Comfy Deal

Edith Altman wasn’t one of the 322 local artists who contributed to “Cows on Parade” last year. “I just wasn’t interested in doing that,” she says. But she became interested in its financial rewards when 140 of the decorated fiberglass cows were auctioned off for nearly $3.5 million.

She didn’t object to any of the 100 or so charities that benefited from the auction’s proceeds. Or to the cultural institutions that profited, including the School of the Art Institute, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the DuSable Museum of African American History. What bothered Altman was that no money found its way into the hands of local artists.

Most artists who participated in the program received $1,000 apiece from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, but Altman judged that to be slight recompense in light of the auction’s success: “If it wasn’t for artists, there wouldn’t have been any of this. It was just insanity–why didn’t artists speak up?”

Altman says she “opened my big mouth” about a year ago when she met Daniel Nack at a synagogue. Nack, general manager of the Salvatore Ferragamo boutique on North Michigan Avenue, was one of the main organizers of “Cows on Parade” and the chairman of the committee planning its 2001 follow-up, “Suite Home Chicago: An International Exhibition of Urban Street Furniture.”

Beginning next June, “Suite Home Chicago” will install prefab decorated furniture throughout the city, turning “every plaza and parkway into a public patio,” according to promotional literature. Sponsored by businesses, organizations, and individuals, participating artists will receive $1,500 apiece this time around and will have the option of embellishing sofas, chairs and ottomans, televisions, or entire suites–or they can create their own furniture. The exhibit, administered by the public art program of the Department of Cultural Affairs, will also be followed by a charity auction in the fall.

Last spring Nack remembered his conversation with Altman and invited her to a meeting of his “Suite Home Chicago” committee. “I brought up the fact that a lot of artists leave Chicago,” Altman says. “They get frustrated here and they go to other cities. A lot of young people get out of school, and then it’s good-bye.”

Altman is known for tackling tough subjects in her artwork. Her family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 when she was eight years old and the Holocaust is a frequent subject. A Chicagoan since 1967, she’s currently at work on a museum retrospective that will open next September in her native Altenburg, Germany, before traveling to the Chicago Cultural Center in 2002.

“I thought I was going to have to get up there and be aggressive and fight,” Altman recalls. “And it was not like that–it was beautiful, it was just so easy. No one said anything like this wasn’t right. They all agreed: ‘Well, yeah, of course we should give money to the artists!'”

Altman asserted that grants should be given to “artists who made a commitment to Chicago”–“mature” artists who have decided to live here. “It tells artists that the city’s behind them. Lots of artists who have stayed here, who are teachers here, have hurt their careers by being a Chicago artist instead of being a New York or international artist. I mean, I’m international, but I’m also a Chicago artist.”

“Edith had a point of view we never even thought of,” says Nack, who is marshaling private support for the new exhibition. “We were so consumed with the project it was not even on our radar screen.”

Initially, Altman says, someone suggested that 7 percent of the auction proceeds be set aside for Chicago artists. Then with prodding from Helyn Goldenberg of Sotheby’s, the group unanimously voted to make it 10 percent. (“I wanted to speak out but didn’t want to be there haggling,” says Altman, who didn’t much care for the “businesslike” meetings.) Nack and committee members Judith Niedermaier and Peter Hanig conferred with Cultural Affairs director Lois Weisberg, who “loved the idea,” says Nack. She laid out the numbers for Mayor Daley, who reportedly responded, “Why not more?”

Weisberg came back to the committee about a month ago with a new breakdown: 50 percent of the auction proceeds from “Suite Home Chicago” will benefit local artists–13 percent will go directly to “mid-career” artists as individual grants; 25 percent will go to pay instructors in the city’s Gallery 37 arts-education program; and the remaining 12 percent will be split between the Cultural Affairs Department’s visual arts program, which showcases the work of artists in the Cultural Center, and public programs for music, theater, and dance.

Ostensibly this money will be distributed in addition to current city funding. “It will expand Gallery 37’s ability to hire more Chicago artists to teach in the program,” says Nathan Mason, a public art program staffer who will oversee the “Suite Home Chicago” exhibition. “The amount of money raised and whether it’s spent in one calendar year or two hasn’t been determined.”

Nack believes that the furniture auction will be “as big a success or bigger” than the 1999 cow auction. If it raises, say, $4 million, that means $520,000 will be given out as grants–a figure far exceeding the $300,000 or so that Nack says was awarded to Chicago artists last year by city and state agencies.

So far it’s not known how the grants program will be administered–or who will be eligible for grants, how much money will be dispersed, and when these funds will be made available. Nack says, “We have a few proposals on the table.”

Altman, who continues to attend meetings, has fought for other changes. The program’s Web site will now provide links to the personal sites of participating artists or those of their galleries. “That’s valuable to an artist,” says Altman. “We had to make sure people understood that making a cow or painting a chair isn’t our major, serious artwork. It’s something you do because you love the city. These people on the panel woke up and said, ‘We want to help.'”

She’s not sure whether she’ll take part in “Suite Home Chicago.” She’s thought of covering a couch or chair with chocolate that would melt and attract insects, but, she adds, she’s not sure if this idea will fly.

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