Angel on Our Shoulder

The E-bubble may have burst, but some of that magic money is still floating around. Take for example the ArtCouncil, a San Francisco-based philanthropy that materialized in Chicago this week to bestow ten $10,000 awards (and four more for $1,500) on Cook County visual artists. The major winners were Max King Cap, Jeff Carter, Paul Dickinson, Anoka Faruqee, Gaylen Gerber, Angelina Gualdoni, D’nell Larson, A. Laurie Palmer, Bernard Williams, and Anne Wilson–all of whom might have been asking themselves, why Chicago? Turns out it wasn’t serendipity. Local E-commerce whiz kid Curt Alan Conklin is the man behind the ArtCouncil curtain.

In the late 1980s Conklin, a Rockford native, was an undergrad at the University of Chicago–an economics major who “filled up all my electives with visual arts.” After college he tried investment banking and put in a stint at Lettuce Entertain You, where he helped launch the Maggiano’s/ Corner Bakery division and began to dabble in technology. By ’94 he was looking for a way to combine his interests in technology and art. “The answer was the Internet,” he says, “though it barely existed at the time.” Conklin moved to Omaha to work for a small company that was trading stock over the telephone. “I was brought in to see if we couldn’t build an Internet site,” he says. That company is now Ameritrade. Allowed to buy in at a pre-IPO price, he borrowed as much as he could from any source that would lend to him. Today the stock is “a tenth of its high, but ten times above where it went public,” he says. “I don’t have enough money to start my own university anymore, but I’m OK.” He returned to Chicago a year ago to work for Incapital, an investment banking firm recently founded by a U. of C. buddy, Tom Ricketts.

The ArtCouncil was founded by another college friend, San Francisco investment banker Christopher Vroom. Conklin, who’s been a consultant and contributor since its inception a few years ago, describes it as a “flexible platform” that allows individual donors to support individual artists. “As a donor it’s difficult to give money to artists because it’s not tax deductible,” he says. “The way around it is to have jurists.” That means giving up a certain amount of control: Conklin put up $200,000 to fund the organization’s first Chicago awards, including an exhibit, reception, and administrative costs. But he was excluded from the selection process. “It was an issue of concern,” he says, “but I couldn’t be happier with the selection.” The jurors–artist Candida Alvarez, Renaissance Society director Susanne Ghez, UIC dean Judith Russi Kirshner, and gallery owner Anthony Meier–chose the winners from 500 applicants. So far, Conklin says, the ArtCouncil is a “Chris and Curt” production. “We’re in a situation now where in order to keep a certain IRS status, we need a broader base of contributors. We’re pursuing that.” Work by the ArtCouncil grant winners is on exhibit at Gallery 312 through May 18.

The Sweet Buy and Buy

The hot ticket at Art Chicago this year was the invitation-only “Professional Preview,” which preempted the early viewing that’s traditionally one of the draws of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Vernissage benefit. Each of the show’s 225 dealers was allowed to invite their 20 best customers to shop from 10 to 2 on Thursday, the day before the show officially opened. These select guests got first crack at the wares and the luxury of browsing unencumbered by the crowd at the MCA party or the $12-a-ticket lookers who (it’s hoped) will swarm the place this weekend. The MCA’s “patron reception,” still open to anyone willing to cough up $400-$600 a ticket, didn’t begin till 4 PM, two hours after the first preview closed. MCA director Robert Fitzpatrick says the new event “had zero impact on our ticket sales.”

“The professional preview is something we’ve discussed with the MCA for several years,” says Art Chicago’s Thomas Blackman. It’s an opportunity to look and buy, not a party, he adds. “Who could compete with the MCA? Opening night is huge–about 3,000 people. But a number of collectors have limited time to spend at the show, and opening night is so social it’s hard even to see everything.” Four thousand preview invitations went out to an international list of collectors; Blackman was hoping for about 1,500 to show up.

The preview, like the “International Invitational,” which offered free space to 20 “innovative” galleries, came about in the face of competition from a growing New York Armory show and a new fair in Miami, to be launched in December by the team behind the formidable international show in Basel, which takes place next month. “There’s an excitement that goes with anything new,” Blackman says. “I think we have to see what happens over a couple of years, how it all shakes out. Chicago is still different from any other fair in the United States in terms of both size and scope. We are truly the capitalist tool, and that’s what this is all about.”

Count Them Out

Blackman says dealer applications were as plentiful this year as ever (“375 or 400 for the 200-plus spots”). A couple of Chicago expatriates, however, didn’t bother. Lance Kinz, of Feigen Contemporary, which moved from Chicago to New York in 1997 because “Chicago was becoming a finite constituency, dying down in its ability to support galleries,” will miss it for the second year in a row. “We did it every year since John Wilson started it,” Kinz says, “and I’m sure we’ll come back, but we can only do so much at one time. We also have to develop interest in other areas. This year we’re doing [the June] Basel [show]. And we did the New York art fair.”

Joel Leib, who transplanted his Ten in One Gallery to New York a year and a half ago, also chose to pass up Art Chicago for the New York and Basel shows. “Right now the financial and work aspects of doing three art fairs are just too much for me to handle,” Leib says. “Chicago drew the short straw.” Leib thinks the New York Armory show, which has “grown exponentially in the last three years,” is competition for Blackman. “And with the Miami Basel show opening there’ll be two art fairs that weren’t there a couple years ago directly competing with Chicago for the contemporary art market. When Tom first opened he had to compete against two art fairs in Chicago,” Leib says. “Now he’s got to deal with two art fairs in other cities that are building a lot of steam, and it’s a different ball game. Everyone thinks Tom is a nice guy and wants him to do well, but it’s about surviving in this market.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.