Artists’ Day Out

Rock stars go on world tours all the time. But visual artists? Taking a cue from the adage that travel broadens the mind, the Northbrook-based Hirsch Farm Project will be sponsoring an around-the-world trip this March taking six artists to New York, Amsterdam, Singapore, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The two-week trip will result in an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the fall of 1998.

Getting artists out of the studio to discuss issues of the day has always been the mission of the Hirsch Farm Project, a think tank for artists founded in 1989 by Howard Hirsch, a Chicago screw manufacturer turned art collector and philanthropist. Seeing that artists spend much of their creative time in isolation, Hirsch decided to gather artists of various disciplines for informal retreats at his farm in southwestern Wisconsin. These retreats were often organized around specific topics, such as the role of public art and art’s relationship to the environment. The annual getaways became more formal once Hirsch hired artist Mitchell Kane as the project’s director in 1991. After being introduced to Hirsch at Randolph Street Gallery, Kane submitted several proposals about how the annual budget of $20,000 could be used, and Hirsch evidently liked what Kane suggested.

The endeavor took on a more conceptual bent once Kane came on board. Each session resulted in a book, often containing site-specific plans (though none that were ever realized) or dialogues between artists and professionals in other fields. Then last year, Kane moved the deliberations away from the farm and convened the project in Tahiti. Last year’s edition, “Contemporary Art in an Age of Uncertainty,” was meant to coincide with the 105th anniversary of Gauguin’s arrival there. The success of that venture, Kane says, prompted him to entertain the even more ambitious notion of a movable conversation that spanned the globe.

According to Kane, this year’s world tour is intended to provide more than a whirlwind glimpse of other countries and cultures. He plans to hold “casual conversations” among the traveling artists–photographer Sharon Lockhart, painter Elizabeth Peyton, archivist Ben Kinmont, and sculptors Vincent Fecteau and Lincoln Tobier–as they move from place to place on Singapore Airlines, which offered the group the best rate (the entire cost of the tour is pegged at $20,000). They will examine the genre of portraiture and “models of cohabitation” in different cultures, the influence of entertainment, architecture, and technology, and “the impact of conservatism on the arts in the 90s.” Throughout the trip, says Kane, the artists will also consider how moving from country to country influences their conversations and the conclusions they reach. When they return, all of the artists will be expected to contribute an entry to a book to be published later in the year. The entries could be anything from a drawing or a painting to an essay, according to Kane, but each of the artists must produce something that reflects what they learned from their journey and conversations. The book will then be mailed to a list of artists, libraries, and others with an interest in the arts.

Whether or not the Hirsch Farm Project has made–or will ever make–the arts a more important part of life in America or elsewhere doesn’t seem to be its overriding concern. Kane says the project has provided a valuable opportunity for artists to step back from their work and reflect for a few days on issues relating to their lives and careers. Kane’s job has been made easier because Hirsch, the man with the money, appears to have made no stringent demands on him or the project participants.

“We’re not trying to academically track trends,” says Laurie Winter, who is the project’s codirector (and Hirsch’s daughter). “We’re interested in artists’ reactions.”

But the project’s days may be numbered. According to Kane, Hirsch has not committed to funding the project after next year’s MCA exhibit. Kane says he and Winter may have to find other funding sources if the Hirsch Farm Project is to continue.

That’s Showbiz!

It certainly wasn’t the merriest of holidays for the producers and cast of That’s Christmas!, the multimillion-dollar spectacle that did disappointing business for the five weeks it managed to stay open at the Shubert Theatre. A source says the show was pulling in only 600 people at some performances, less than a third of capacity. That’s Christmas! closed a week early on December 29 because “soft” ticket sales didn’t warrant keeping the show going, according to marketing director David Sass, though he refused to say how much money the production lost. Insisting that the show will return to the Shubert next season, Sass squelched rumors that another venue was being sought. “I don’t think the Shubert was a problem,” says Sass. If That’s Christmas! does return, the producers will probably make changes after reviewing the extensive market research conducted during the run of the show. Should it come back, That’s Christmas! could face some daunting competition from New York’s Radio City Music Hall, which is believed to be close to cementing a deal to open an edition of its famed Christmas show in Chicago in 1997.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mitchell Kane photo by Greg Miller.