December 3, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Britton Bertran
The art economy in Chicago – specific to the visual art market – is busted. It doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for a long time. Yes, this a provincial observation as we are in a global society, but ask any commercial gallery owner in Chicago that’s not one of the Mighty 5, and they’ll tell you the same. Yes, more and more people who aren’t in Chicago are paying attention to us as a viable location. Chicago is a place that has artists who make (and made) great work and some non-Chicagoans are even buying art from here (good luck in Miami y’all!). But when it comes to a localized presence, we are somewhere near the bottom of the attention totem pole. Where would you place visual art on the Chicago matrix of culture that includes Theater, Music, Dance, and yes, Food?
There are several ingredients that make up this pie: artists (check-plus), galleries (check), arts administrators (check), art critics (check-minus) and collectors (check-minus-minus). One could also add art schools, art jobs and art conversation to this pie. As well, we have venues in which to look at art which is obviously important for this mixture: fancy/academic/contemporary museums, commercial galleries with varying levels of artist representation, medium-sized and smaller not-for-profits, artist-run apartments/storefronts/garages, city-sanctioned public spaces and galleries AND, lest we forget, our computers. These are all parts of this economy and much of its success is reliant on the flow if information that reaches non-art world people and what happens when those people react to what they see. The trouble is that most of those non-artworlders are either taking what they see for granted. In general, they are not really looking, seeing or reacting.
Chicago has a landscape and art is very much in it. So what’s missing? Why is it broke and how can we fix it?
Money helps. Money helps a lot. Yes, I know it’s gauche to talk about especially in the realm of aesthetics, but the majority of artworlders here are sadly not flush for reasons beyond their control. And yes, I also realize that many artists choose to ignore the money part of their equation as it interferes with the thinking about their work and its discourse. But it still needs to be discussed as it’s a part of the system we live within.
I place much of the blame of a lot of the troubles the Chicago art world has on the lack of collectors. There are collectors in Chicago – both with a little c and a big C – but there are just not enough. I’m going to ignore the Collector portion of this equation and focus on the Lil’ c’s, with the knowledge that one often becomes the other due to the pure pleasure they receive from the act itself.
Who are they? Where are they? Why won’t they come out and play? I know they’re here: they sit on non-profit auxiliary Boards, they go to First Friday, they eat out three nights a week, they buy condos in the West Loop, they have scooters as alternative transportation devices, they bring their visiting parents to the Art Institute and they could probably tell you at least ten contemporary artists they’ve heard of.
Since they are here, we have solved part of the problem and this is important because the Lil’ c’s need to be localized in order for this to work. Next is the hard part: they need to understand that collecting art is a good thing, it’s healthy, it’s fun and it’s really addictive. They need to understand that they don’t need to spend a lot of money. They would be helping out this economy from a small business point of view, for both artists and gallerists. They could say, “Hey I’m young, why don’t I collect some emerging artists that are the same age as me and we could grow together!” Or they could say, “Hey, if a New York Giants linebacker collects art, why shouldn’t I?” Or “I heard that Leo DiCaprio was lurking in the corner of the some art auction last week?” This is a thing that people do! This is something that you, o’ Lil’ c, would be great at!
Sadly, the majority of the Lil’ c’s also need to be told what to buy, at least in the beginning. As such, they need the lecture about aesthetics vs. investments, to buy with your eyes and not your ears, that it’s more than filling in the space over your couch in that new condo and, if they so desire, art collecting brings with it a whole new set of social structures that can be horrifyingly awesome. An additional secret: Lil’ c’s don’t need Leo money to buy art they just need to be educated.
Is there anyone out there that’s taking up this challenge and whisper in the ears of these Lil’ c’s? There are, but there aren’t enough and there aren’t enough that are doing it right. Two examples that are doing it right: The Chicago Artist Coalition and Threewalls. The CAC’s tagline is “Building a Creative Marketplace”. They’ve re-booted the organization in the last couple of years and are making real strides to make connections between artists and collectors. Threewalls has their CSA Initiative (Community Supported Art) that makes a kind of implied statement on the relationship between non-profit-ness, artists, art-making and the joy of owning artwork. These are also sustainable examples. One-off events (aka Art Fairs) may provide convenience and atmosphere but do little for long term development of collecting as a functionary system beyond good and services. Relationships need to be built which is also part of the fun.
Beyond the money – there is relevance. These are two concepts inextricably associated with each other. In the context of Chicago, with its persistent inferiority complex, relevance especially applies in ways that will always be in flux. Some choose to ignore it, others choose to whole-heartedly embrace it and there are others whose mission in life is to better it.
There used to be individuals who developed a way of thinking and talking about art in Chicago that directly translated into success for a number of artists, both critically and monetarily. Two that come to mind are Don Baum (circa Monster Roster in the late 1960’s) and Judith Russi Kirshner (circa Chicago-neo-conceptualism of the late 1980’s). The artists that they worked with are well represented in our local art institutions as well as the collections of many Collectors. This is artwork that was disseminated in a way that clever, deft and meaningful within Chicago and then beyond.
This is still happening today in a way that could amount to something bigger. The current Whitney Biennial may provide a stopgap for this situation with near 1/5th of its artists currently working in Chicago, or at least with very close ties. Hopefully, the deserved exposure for those lucky artists will translate into more than a sentence or two in a reputable purveyor of art criticism. There is also a handful of local curators ensconced at our museums who do their part by creating scholarly looks at the recent art history of Chicago artists as well as develop vehicles for showcasing some of our emerging and mid-career artists. But is this enough? When the #WhiBi is over, how many of those artists will have some sort of local gallery representation? How many times will we see the same Tony Tasset/Robert Smithson photo at the MCA?
A surefire way of gaining some sort of relevance in the art world used to be simply having someone write about your work. In Chicago this used to be a little harder than other cities, but it was still there. I used to think that a certain level of professional art criticality and good old fashion art journalism was a part of this puzzle, and I still think it is, but when it comes to creating a sense of relevance – it’s a downward spiral. This is something I have no idea how to fix. The state of journalism (online or offline or whatever) is a sad state at this point because there simply isn’t enough of it happening on a higher level. At the same time, if someone where to start consistently writing about Art in Chicago in a serious and engaging way, who would be there to read it? Is there anybody reading this that isn’t already in some way trying to make a living within the local art scene, or at least attempting to become more relevant in some meaningful way? Writing about art, critically or journalistically, needs an infusion that is less about navel gazing and more about starting a conversation that is extroverted.
Thankfully, there aren’t anymore “Chicago schools”. Or at least no one (that’s not a gallery developing a marketing ploy) has decided to wrangle our artists into any sort of synthesized concrete definition in order to look at them easier. And, if someone where to, what would it look like? Would it be too transparent an attempt at selling? Or does that simply not matter anymore? Being an artist in Chicago might just have to be enough, but it can’t be because there is too much at stake. I don’t think there is room for another Don Baum in Chicago, but there is room to recognize that there are more questions than answers in this essay.
Bio: Britton Bertran ran 40000 from 2005 to 2008. He currently is an Instructor at SAIC in the Arts Administration and Policy department and the Educational Programs Manager at Urban Gateways. An occasional guest-curator, he has organized exhibitions for the Hyde Park Art Center, the Loyola Museum of Art and several galleries. You can find him trying to be less cranky about the art world on twitter @br_tton. Stay tuned for another guest post about looking forward to 2014 (and maybe a top 10 list of sorts too.)