Chicago Artists Coalition Takes a Bite Out of 40


*This article was originally published in the May-August 2014 issue of Chicago Gallery News

Forty years ago, a group of Chicago artists banded together to make a difference. They sought a better working environment for themselves and their colleagues. They demanded—and received—greater support from local government. They created programs and institutions that helped to advocate on their behalf. 

Today, the Chicago Artists Coalition still thrives. As times have changed, the organization’s focus has shifted from political activism to creating a more entrepreneurial environment for artists. But the Coalition’s core mission remains: building community around artists and other creative types and connecting that community to professional opportunities.

A host of new programs and events have helped raise the profile of the Coalition in recent years. As the organization celebrates its fortieth year, preparations are underway for one of its more popular events: the Starving Artist benefit scheduled for Saturday, June 21.

By all accounts, last year’s Starving Artist was a great success. Some 600 attendees enjoyed cuisine by celebrity chefs, sipped signature cocktails and rubbed shoulders with Chicago’s art world luminaries. This year’s event promises more of the same.

“This is not your mother’s fundraiser,” says Sara Slawnik, the Coalition’s interim director. “It’s not a typical sit-down gala.”

Starving Artist 2014 will feature four Chicago artists paired with four chefs and four mixologists. Each artist will create an immersive installation that guests can move through and experience. The chefs and mixologists will then craft food and drink to complement each installation.

“We want guests to really enjoy and experience these artists and these chefs and get a sense of the dynamism of Chicago’s creative scene,” says Slawnik.

Local artists Diana Gabriel, Luftwerk, Alexandra Noe and Edyta Stepien will work with Chefs Matthias Merges (Yusho), Chris Pandel (Bristol/Balena),  Kyle Peterson (Fulton Market Kitchen) and Jared Van Camp (Element Collective) to  create collaborative installations for all of the senses. Mixologists Jason Ackerman (Bristol), Alexander Bachman (Billy Sunday), Jason Brown (Kinmont), Revae Schneider (Femme Du Coupe) and Brian Sturgulewski (Fulton Market Kitchen) will also create custom-made craft cocktails with Hennessey VS to complement the art installations. (Note: List updated June 18, 2014)

“The fortieth anniversary will be present throughout the whole evening in subtle or less subtle ways,” says Slawnik. “It will be clear that the people who are there are supporting and honoring the CAC’s legacy of the past 40 years and helping to build its future.”

That legacy includes an impressive roster of achievements. The Coalition was instrumental in establishing the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. It was also directly involved in the creation of Arts Alliance Illinois and Chicago Artists Month. The Coalition successfully lobbied for the city’s Percent-for-Art Ordinance, which was passed in 1978 and became a model for other public art programs across the country.

“I’m super interested in that ‘inception moment’ when artists collectively decided that this was an absolute essential thing for Chicago,” says Slawnik. “It was 1974. It was such a ripe period for activism and advocacy at a very grassroots level.”

But as time passed, so did some of the organization’s momentum. By the new millennium, the Coalition was ready for new leadership and a renewed sense of purpose. In 2010, the Coalition’s board hired Carolina Jayaram to shake things up and serve as its new director. (Jayaram left CAC in early 2014 to become the President & CEO of United States Artists, which announced the  move of its headquarters from LA to Chicago in spring 2014.)

“When Carolina took over this organization in 2010 she had such a huge mountain to climb, just turning the organization around. To her credit, she did it, and then some,” says Slawnik. “Now that we’ve established ourselves and stabilized the finances, it’s time to tie that evolution back to our history.”

Underlying that history is one constant: community building. The Coalition has developed several programs in recent years to strengthen its commitment to connecting artists to each other and to other arts professionals. The BOLT and HATCH residency programs are two successful examples. 

BOLT is a one-year program that provides residents with studio space, a solo exhibition, and a series of one-on-one meetings with some of the city’s leading art professionals. HATCH is a one-year residency that mentors both artists and curators in current curatorial practices. Both programs have proved instrumental in connecting emerging artists and curators with established professionals and with the marketplace.

Taking the idea of community building to a whole new level is the Chicago Artists Resource website. Known simply as “CAR,” the website was founded and developed by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs in 2003. Ownership and management of CAR was transferred to the Coalition in 2012.

“Taking over Chicago Artists Resource was huge, and the Coalition is a natural home for CAR,” says Lynn Basa, artist and former Coalition board member. “It’s a huge connector of community - a huge source of information for artists.”

Sporting the motto “For Artists By Artists,” the CAR website includes postings for employment, studio space, events, and calls for artists. The website provides different sections for several creative disciplines: visual arts, dance, theater, music, literature, and most recently, film. 

Besides connecting artists to one another and to professional services, the Coalition also fosters relationships between artists and collectors through its Chartwell Collectors Circle, sponsored by Chartwell Insurance. The Circle brings collectors—both aspiring and established—in contact with artists through studio and collection tours, and other events. The Circle provides a level of education about the art market that collectors and artists are seeking.

“I wanted to learn more about contemporary art, that’s one of the reasons that I joined,” commented Circle member Carlyle Madden at a recent event hosted by Mana Contemporary Chicago. “Such a great group of people: collectors, artists, students—every age range—it’s great.”

Through programs like the Chartwell Collectors Circle, the Coalition continues to maintain its mission of connecting people and building community within Chicago’s art world.

“It’s about creating a space where artists feel that Chicago is that dynamic hub,” says Slawnik.  “There are spaces for collaboration, and as more and more artists are crossing disciplines, the CAC celebrates that, helps support that, and creates the community that artists are really looking for.”