Second City, Second Rate? Local artists contemplate Chicago’s place in the nation’s art scene

photo by Emma Ellis
“Whither the Chicago artist?” It wasn’t the first thing that the Renaissance Society’s curator, Hamza Walker, said during a roundtable on the subject, but it was the question at hand. A spirited discussion with an artist, a critic, and three curators didn’t arrive at a coherent answer, though it provoked some earnest debate and a lot of mud-slinging at New York and Los Angeles, those Babylons of commerce. Walker opened by noting that the late ‘90s hemorrhage of talent out of Chicago had ebbed, and that while major galleries had closed, new ones had opened, and there was “excitement on the city’s margins.” Against this backdrop, Walker sought opinions on whether, as he put it, “Chicago is really a geographical designation with stylistic connotations.”

For Philip Von Zweck, an artist best known for the eponymous gallery he ran out of his living room, the term “Chicago artist” didn’t have much resonance, and it certainly wasn’t something he’d thought about until he was invited to participate in the panel. Nevertheless, he had the best insight–“I don’t know what a Chicago artist is, but I don’t want to be reduced to it.” He also pointed out that in the internet era, it’s easy to participate in artistic dialogue with people in Israel or Mexico.

Walker aside, the panel’s curatorial bloc didn’t seem to care. Elizabeth Chodos from ThreeWalls, a non-profit gallery and arts organization, focused intently on what makes art a difficult career in Chicago and what she’s done to help artists develop their careers with career-boosting efforts to enhance exposure and generate visibility. Most memorably: “I think Chicago’s a really interesting place from an arts administrative perspective.” Lynne Warren of the Museum of Contemporary Art did address the label of “Chicago artist,” pointing out that it’s convenient for the people who don’t have to wear it. Mostly, she celebrated the “craftsmanship” and work ethic of Chicago artists, apparently in contrast to the art fair-dominating cliques of well-networked slobs.

For the Hyde Park Art Center’s Chuck Thurow, that craftsmanship wasn’t merely tangible but quantifiable, though he was mostly interested in decrying the coasts’ stifling, anti-experimental attitudes and lack of cheap studios or “rough spaces.” In his defense, he was cheerful in admitting that he’d never lived in New York or Los Angeles. Alas, talking about his own job–“recognizing patterns” in the sea of new works–didn’t leave him much time for talking about whether Chicago was home to any stylistic patterns, aside from that mysterious craftsmanship business again.

Paul Klein spoke with the barbed languidity of a good professor, appropriately punctuated with barrages of name-dropping, semi-relevant asides (ever notice the connections between upper-middle class Judaism, psychotherapy, and Surrealism?) and a very, very long and multidisciplinary view of Chicago’s art community (such, such were the joys of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s desegregated 1913 graduating class.) As for the Chicago artist, Klein didn’t think stylistic regionalism was a contemporary phenomenon, though he extolled the town’s blue-collar history, which apparently encourages artists to remain true to their convictions.

Though it’s hard to believe that every SAIC MFA ’08 who packed their bags for the coasts is really a spineless mercenary, it’s undeniable that Chicago’s art community doesn’t punch at New York’s or Los Angeles’s weight. Accordingly, there was a fair bit of soul-searching for an explanation. Chodos, Warren, and Thurow reached something of a consensus in decrying Chicago’s insufficient spaces, patrons, or “high-circulation critical press.” Though none of the panel was anything but thrilled with the caliber of Chicago art production, a churl might ask if the problem was not a dearth of spaces, patrons, and press, but perhaps a surfeit of artists. That, perhaps, is an issue for another roundtable.