Sometimes, I like to drink bourbon, and have Grooveshark play for me every version of Working Class Hero that it can find.  There are quite a lot of them.  By the end of my second bourbon, my writing goes from a reasonable essay on some topic or another to a seething manifesto about how we’re all living in Orwell’s future which consists of nothing but a boot stepping on a human face, forever.  One particular point that has been getting my dander up at times like these lately has been the semi-recent ending of the UBS 12×12 program at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

The 12×12 was singular as a gateway for artists who were trying to keep “emerging” from becoming a lifelong prefix to their title as “artist.”  It carried a certain prestige that came with the MCA name, and looked like solid gold on a resume.  At least, it sure seemed that way to those of us who were recently out of grad school and yet to have our first solo show in a “real gallery.”  Getting in was tricky, since you couldn’t apply:  recommendations were made in part by previous 12×12 artists.  This had the result of it being very much a who-you-know proposition, and SAIC alumni were pretty heavily overrepresented in its roster.  Nevertheless, and as naive as it sounds in hindsight, it seemed like the kind of thing that could really launch your career.  And, let’s be honest…I wanted one.

That never happened, of course, and the program ended with Ann Toebbe in October 2011.  The end of the 12×12 followed the arrival of Michael Darling as new Chief Curator of the MCA, and many blame (or credit) Darling with killing the program.  Associate Curator Tricia Van Eck left shortly thereafter, and she had been a strong advocate for keeping the program intact.  In an interview I did with her for Chicago Art Magazine, Tricia gave her reasons for defending the program:

“While I was fully aware of the problems of the short turnaround of the UBS 12 x 12 New Artists/New Work show, I voiced strong interest in the show remaining. It was a model for institutions across the country and provided a great opportunity for artists to show work and have it seen by local, national, and international audiences as well as curators, dealers, and collectors. I am sure this will remain in the new model, although obviously to less artists each year.”

The “new model” Tricia refers to was referred to for a while, informally, as the “4×4,” probably because it was intended to be a quarterly series.  Now called “Chicago Works,” the program started in November 2011 with Scott Reeder.  Next up are Laura Letinsky (opens February 7) and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung (opens May 1).  All three names should be familiar to anyone who follows the local art scene, as they have all exhibited extensively in Chicago, and galleries represent all three.  They certainly stand far more established than the artists who participated in the 12×12 program, many of whom were fresh out of their MFA programs and had limited exhibition records.  Few had gallery representation.  For these artists, the 12×12 could represent a first step towards launching their careers, towards getting gallery representation, or moving their careers forward in other ways.  At least, again, that’s how it seemed to us as the time, as we hoped for that invitation.

But the program ended, and the Chicago Works series is proving itself to be an entirely different kind of animal:  admirably dedicated to promoting Chicago artists, but out of reach for artists who have yet to establish themselves.  So I wondered, what would come to take its place?  Was another institution prepared to host this debutante’s ball, or something like it?

The closest parallel to the 12×12 that I could think of was the ThreeWalls Solo program.  Unlike the 12×12, admission is by application, but it seems to fill a similar niche in terms of the resume level of the artists exhibited.  I’ve attended many of their openings, most memorably Amy Mayfield, now represented by Zolla Lieberman Gallery.  The artists shown tend to be very early in their careers, but of a particular strength and ambition.  The ThreeWalls Solo program remains a great opportunity for emerging Chicago artists to have a debut solo exhibition in the heart of the West Loop.

Another stellar exhibition opportunity for relatively unknown artists in Chicago is Tony Fitzpatrick’s Firecat Projects.  Firecat Projects is the building that used to be Tony’s studio, converted into an exhibition space where Tony shows work by artists who he feels deserve more attention than they’ve been getting.  It’s a great opportunity for artists looking for an exhibition in Chicago, especially considering that that Firecat doesn’t take a commission on work sold, nor do they take any fees from the artists.  Tony Fitpatrick is just the kind of decent goddamned human being who, upon realizing he’s made it to the top of the mountain, turns around and reaches back to offer his helping hand to the fellow behind him.  It’s the art world equivalent of holding the elevator for someone, and we need more people like Tony, who are willing to do this.

