An Invitation from Chicago to the World


Is the glass half-empty for the Chicago art scene, or half-full? It depends on whom you ask, what you focus on and how ambitious a response you propose.

In the upper, unoccupied, rather lonely part of the glass, there’s the fact that the Merchandise Mart recently pulled the plug on Next Art Chicago, which it rescued so gallantly a few years ago, only to see it suffer during the recession and struggle to compete with other fairs in Basel, Miami, New York, London and elsewhere. After what they described in a parting statement as “a thorough analysis of the art fair landscape,” the Mart’s Staci Boris and Ken Tyburski bailed on Chicago like it was the Titanic, concluding that “the great majority of the art fair market in the United States has gravitated toward the coasts.”

For Chicago artists and gallery owners, who increasingly feel that local collectors prefer to buy elsewhere, the recession has been hard. There’s a battle-fatigue, even a malaise, in certain precincts. “There’s still such a fantastic art scene here, so many great galleries – but an energy is missing,” says Kasia Kay of kasia kay art projects in the West Loop. “It’s really kind of sad.”

In the lower, still quite fluid part of the glass, hopes are high for former Art Chicago director Tony Karman’s new fair, EXPO Chicago, set to debut at Navy Pier, September 20-23, 2012. “Tony’s taken the torch and is running with it at the moment,” says Linda Warren of Linda Warren Projects. “There’s a real buzz out there because he’s investing a lot of energy into it, trying to be the very top tier of art fairs in the world. If it happens, I think it’ll help bring our art scene back.”

There’s some disagreement about that. Even if EXPO Chicago is wildly successful, gallery owner Carrie Secrist says, no city can assume that one art fair, which now has so much competition around the world, can revive an ailing art scene all by itself. “That’s over,” Secrist declares. “If a comeback happens, it’ll have to happen another way.”

Still, there are positive signs. “As the economy has started to come back over the past few months, our business has been stronger,” the River North gallery owner Roy Boyd says. “We’ve seen some green sprouts.”

And at City Hall, the new mayor’s administration appeared to be arts-friendly,so far. The Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) hit the ground running earlier this year when it began organizing dozens of community meetings to gather input for the new Chicago Cultural Plan, the first time such a plan has been seriously revisited since initially launched in the 1980s. Many in the arts community are still holding out for more concrete signs of support from City Hall.

Either way you look at it – half-full or half-empty – the question remains: How do we fill up that damn glass? How do we refocus attention – locally, nationally, internationally – on Chicago as an art center? How do we leverage the city’s unique character, including its vast array of cultural resources, to provide a shot in the arm to an art scene that some regard as in the doldrums?

A Hail Mary approach would be to mount a major citywide event modeled, at least loosely, on Pacific Standard Time, a recently concluded series of more than 60 exhibitions in Southern California focused on Los Angeles art from 1945 to 1980. PST, as it was known, drew mostly positive reviews, brought cohesion to the city’s sprawling art scene and raised its national and international profile, enviable results, and certainly all worthy goals for any Chicago counterpart. But PST, several years in the planning, was largely organized and funded by the Getty Foundation, which contributed about $10 million. The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, while not exactly aloof from the Chicago art scene, are not known for their deep involvement with it, at least not at the paternal level of the Getty in L.A.; certainly neither can match the Getty’s deep pockets.

That isn’t to say that a Chicago-style art celebration, even one with as grand a scope as L.A.’s, couldn’t be pulled off here. “I think it could be done,” Boyd asserts. “It would take a massive effort to spearhead it, of course, and a great deal of cooperation between a number of different people and entities who don’t normally work together that closely, but it could be done.” In Boyd’s vision, major Chicago Institution, galleries, artists, collectors, art-loving philanthropists and foundations – including the MacArthur, the Pritzker and the Terra – could band together and mount a coordinated citywide event that could give Pacific Standard Time a run for its money. “Having the museums and the galleries and everyone moving together as a united font would certainly lend a focus and a power to any effort like that,” Secrist says. “That’s probably the quickest way to bring back more of a national focus to Chicago.”

But how would herd all those cats? You’d need to field an all-star team with the vision of a Daniel Burnham, the networking skills of a Lois Weisberg, the fundraising prowess of a John H. Bryan and, probably, the political clout of Rahm Emaunuel.

Until such a dream team surfaces, perhaps the problem would be best attacked, at least for the time being, on a smaller, more manageable scale, with an approach that is multifaceted and less monolithic. One of several possible models might be Gallery Weekend Chicago, a collaboration that began in fall 2011 between a group of local galleries (including Andrew Rafacz, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Devening Projects + Editions, Donald Young, Kavi Gupta, moniquemelcohe, Rhona Hoffman, Shane Campbell, threewalls, Tony Wight and Western Exhibitions) and local collectors to bring in out-of-towners for a “privately curated” sampling of the Chicago art and cultural scene, including gallery and museum visits, hard-to-get reservations at top restaurants and an architecture river tour.

“We’ve seen a decline in what’s been going on here, but we still have incredibly thriving institutions and galleries, and so we came together last year to see how we could share that with collectors from all over the country,” Monique Meloche says. “Berlin has been doing something like this, and it’s been wildly popular there. Both New York and L.A. have tried to produce their own versions, so we thought, why not? We have such great institutions here, such great architecture, and a national culinary profile. People love to come to Chicago, so it seemed like a natural.” Last year’s event drew about 50 out-of-towners, and the group hopes to triple the attendance at this year’s follow-up, scheduled to coincide with Expo Chicago in September. (For details visit galleryweekendchicago.com) “We don’t think it’ll get much larger than that, because we don’t want it to become a marathon,” Meloche says. “We want to keep it manageable for people so they can spend some quality time at these spaces.”

In her opinion, in fact, the sensory overload provided by a major art fair – or a Pacific Standard Time knockoff – might not be what Chicago needs after all, at least not now. Instead of one big jolt of shock therapy to rouse us from our collective depression, maybe a series of smaller zaps would do just as well or better. “If you do a ‘Chicago Standard Time,’ maybe you’d narrow the focus too much on the art scene, and frankly I’m not sure it would draw people here like Pacific Standard Time drew people to L.A.,” Meloche says. “We need to be showcasing the whole culture of Chicago, not just the art scene – including the architecture, the world-class institutions, the restaurants, everything. I mean, when you talk to out-of-town people about coming to Chicago, their eyes light up. We just need to invite them.”