City Sets Price of Artistic License: $25

The organizers of the annual Wells Street Art Fair have found out the hard way that the city government isn’t always the friend of the arts it would have you believe. On April 18, according to Ferd Isserman, president of the Old Town Chamber of Commerce, 42nd Ward Alderman Burton Natarus notified the chamber of commerce that each of the 250 artists planning to participate in this year’ s Wells Street fair (June 8 and 9) would be required to pony up an additional $25 for an itinerant merchants license by the end of April or else the fair would not be issued the necessary food, liquor, and entertainment permits. The fee was demanded, the story goes, because the city revenue department suddenly decided that an ordinance dating back to 1920 should apply to art fairs. Alderman Natarus was just the middleman.

The demand caught fair organizers by surprise and quickly prompted activist members of the Chicago Artists Coalition to begin investigating the matter. Meanwhile, an assistant to Alderman Natarus swiftly delivered 280 itinerant merchant’s license applications to the chamber of commerce, to be sent to all artists with booths at the fair On April 19, chamber officials mailed out the forms, though they were dubious many artists would meet the fee deadline; most of them were already on the road participating in art fairs elsewhere. In a matter of days the city revenue department backed down on its demand; it realized the chamber of commerce couldn’t legally issue a valid receipt for the license on the city’s behalf. The fee was waived, but not before some 200 of the artists sent in checks, all of which had to be returned.

Things are quiet for now, but the threat remains; the revenue department intends to review the fee collection process and come up with a workable system for next year’s round of fairs. Any city fee would be imposed on top of each fairs own booth fee, $125 at the Wells Street fair. The way the ordinance now reads could make things especially burdensome for the artists; the license must be renewed every two weeks or whenever the location where the merchant sells his or her wares changes. There are approximately ten major art fairs in Chicago.

Many observers believe applying the itinerant merchant’s ordinance to arts fairs is a poorly concealed attempt by the city to increase revenue. Ann Herben, a department of revenue employee, said attempts to enforce the ordinance weren’t so much a matter of money as an effort to protect the consumer. Chuck Hadley, executive director of the Lake View East Development Corporation, which runs the Lake View East Art Fair, disagrees: “They’re looking for money any way they can get it.” Isserman believes the fee would be counterproductive: “It’s a drop in the bucket from the city’s perspective, and it’s not going to keep a school open.” Adds Chicago Artists Coalition staffer Diane Grams: “I think there are better ways to go after money than hitting on people who are so unempowered they have to sell their art on the streets.”

Still, Lillian Anguiano, general manager of the annual Northalsted Marketdays and a former employee of the mayor’s office of special events, thinks the city is serious about devising a workable system for collecting the itinerant merchant’s license fee. She points to a similar experience last year when the city attempted to collect a $100 fee from all bar owners selling liquor in front of their taverns at art fairs. The fee was waived at the last minute when a collection system couldn’t be worked out in time, but it is being collected this year.

Liquor vendors have the money, but Anguiano worries that artists may not be so flush. CAC executive director Arlene Rakoncay says her organization will fight any attempts to enforce the ordinance at art fairs. As for Natarus, he claims he never even discussed collecting the license fee with the Old Town Chamber of Commerce. And if the city comes back next year with a new plan for collecting the fee, guess who says he’ll be among the first leading the protests. “We’ll fight it,” says Natarus.

Art Show Attendance Slips

The uncertainties of the contemporary art market took their toll on the 12th annual Chicago International Art Exposition, held for the first time in Donnelley Hall at McCormick Place while Navy Pier is under construction. Attendance dropped to around 40,000 from last year’s 47,000. A spokesman for the event speculated that some people stayed away because they were scared by the recent sharp drop in art prices, but other Art Expo executives weren’t ruling out the less convenient location as a factor. Meanwhile, David and Lee Ann Lester, organizers of the competing Art Chicago ’91 at the ExpoCenter, also suffered an attendance falloff, to 12,000 from 14,000 last year. But David Lester says their experience this year convinced them two competing art expositions can coexist in Chicago “happily.” The Lesters, who say they think the market will be stronger next year, will be back with an expanded edition of their show.

Theater League Stops Presses

The League of Chicago Theatres’ monthly theater guide may be in jeopardy. The ]Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs told the league last week that because of cutbacks it could not continue to pay the approximately 60 percent it contributes to the cost of printing the monthly foldout guide. The guide, distributed at league member theaters and at a number of hotels and tourist spots, costs between $7,000 and $8,500 to produce each month, according to league president Mary Badger. A portion of the cost was covered by charges for theater listings and advertising in the guide. Badger said the league would try to produce a guide in mid-June to remain in print for three months while the group looks for an alternative funding source, though she conceded the options were few. The guide debuted in August 1988, based on a successful guide produced and distributed for many years in London.

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