Cautious Optimism and New Blood in River North

After a couple of years of talking gloom and doom, Chicago’s intrepid gallery owners seem to have made their peace with the art market as they prepare for this weekend’s blitz of fall openings. “There isn’t as much focus on the negative now,” says Paul Gray, who runs the Richard Gray Gallery with his father. Only a couple of years ago prices of works by known and respected artists were falling fast and furious. But dealers say prices have stabilized during the past 12 months, and they think that has instilled some confidence in buyers. “The people who are seriously interested in art are buying again, not the speculators,” says Gray.

Dealers generally agree that there will be no return to the fabulous, frenzied 1980s, when investors drove up prices and both dealers and artists made huge profits. Lower prices, of course, mean slimmer margins for many dealers. And even significantly reduced prices haven’t eliminated the glut of work in galleries all over town. “There’s rampant overinventory out there,” says gallery owner Carl Hammer, president of the Chicago Art Dealers Association. Several River North dealers have slashed overhead to stay in business; Ken Saunders of Deson-Saunders Gallery, who had a staff of three two years ago, now does everything himself, from hanging the paintings to wrapping them for shipping. “It’s difficult,” says Saunders, but he claims his business has begun to rebound “dramatically” in recent months. Even so, many gallery owners say the continued difficult economic climate may mean more gallery closings.

Meanwhile, new blood is trickling into River North. David Leonardis, whose gallery at 1352 N. Paulina apparently failed to become sufficiently profitable, headed east last month to 207 W. Ohio. “I’ll have more visibility in River North,” he says. Another brave new face is 30-year-old Michael Lyons Wier, proprietor of the Lyons Wier Gallery at 740 N. Franklin. A director at several galleries before opening his own shop, Weir maintains that it was the proper time to strike out on his own. “From an emotional standpoint, it seemed right, and I think there’s a renewed interest in the gallery district now.” His peers, some of whom have been struggling mightily to stay afloat, guess it will take about three years for Wier to establish himself–that is, if he has what it takes to survive even that long. “If he has the financing and integrity, as well as good taste and standards, he should be able to make it,” says Paul Gray.

Wier says he got into business for himself to “try and nurture my youthful contemporaries into buying art.” He is showing young artists whose work sells for between $800 and $1,800. “At those levels, price shouldn’t be an obstacle for young adults who want to buy.” He likes working with emerging artists because he says they have a more aggressive attitude about selling their art than many better-established talents. And because of the low prices and unknown names, Wier thinks buyers are less likely to feel cheated if some of their purchases don’t wind up so valuable from an investment standpoint.

The Age of Audience Targeting

Columbia Pictures is taking the tony approach to promoting Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited The Age of Innocence, which will open in Chicago on September 17, initially on only two or three screens. Tickets to special preview screenings of the movie, based on Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about aristocratic New Yorkers in the 1870s, are being given away through WFMT radio and the Petrossian/Rendezvous cafe at Bloomingdale’s. “WFMT tends to choose the projects they get involved in very selectively,” says a source at John Iltis Associates, the marketing firm handling the film’s debut in Chicago. Columbia marketing executives apparently advised their representatives in major markets that a classical or national public radio station would be the most suitable promotional outlet for the film, whose score includes numerous classical music selections. Scorsese’s movie was originally slated for release last Christmas, but postproduction delays pushed the opening back. The film’s world premiere last week at the Venice Film Festival drew a mixed response from critics.

Benefit Bargain

The organizers of the 10th annual Howard Brown Health Center gala fund-raiser October 30 are trying to do something about the inflated ticket prices that tend to go hand in hand with glitzy benefit events. For the first time in the event’s history, a relatively low-priced ticket will be available for $60. The traditional triple-digit tickets ($175-$550) include cocktails, dinner, a performance by Nora Dunn, a dessert buffet, and dancing, all at the Westin Hotel; the $60 ticket holders arrive after dinner and the performance are over but get in on the cocktails, dessert, and dancing. Proceeds from all tickets, of course, go to the center, the midwest’s largest provider of AIDS services. “We’re trying to reach out to more people and bring in young people and those from lower socioeconomic groups,” explains Steve Phelps, one of the gala’s chairmen.

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