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Art Chicago 1999 Report
Mother's Day Weekend

Navy Pier
Chicago, IL

Anyone who's been in Chicago around Mother's Day, and in the River North area during the rest of the year, may have noticed big yellow banners with the silohuete of a man and "Art Chicago" written on it. This is the banner for Art Chicago (insert year here), an annual event always held on Mother's Day weekend (to the dismay of my Mother) on the Navy Pier. It lasts for about three to four days, and takes over two exhibition halls. Fine and contemporary art dealers from all over the world come here to sell their wares -- meaning art, or what some people might construe as art -- in the form of sculpture, painting, drawings, and photography. Functional art, or ceramic, sculptural, wearable, or decorative art has its own show in the Fall called SOFA (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art).

Art Chicago is a great place for midwesterners to pick up work by such artistic luminaries as Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, Lichtenstein, and Warhol, as well as relatively unknown household names such as Koons, Barth, Kimler -- all for relatively reasonable prices under $100,000.

After you've been to almost ten of these things, as I have, you get a sense of having seen it all. Been there, done that. This year was no exception. But being there for ArtScope.net more than for the art, I did sense something a little different. Here's a list of my thoughts as I perused the show this year:

  • Lots of international galleries -- This was good. I was surprised to see a gallery from San Gimignano, Italy -- having been to San Gimignano and Tuscany last summer -- and a gallery from Bogota, Colombia -- because a friend who lives there swears that all the galleries in Bogota are fronts for organized crime, or other surly purposes.

  • Lots of international artists. All the big names we've come to know and love. Very respectable, well established, good sellers, very dead.

  • Chicago galleries that were here, focused on the above "trait."

  • There were no Chicago galleries with Chicago artists. A handful of Chicago galleries that normally carry Chicago artists were here, but they were showing New York artists when I was at the show -- with the exception of Maya Polsky who was showing Ed Paschke -- and a very small booth for the Chicago Project Room -- which I've never heard of -- and no one was manning their booth to talk to.

  • Ten In One had fliers boosting of their move to New York.

  • Less contemporary art than usual, but lots of art that could be catagorized as either dadist, conceptual, surrealist, or abstract.

  • I don't recall seeing one piece of work that was strictly a phallus or vagina, about disfigurement, or had explicit sexual references; nothing that would make me turn away in disgust, horror, or make me sick. (Hey, this is a first!)

After viewing the show, I have to say I left wondering why the show was here in the first place. The title of the show is Art Chicago, but there was little of Chicago in the show, if any. Anyone who went to the show would end up leaving with the same impression. This was little more than a clearinghouse for other cities' galleries to dump their dead-artist works on midwesterners, and undercutting the Chicago galleries at the same time.

Galleries like Ten In One complain that there is no market for "contemporary art" (whatever that means, exactly, in art-historical terms) in Chicago. But who's producing it these days, anyway? Look at contemporaries who are selling: Odd Nurdrum, Uta Barth, Botero, and yes, Ed Paschke (nearly sold out from his last show at Maya Polsky). These are not conceptual post-modern minimalists. They are not putting garrish amorphous blobs in bright, day-glo colors with sharp spikes sticking out on the floor with a sign that says "screw me" on top and calling it art. But they are selling.

And what of the lack of Chicago artists? Is the Chicago art "scene" dead?

I don't think so. Chicago has many really great artistic institutions: The Art Institute of Chicago, The Terra Museum of Art, the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, The Museum of Contemporary Photography. We have many well respected learning institutions like the University of Chicago, the School of the Art Institute (for all its faults), Columbia College, Illinois Institute of Technology. We have artist communities and festivals such as Artists of Rogers Park, Women Made, and Chicago Artists Coalition. Other art shows are here too: Chicago Photographic Print Fair, SOFA, Absolute Vision, and Around The Coyote. Chicago has four distinct art gallery centers: River North, Bucktown/Wicker Park, Andersonville/Uptown, and West Loop.

Perhaps what Art Chicago has missed is beyond the galleries of River North. Beyond Ten In One and TBA. Beyond "contemporary art." Chicago has the learning institutions and shear mass of artists willing to explore being artists, so the art community is here. It might be getting smaller, but it's getting smaller everywhere else, too (except maybe, LosAngeles -- everybody wants to be in "90210" I guess -- or at least better weather). Amazing what a lack of federal funding does -- weed out the moochers perhaps.

Chicago's art scene is not dead. New York is getting more competitive. Instead of whining, Chicago needs to become just as competitive and toot its own horn. New York based magazines like the inaptly named Art In America, and the tunnel-focused ArtNews are not going to praise Chicago artists or galleries. As far as they are concerned, there is no city other than New York. And don't count on New Art Examiner, they're more interested in coming up with new axioms, vague phrases and run-on sentences to describe piles of hair than in seriously covering their previous charge.

What Chicago really needs, is not necessarily coverage, but also buyers. Crain's Chicago Business had a feature on the number of Chicago Fortune 500 businesses that have been bought out by foreign companies or multinational conglomerates. Chicago is quickly becoming the consulting and services center (or the back-office) for the world. So the people with the bucks, and interest in buying art now live elsewhere. If Chicago galleries want to sell more art, either the art needs to be more accessible to Midwestern tastes and pocketbooks, or art needs to be less "elitist" (meaning something for the upper-crust). Heaven forbid that a upper-level or mid-level manager would own something other than a faded O'Keefe print above their fireplace.

As a Chicago artist, and the Executive Producer of an internet magazine dedicated to the visual and performing arts in Chicago, I'd like to end my review of Art Chicago 1999 with a quote from the British TV Sitcom "Absolutely Faboulous," from the episode entitled "Death" in which the main character Edwina Monsoon steps into an art gallery to buy some art: "You only work in a shop, you know, so you can drop the attitude."

--Richard Donagrandi

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