Down by the River: Can Art Dealers Survive the Recession?

As the annual round of fall art openings kicks off this weekend in and around River North, more than 50 gallery owners who have survived the past 12 months of war, recession, and plummeting prices are trying to put on a happy face. “Our death is greatly exaggerated,” quips dealer Paul Klein, but a handful of gallery closings during the slow summer months has sent a collective shudder through the district. Barring a swift upturn in the market, more closings are expected in the months ahead. “In tough times,” says dealer Roberta Lieberman, “the weak get weaker and the strong get stronger.”

Though there will certainly be plenty of survivors, the realists know that the art market isn’t what it was even a couple of years ago. “Sales are down,” says gallery owner Ricky Renier, “but you have to keep believing in what you do.” Renier is confident that there’s still a large pool of collectors who will continue to buy art. “You’ll never lose the people who like art,” she says. But there is another segment of buyers who are being forced to decide between art and basic necessities, she says, and “those decisions affect everybody in the business.”

Also contributing to the downturn, according to Chicago Gallery News editor Natalie van Straaten, is a notable absence of new galleries opening in River North. “When you get new dealers coming in with new ideas, it creates excitement and stimulates everyone,” says van Straaten, “but that hasn’t been happening lately.” Nor is it likely to anytime soon, according to other dealers. Says Ann Nathan of Objects Gallery, “This isn’t the right climate to open a new space.”

On top of that, almost every local dealer with a hand in the once-lucrative corporate art market concedes that it has all but collapsed. The recession has forced frills such as art acquisitions out of the corporate game plan. Klein, for one, has tried to get around that problem by renting art rather than selling it. If a company decides to buy a piece of rented art, Klein credits 33 percent of the rental fees to the purchase price.

Overall dealers say the art market is heading into a new, more sober era. Says Klein: “I don’t think well see the price of art getting back up to a frivolously high level soon.”

Another Not-for-Profit Loss

The management shuffle at the city’s not-for-profit theaters continues apace. After 16 months, David Dillon has resigned as managing director of Pegasus Players to pursue projects in the commercial sector. Dillon leaves the organization after helping it retire about two-thirds of a $70,000 deficit. Pegasus has named Dave Kappas as interim managing director while the company conducts a nationwide search for Dillon’s successor. Dillon has worked in both not-for-profit and commercial theater, and he is not optimistic about the immediate future for the nonprofits. “Funding is tough,” he says, “and there just aren’t enough good shows out there to go around.”

Leavitt and Company Get Organized

Theatrical producer Michael Leavitt and his new partners at Fox Associates are wasting no time lining up the rights to hit shows: They plan to produce both Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers and John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation in 1992. Meanwhile Leavitt’s 350-seat Apollo Theatre is undergoing extensive remodeling, including a new facade, new carpeting, and reupholstered seats. Leavitt hopes to have the job done by November.

Behind the Numbers at Remains

Remains Theatre wound up its 1990-’91 season, the first in its new home at 1800 N. Clybourn, with a total audience of 42,050, the largest in the company’s 12-year history. But 87 percent of the total came to see the last production of the season, American Buffalo, the well-known work by David Mamet, which featured movie star and ensemble member William Petersen for much of its run. The other two shows were unfamiliar works with no big-name stars. Remains’ upcoming Chicago Conspiracy Trial, the largest and most expensive production in the company’s history, with a 36-member cast, is likewise unfamiliar and starless, but producing director R.P. Sekon is upbeat. “It’s a major event,” he says, “and we’ve had a lot of group-sales interest.”

A Trader in the Kitchen

Kevin McAuliffe, a fast-talking former trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, has left the trading floor behind to head up the kitchen staff at Uncle Frog’s, a primarily country-French restaurant that has been quietly opened by restaurateur John Grbac, who also owns Jim & Johnny’s, Jimo’s Cafe, and Cha Cha Cha. McAuliffe has always enjoyed cooking as a hobby, but he never thought about doing it at his own restaurant until Grbac approached him with an offer to “do what he wanted” in the tiny 32-seat space at 1507 N. Honore, formerly the site of a Puerto Rican diner.

McAuliffe began by creating a list of menu items that range from southwestern French dishes (his favorite) to Oriental vegetables sauteed in sesame oil. McAuliffe has studied at Thai cooking schools while vacationing in northern Thailand and at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. Uncle Frog’s is the priciest of Grbac’s eateries to date, with a six-course meal going for $32-$35. That could make the spot a hard sell in a less-than-affluent neighborhood. McAuliffe says he isn’t in this for the glory, but he did send 3,000 postcards out to former trading-floor cohorts announcing his new venture.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.