the culture wars. We wanted to be visible and powerful as organizations—similar to how individual artists were claiming space for their diverse identities and visions. That played into the decision to buy our own building. Other organizations took an opposite approach, saying, “Screw that. We’re just going to focus on programming.”...those organizations lacked viability for the next generation of artists after the intensity of the culture wars—and that’s why it made sense to close in the late ‘90s.
Lin Hixson: Randolph Street closed in ’98. And the same thing was happening all over the country, in every major city — experimental, artist-run organizations were closing. Randolph Street brought together a lot of different forms and people into one space, one room even. It was a meeting place. After it closed, things became more distributed in the city.
Karen Reimer: What emerged to pick up some of the slack after Randolph Street and N.A.M.E. folded were a group of small galleries known collectively as the Uncomfortable Spaces: the Ten in One Gallery, Tough Gallery, Beret International Gallery, and MWMWM Gallery. They weren’t committee-driven like RSG and N.A.M.E., but many of the artists from those committees showed with them. I showed with Beret, run by Ned Schwartz. They were ostensibly for-profit, but I don’t think they made much money. The four of them coordinated publicity and openings, and their shows were important in maintaining a critical art community. There continue to be small galleries mostly run by artists who are paying for it out of their pockets. But there are other organizational structures and financial solutions too—curating collectives and crowd-funding and stuff like that.
Amanda Williams, Ultrasheen, 2004-2016.
Temporary Services [Brett Bloom and Marc Fischer]: We started working together after the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s, when Republicans stirred up controversies about arts funding as part of an attack on the country’s broader welfare safety net. This produced massive cuts to arts spending, for which artists and arts administrators were ill prepared. Experimental spaces across the country lost their funding, and many dissolved. In Chicago and nationwide, the infrastructure supporting non-commercial, experimental, and socially engaged art was crumbling. We did not want to make art for commercial purposes; we wanted to experiment and push at the boundaries of what art is and what it could do. We needed to create our own infrastructure for making work in these ways and sustaining our community. Around the time, in the late ’90s, artists were becoming increasingly engaged in global political contexts like anti-globalization movements. There was a very healthy, large community of people doing actions in the streets, organizing massive gatherings. Groups like Pilot TV, Version Fest, and the Department of Space and Land Reclamation staged public interventions and jam-packed discussion and screening programs to facilitate the kind of radical conversations that the gallery and museum world would never accommodate. Chicago became an important center for making art outside of the gallery system. Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center that operated out of a small storefront in Rogers Park, hosted exhibitions and events that explored the intersections of art, urban planning, collective action, food politics, skill-sharing, alternative economics and much more.
Michelle Grabner: In the winter of 1999, my husband, Brad Killam, and I began hosting exhibitions in a small concrete-block (in Oak Park) situated between our stucco house and our two-car garage....Nearly 20 years later, the Suburban has hosted more than 350 artists’ exhibitions and projects.
Friesenwall 120 in Cologne, Thomas Solomon’s Garage in LA, Dogmatic and Bodybuilder & Sportsman galleries in Chicago, Matt’s Gallery in London, and Bliss in Pasadena each served as inspirations for the Suburban. But its grounding and longevity is fostered in a working combination of critical theory and a conventional family life in the Chicago suburbs....The Suburban’s marginality and smallness allows it to have ambiguous edges while staying rooted in the customs of Chicago’s vicinity. Its Oak Park locality and its Midwestern regionality reterritorialize and reimagine art’s official discourses. In a vernacular landscape, the Suburban has dodged commercial and not-for-profit exchange, offering instead a range of associations far removed from the power of predictable cultural transactions.
Dorchester Projects, 2009-ongoing, photographic documentation, Dorchester Avenue, Chicago, 2014.
Faheem Majeed: I arrived in Chicago in 2002…. I didn’t know anything about art in Chicago. I walked in blind. Early on, I got a show at Steele Life Gallery on 47th and King Drive. It caught fire, and it’s gone now. But I met a bunch of artists there, and they told me about this place called the South Side Community Art Center. They told me that if you don’t know anyone, that’s where you go… When I was starting [as curator] at the South Side Community Art Center, Charles Miles was the director. His approach was more like that of a docent. He would welcome you to the center and run you through the history. But he was also the founder of the poetry collective called EarCandy, and they would have these parties that would go until four in the morning. I remember being really frustrated with him because I was so serious about hanging these shows, and then he would have these parties and people would bump into the artwork. …Back then, I wanted a quiet space for two people, and this dude would have two hundred people in the gallery at four o’clock in the morning dancing all around the artwork. It took me a while to catch up to that.
Caroline Picard: I started the Green Lantern Press as an apartment gallery and small press in 2004. Over the years, I had roommates who would help with the project in various ways. It was always an interesting dynamic because our sense of privacy would fluctuate according to whatever public event was happening. We would have a living room art exhibition or a music show, and strangers would be walking around, using our mugs to get water. I think that experience helped shape my aesthetic…. In hindsight, it seems like I moved here at the end of a low point. The New Art Examiner and Art Expo had just folded. There was concern about the fact that Chicago had lost a vital Midwest-centric publicity outlet and worried speculation that the city was incapable of supporting an international art fair. But the 2004 Stray Show, a Chicago art fair featuring independent, artist-run, and idiosyncratic art spaces, seemed to indicate that the city was bouncing back. Then Kavi Gupta started his Merchandise Mart art fair, sold it, and now we have Tony Karman’s EXPO Chicago on Navy Pier. It seems like there’s less critical art coverage in print today, but there’s more online. One thing that’s remained consistent is a model for artistic practice that involves developing an artist-run exhibition space while teaching and building one’s own career. You see this with Michelle Grabner, who used to run the Suburban in Oak Park, Theaster Gates and the Dorchester Projects, or Edra Soto with the Franklin, to name a few. Artists integrate their own studio practice with fostering public platforms. These two facets are so concurrent as to seem inextricable.
Dan Peterman: The Experimental Station, in name, began around 2003, but I’d been working at that South Side site since the mid-1980s. I was taking ownership of a pretty run-down building and transitioning it from the Resource Center, a nonprofit recycling organization, into a multifaceted model of art, urban ecology, and locally embedded enterprise. …The “building,” as it became known, had been a site for incubating alternative ideas dating back to late 1960s. There was a counterculture history that wasn’t being maintained or looked at outside of the neighborhood, but it included a cache of used bike parts, recycled materials in exchange for books, community gardens, food initiatives, tool-sharing, etc. Unpacking that was almost like being an archaeologist. …We ended up tapping into every skill set. We built a brick oven, part of the multifunctional model, where food was linked to urban ecology, to plants, and also to a pragmatic need to cook lunch every day. A community was forming and different activities were being adjusted, fostered, and curated into something.
Michael Rakowitz: I remember being at a Yankees–White Sox game with Stephanie Smith [then a curator at the Smart Museum] in August 2006, soon after I moved here, and listening to her speak of her Smart exhibition called Feast, involving people like Dan [Peterman] and Theaster Gates and Dan Wang, all of whom I’d just met at the Experimental Station. It really spoke to me about how much Chicago accommodated a nexus of people coming together. And there was something about the speed: people slow down here, and they actually look at you when they’re talking to you. It’s generative.
With Robert Cozzolino, Maggie Taft is co-editor of Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now (University of Chicago Press, 2018). The book is the first single-volume history of art in Chicago from the 19th century through the present day.
Richard Rezac, Untitled (14-04), 2014. Courtesy of the artist and the Renaissance Society.
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