Chicago vs... Everyone? It's LA vs. NYC and We Get Left Out


There was an article in the Arts section of the New York Times on Thursday, October 13 that really made me cringe, and a lively discussion on Twitter soon followed.  In a nutshell, the article talks about LA's recent emergence as a major international art center, and of course they discuss the city's art scene in comparison to New York today, as well as what has made New York's art world so dynamic over the decades. For me, the piece brought up all sorts of feelings and observations about Chicago.

The article starts by discussing a new arts festival, Pacific Standard Time, and referencing the sprawling territory throughout southern California for galleries, museums, and art centers.  The festival is touted as, "a statement of self-affirmation by a region that, at times, appears to feel underappreciated as a serious culture center."  

There were a lot of lines that sounded very familiar to me - if I read the article with all references to California blacked out, I might be able to read this piece as a summation of our own varied, lively arts scene in Chicago.  I give LA credit - they've got some blockbusters going on right now that are drawing crowds (Tim Burton; the graffiti show.) And it's so sunny most of the year that "Curators talk about the difficulty of encouraging people to walk indoors for anything but a movie in a city that has glorious weather so many months of the year."  They have some really solid artists producing work that is of the moment now - who hasn't been obsessed with Ed Ruscha during the past 10 years? 

"Indeed, Los Angeles these days has more than its share of ambitious museums, adventurous art galleries, wealthy collectors, top-notch art schools and — perhaps most important — young artists drawn here by relatively cheap rents, abundant light and an atmosphere that encourages experimentation."

As I was reading the article I thought, there's something missing - they haven't acknowledged that there IS another major city in the US that has all of these things, except of course the abundant sunshine and mild weather.  Actually, there are a lot of smaller cities and communities that have notable art scenes, but they don't get covered because they're in fly-over territory.  Chicago has really solid artists, though less of the Hollywood vibe (fine by me) and we've always been less flash-in-the-pan. But we have great art schools and young artists. We have cheap rents. Hello, the alternative space/apartment gallery scene here is unlike anywhere else, as shown in Hyde Park Art Center's exhibition, Artists Run Chicago in 2009. We have art fairs devoted to it! We have ambitious museums - Art Institute and MCA, yes, but also Smart, Renaissance, and Block.  Adventurous galleries (5 Chicago galleries are in the ADAA, and LA has 6, though two are related and basically have the same name.)  We have wealthy collectors, though they also suffer from the instinct to sometimes buy in New York more often than they should, to the detriment of our local artists. 

The article goes on: “There is now enough critical mass of galleries, of places where artists meet, blogs, magazines..." Again, we have a long list.  

What made me throw down my paper in frustration on an otherwise quiet Thursday evening was when I got to the concluding, and damning, quote from none other than former Art Institute president Jim Cuno, who recently turned up in LA to become president of the J. Paul Getty Trust after a very sudden departure from AIC.  I guess he left Chicago for LA for more than the weather: "Mr. Cuno said his perception was that people in Los Angeles did not really spend a lot of time worrying about what other people thought of them. “I don’t feel or hear any ‘second city’ mentality here,” said Mr. Cuno, who came from Chicago, where that kind of talk is common. “People in Los Angeles are pretty happy with their position in the world and needn’t get the confirmation from elsewhere.”

So, if I lived in LA I'd be confident enough to just shrug my shoulders and move on.  Since I'm from Chicago, I must be foolishly obsessed with what other people think.  What's wrong with caring?  Chicagoans get doses of 'second city mentality' with their breakfast. We're used to it,  even if we can't overcome it. It's an old debate, and it's not going to go anywhere soon, but I think the reference was kind of a cheap shot.  Conversely, Cuno's comment also makes everyone in LA sound kind of dippy and just inherently happy, which I'm sure isn't giving them enough credit for their own hard work. 

There are a lot of opinions out there about Mr. Cuno and his biggest Chciago project, the Modern Wing, which I happen to really enjoy and love.  I have always thought that someone who could have led that project, which ultimately did garner a great deal of favorable press for Chicago in 2009, would go on to have warm feelings about our city.  That would be 'reverse second city menality, as it made me actually think people liked us.  I'm sure there is more to Mr. Cuno's sentiments than what comes through in the article (I hope so) and if that's the case, it's a poor job by NYT for unnecessarily pitting one city against another without a fair fight. 

Back to the Art Institute: I think that the new head of the museum is absolutley off to the right start to start looking at life after the Modern Wing. New president Douglas Druick has been a curator at AIC for decades, so he's part of the family, and he seems to be committed to keeping the museum on strong financial footing so that it can be an anchor for the city and to making sure that the curatorial schedule doesn't get too bloated.  I hope that there are many opportunities ahead to see the museum as a cultural space that belongs to all Chicagoans and visitors. AIC can serve as a mirror to hold up to our own evolving art history, not just the world's; for instance, I'd love to get back to the time when AIC actually had exhibitions focused on Chicago artists and work being made in the city now - with a wing devoted to contemporary art NOW is the time... Such engaging programs could do our pride some good and just might even make Chicago seem almost as bright and sunny as LA.  In our city at least people have no problem going indoors for at least 6 months of the year.

Mr. Cuno's comments stung my civic pride.  Ultimately I think Chicagoans especially value loyalty, and I put myself in that group.  I've built up some extra defensiveness over the past 9 years of living in Chicago, since there is no shortage of opportunities to have to defend Chicago, let alone its art community, against other bigger, shinier places and to work to build its reputation as a dynamic and honest cultural home.  I also have come to expect the same faithfulness from others who are or have been part of that same community.

I look forward to everyone's comments and thoughts on the article and this post.  If you're a writer in Chicago, I also encourage you to write your own article or posting in response to the dominant ideas about Chicago's place in the art world - on its own or in relation to LA and NYC.  As we all know, it's a never ending battle.