Art 1999’s DIY Attitude

From a sales perspective Art 1999 Chicago was an unqualified success. “Business was great,” says Roberta Lieberman of the Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, expressing a view shared by other exhibitors. But in the days leading up to the fair’s opening night on Thursday, May 6, founder Thomas Blackman and his roster of 214 international dealers struggled with a variety of union slowdowns and stoppages at Navy Pier that hampered their efforts to prepare booths and hang artwork. “I’ve never seen such slow-as-molasses union workers,” says Eva-Maria Worthington of Chicago’s Worthington Gallery. “New York union members work ten times better than what I saw out at Navy Pier.” Bill van Straaten of the New van Straaten Gallery was unequivocal in his criticism: “In 20-some-odd years of doing these fairs, this was the worst situation I’ve ever seen, with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else.”

“We had some labor problems,” Blackman concedes, “but we got them resolved and got the fair open, though it made for a tense opening….Once I get all my walls and lights back into storage, there are a lot of conversations I need to have and questions I intend to ask.” Frank Libby, business representative for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local 10, predicted a smoother setup next year: “If there were hiccups, it had to do with the new design, new walls, new this and that, and the new [contractor].” In the past year, hoping to control the fair’s escalating production costs, Blackman has changed contractors and acquired his own lights, carpeting, and 12-foot-high booth walls, which has cut down on business for local contractors that previously supplied those materials. Speaking for the record, Navy Pier’s administration acknowledged nothing. “We hadn’t heard there were any difficulties with the unions,” says Marilynn Kelly, a spokesperson for general manager Jon Clay. “Everybody thinks it was a great fair.”

The slowdowns left many dealers with no choice but to take matters–and carpentry tools–into their own hands, and they set to work building out booths they had paid between $4,000 and $44,000 to occupy. “It was sort of a do-it-yourself fair,” says dealer Carl Hammer, who did much of his own construction, plastering, painting, and light hanging. Others were less sanguine about the situation. “You would never see anything like this happening at Basel or in Japan,” fumes Robert Landau of Landau Fine Art in Montreal. He arrived at Navy Pier early Tuesday, ready to move his classic 20th-century art into one of the fair’s largest booths, per his contract with Blackman; instead he discovered the booth was far from finished. Landau says the walls weren’t painted and the plastering wasn’t done, and the union workers on the scene were in no hurry to do it for him.

Some local dealers think the fiasco reflects badly on the city. “I think Mayor Daley would be mortified if he heard what people in New York and Europe thought of what goes on out at Navy Pier,” says van Straaten. On Monday, May 10, Blackman met with dealers and apologized profusely for what had happened, reportedly offering partial refunds to those who felt they deserved compensation. But he was unable to give them an ironclad assurance that the same thing wouldn’t happen next year. “Without that assurance,” says Landau, “I won’t be coming back.”

Cripple May Leap to Royal George

Northlight Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, which opened at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie on May 5, may replace Art on the main stage of the Royal George Theatre Center. Alan Schuster, the New Yorker who owns the Royal George complex, says that Art will conclude an eight-month run in mid-June and he’s made overtures to Northlight about moving the McDonagh play in late June or early July. “I didn’t see the show when it was in New York, but I have read the script,” says Schuster, who plans to fly down and see the Northlight production next week.

In London and New York, McDonagh has been widely praised as an exciting new voice. This summer Steppenwolf Theatre Company will present another of his plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, at about the same time The Cripple of Inishmaan could be across the street at the Royal George. Northlight and Schuster would likely coproduce a Royal George run of The Cripple of Inishmaan, but Northlight’s production is scheduled to close on June 5, and the company may have to cover a two- or three-week extension while waiting for the Royal George to open up. Richard Friedman, managing director of Northlight, says each additional week would carry a production cost of $11,000. And in the end Schuster will make his decision based on his impression of the production and on its box office performance at the North Shore Center, which, according to artistic director B.J. Jones, began slowly but is picking up.

Cullen, Henaghan Are Back

Michael Cullen and Sheila Heneghan are set to resume their partnership as theatrical producers this fall with a production of Alfred Uhry’s Tony Award-winning play The Last Night of Ballyhoo. An open casting call is in progress now, with rehearsals set to begin in mid-September and an opening scheduled for early October at the Mercury Theater, the 300-seat house Cullen owns and operates in Lakeview. If the production pans out, it would mark Cullen and Heneghan’s first commercial production in nearly a decade; with former partner Howard Platt, the pair were responsible for long-running Chicago productions of Pump Boys and Dinettes and Driving Miss Daisy, another Uhry play.

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