Other application-based exhibition opportunities exist at the Hyde Park Art Center and the Chicago Cultural Center.  Both institutions are well-known, openings tend to be quite well-attended and reviewed, and I’ve seen some very good shows at both of them.  The large, primary exhibition spaces tend to be given to curated, themed group exhibitions, sometimes traveling from other locations or collections, but they sometimes show lesser-known Chicago artists, often in the smaller galleries, and these shows can move an artist’s career forward.  For example, painter Darrell Roberts’ exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center led directly to his representation by Thomas McCormick.

As far as museums are concerned, though, the MCA’s 12×12 program was unique in its dedication to showing emerging Chicago artists.  Certainly the Art Institute of Chicago hasn’t shown any initiative in this direction.  The spacious new Modern Wing could easily accommodate a dedicated space for emerging artists, several times the size of the 12×12 room, without making a noticeable dent in the amount of their permanent collection they would be able to exhibit.  I would love to see a program like this at AIC but I’m not holding my breath.

Chicago’s smaller museums may offer some hope.  The relatively new Elmhurst Art Museum, curated by Aaron Ott, former gallery director at David Weinberg Gallery, has shown from its first few shows to have a commitment to exhibiting Chicago artists, some near the beginning of their careers or at least on the front end of the mid-career stage.

The DePaul Art Museum, in its brand new building, has also opened with a strong showing of local artists.  The new space’s inaugural exhibition, Re:Chicago, features exclusively Chicago artists, though not necessarily emerging.  The artists in this exhibition were chosen by members of Chicago’s art community, and include artists from the past two centuries as well as living artists both established and fairly new, although even the youngest and newest could hardly be called “emerging.” Juan Angel Chavez (in Re:Chicago) and Jason Lazarus (Highlights From The Permanent Collection) are young and living; go to enough openings and you’re sure to run into them, maybe hang out and drink a beer with them.  They’re people we know, but their careers are already well underway.  Both are represented by galleries (Chavez by Linda Warren; Lazarus by Andrew Rafacz), and both have shown in significant museums before.  Angel Otero (Re:Chicago) is younger (MFA 2009) but already he’s had a solo exhibition  at Kavi Gupta and been reviewed in ArtForum.  These are all nice guys (Lazarus and Chavez I know personally, and they’re nice guys, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about Otero) who do good work, but they’re hardly emerging.  They’re emerged.  They have already been vetted by whatever powers we have vested in Chicago’s cultural institutions, and while their inclusion in DPAM’s exhibitions can only help their careers, it’s hardly likely to open any doors for them that aren’t already open.  (But hey, congrats guys!)

While I routinely mourn the loss of the 12×12 program, and yearn to see something take its place, it may be that this occurs, as After Image may do, by including newer artists in regular exhibitions, not by specific programs which compartmentalize and segregate emerging artists into dedicated programs like the 12×12. Although a significant feather in the cap of any artist given one, the 12×12 could also be seen as a sort of ghetto within the museum, for artists who had been accepted only into the foyer and given the equivalent of the “Prospect cut,” a vest given to a would-be member of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club from the television series of that name, while a probationary member not yet granted full membership in the club.  It may be a sort of naïve optimism (something of which I am rarely accused) that leads me to hope that, perhaps, the DePaul Art Museum and others like it will do the art world one better than the 12×12 ever did, by inviting emerging artists to mingle with the more experienced, rather than segregating them out, keeping them waiting in the foyer until ultimately seating them at the kids table.

Some more potential exists in the upcoming exhibition “After Image,” scheduled for September 13 to November 18, 2012.  This exhibition will feature artists who “have all either studied with, were influenced by, or share influences with” the Chicago Imagists.  When I asked Louise Lincoln about whether they had any plans for exhibiting work by emerging artists, she told me that the museum had no specific plans for anything like what the 12×12 was, but that After Image would feature a good number of emerging artists, many of them from Chicago.  It may be that DPAM will serve as conduit for the work of emerging Chicago artists by including them, frequently and mindfully, into regular themed group exhibitions such as After Image.  We can only hope that DPAM continues in this direction, and perhaps, if its not too much to ask, that some of the bigger players in town follow their example.