Feigen Flees

Since the collapse of the art market in the early 90s, galleries of all kinds have come and gone in River North. But now the city’s top art district is about to lose a big one–Feigen Incorporated, a leading showcase for international contemporary art. This spring, gallery codirectors Lance Kinz and Susan Reynolds will vacate their storefront at 742 N. Wells and move the operation to New York City.

Owner Richard Feigen was a pioneer art dealer in Chicago; he opened his first gallery here in 1957, just as the city was developing a homegrown community of young collectors interested in contemporary art. Feigen started with a specialty in surrealist and German expressionist art, but early on he took an interest in the careers of Chicagoans, exhibiting local artists like Edith Altman and Seymour Rosofsky alongside such international figures as Jean Dubuffet and the Chilean painter Matta. Feigen moved to New York in 1963, where he opened one of the first galleries in SoHo and vigorously championed some important contemporary artists, including Joseph Beuys, John Baldessari, and James Rosenquist. He now sells the work of masters from the 14th to 20th centuries.

While he was establishing a presence on the New York art scene, Feigen continued to operate his Chicago gallery off and on. In 1989 he brought in Kinz as director of the River North space, and the gallery began to establish a reputation for showing high-quality contemporary work by younger local artists like Jeanne Dunning, Dan Peterman, Julia Fish, and Inigo Manglano-Ovalle. The gallery also showed art by such established names as Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, and Elizabeth Murray. In the summer of 1995 Feigen Incorporated made headlines when police confiscated and destroyed 10,000 Doses, an artwork by Gregory Green that was mistakenly believed to contain homemade LSD.

Some local dealers view Feigen’s impending departure as a major blow to the city’s already shaky art market. “It will be a real loss, because Feigen was a gallery of quality in a shrinking River North art district,” says Ingrid Fassbender, who recently moved her gallery to the area. Richard Feigen says the decision to close the gallery was made by Kinz. “Lance is suffering from the old Second City syndrome,” says Feigen, who maintains that many Chicago collectors prefer to buy art in New York anyway. Kinz may also have felt trapped by a double standard: New York dealers insist on sharing commissions with out-of-town galleries when their artists show there, but they want to keep the entire take when artists affiliated with galleries outside of New York show in Manhattan. “Lance was tired of serving as a feeder gallery to other dealers in New York,” says Feigen.

Kinz says he feels profound ties to Chicago artists, but a move to New York will undoubtedly bring more exposure to those he represents. Though Feigen says he still has hope for Chicago as an art market, he believes the city may be crippled by its older, more conservative collectors, who wield great influence at the art museums, keeping younger people off the boards and thus stunting the development of a new generation of local collectors.

Other River North dealers say Feigen’s departure may have been inevitable, because the gallery–with its high quotient of conceptual art–doesn’t cater to the dominant tastes of the local market. “Chicago is pigeonholed right now as an imagist-driven art community, while New York is open to many more vocabularies,”says dealer Michael Wier. Ken Saunders of the Marx-Saunders Gallery says, “It’s surprising they lasted as long as they did, because even though they maintained a rigorous standard of excellence, they tended to show stuff that was tough to sell consistently.”

In New York, Kinz and Reynolds will be somewhat smaller fish in a much bigger pond. They plan to shut down at the end of May after the annual Art 1997 Chicago international art fair at Navy Pier. Soon thereafter they’ll reopen as Feigen Contemporary in a slightly larger space at 535 W. 20th Street in New York’s new Chelsea gallery district. The downtown Manhattan space will coexist with Richard Feigen’s other gallery uptown.

The loss of commercial galleries may not strike much of a chord in the mainstream cultural community. But that’s because most people overlook their influence. Commercial galleries are usually the first to exhibit work by important international artists; for instance, Feigen Incorporated mounted a small retrospective of photos by Andres Serrano two years before the MCA hosted a larger show. More importantly, commercial spaces help local artists survive by selling their work. Fortunately, Richard Feigen hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to Chicago at a later date if he finds another director as capable as Kinz, but, he says, “Right now I don’t know of one.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Lance Kinz and Susan Reynolds photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.