Behind the Iron Curtain: A closer look at the annual Art Open at Iron Studios

The year 1974 was a triumphant one for Chicagoans. The Sears Tower became the tallest building the world had ever seen, the city waved goodbye to Tricky Dick, and the Chicago art community finally began to tend to their own rights as artists. Now the year is 2007, and although Chicagoans have since witnessed disappointment in both the loss of their beloved Sears Tower’s vertical dominance and our nation’s good sense, this ’70s-born artist organization–the Chicago Artists’ Coalition–has yet to disappoint this city.

Through their objective is to fulfill basic needs for artists, the not-for-profit Chicago Artists’ Coalition sponsors a variety of services for the local artist community in its attempt to serve the artists’ basic needs. Its most notable contribution is the annual Art Open, which is scheduled to take place daily between 11 AM and 5 PM from October 4 through October 27 at Iron Studios. According to Olga Stefan, Executive Director of the same organization that would later inspire the formation of what is now the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, the Coalition noticed back in 1997 that there was a significant existing need for opportunities in which local artists could display their work. This realization served as the inspiration that guided the first Art Open back in 1998, and the successes that have followed for participating artists keep the Open coming back year after year.

How it works is this: Every spring, registration opens, and artists seeking public display of their work contribute three pieces of artwork. Any type of visual artwork, with the exception of performance artwork, is accepted until 300 applications are received. The Coalition advocates this kind of “first come, first served” acceptance policy in order to give more opportunities to all artists on a level playing field. The first 300 who submit quality work are granted participation in the Open while the rest are encouraged to submit the following year. The Coalition then decides which of an artist’s three pieces to display and then stands back and watches while professionals and enthusiasts scope out the local talents. In addition to an audience of curiosity-seekers, the coalition also invites three professionals to critique the pieces and select thirty to distinguish from all of the rest. Each of the distinguished pieces receives an award that is highly likely to set them up for success. Regardless of awarded distinction, however, all artists have the same opportunity to be contacted by dealers and collectors, whom the Coalition hopes to see in its gallery.

“Applying to appear in the Art Open was a win-win situation,” says University of Chicago student and painter Justyna Nytko on her acceptance as one of the Open’s forty students throughout the Chicagoland area, including entries from the Art Institute and Columbia College. “I either got my work displayed or I got my deposit back.” Although the 21-year-old artist is no stranger to having her work displayed in public, she advocates that the Open is a perfect way to display her artwork in a prestigious event without the pretension that usually accompanies other sorts of gallery exhibits.

Pretension and prestige aside, the Artists’ Coalition is doing everything in its power to provide an inviting atmosphere for all tastes–even for those that simply enjoy having a good time. This Friday, October 5 is Opening Night, and after nine years of practice, the Coalition knows how to throw a good party. For a mere cost of twenty dollars per person, guests will be treated to dinner, drinks, and various performances organized by the Old Town School of Folk Music–not to mention access to the artists’ contributions. As for the rest of October, a suggested donation of five dollars is recommended in order to sneak a peek. The work will also be for sale, if you’re looking to snatch up the next big thing. So treat your eyes to something good at a price that you can afford and see some of what Chicago’s artists have to offer.

Full Disclosure: Justyna Nytko is the Arts and Culture Editor of the Chicago Weekly. She will not, however, be the only University of Chicago student exhibiting at the Open. Others include Neal Curley and Chris Aque.

Chicago Art Open, Iron Studios, 3636 S. Iron St. October 4-27. Monday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. (773)837-0145. www.caconline.org