Dealers, collectors, and avant-garde schmoozers from all over the globe will converge in Chicago during the first week of May for three major art expositions running concurrently. And as local hotels, restaurants, and art-world insiders gear up for these well-heeled crowds, local artists are naturally wondering what’s in it for them.

Enter Ned Schwartz, Chicago artist and dealer who’s made a career of playing art-world underdog. While the biggies display their high-end wares–at Donnelley Hall, the Apparel Center, and Cityfront Center–Schwartz presents an exposition for the masses at his Beret International Gallery. Glibly titled “Car Radios and Other Great Stuff Stolen From Past Art Expos . . . (Funny/Not Funny),” the show features work by some 40 famous and not-so-famous Chicago and regional artists.

Hypothetically the big art fairs are a coup for such artists, offering the possibility of exposure to a broad audience of dealers and buyers. But Schwartz is skeptical. “They don’t really look at much local work,” he notes with barely a hint of chagrin. “You know, they make their obligatory visits to all the River North galleries and go to a few parties and that’s it. Still, I thought it was important to do something during the fairs.”

But stolen radios? “The title’s only a metaphor, a double metaphor, really,” the soft-spoken dealer claims, though he doesn’t elaborate on what it might be. Instead he describes a bit of symbolic thievery: artist Todd Pink plans to paint a “private” parking space on the Beret gallery floor and “reserve” it for John Wilson, the businessman behind the Donnelley Hall expo. “I just love that idea of stealing a parking place,” Schwartz says grinning. Local artists Michael Hopkins, Craig Anderson, Ben Dallas, and Sally Havlis will jointly paint over several announcements from shows at the prestigious Phyllis Kind Gallery. Schwartz says, “They’re frustrated that the art Phyllis Kind sells ends up being equated with a ‘Chicago style’–Imagism and all that.” He hints that he might also display his private collection of silverware stolen from various museum cafeterias. “It’s sort of a play on how, because things are in a museum, they’re automatically valuable.”

This sort of art-world parody has become a theme for Schwartz. Three years ago he masterminded “The Woolworth Show,” which showed work by any interested artist on the condition that the work’s materials had been purchased at the venerable dime store. In the spring of ’91 Schwartz offered the “Foreign Policy Show”–dozens of satiric looks at U.S. overseas relations just as the Bush administration was sending “freedom fighters” to the Persian Gulf. Again, no artist was turned away.

Later that year Schwartz found a more permanent home for his curatorial efforts–half the third floor of a warehouse at the corner of Webster and Elston. He helps pay the rent by leasing part of the space as artists’ studios and by renting out the main gallery from time to time. More recently he has pooled resources with a few other small galleries to form a group that calls itself Uncomfortable Spaces and includes besides Schwartz Tough Gallery (near Greektown), Ten in One (Near West), and MWMWM (South Loop).

Art lovers who can do without expo attitude–not to mention double-digit admission charges–can take in “Car Radios and Other Great Stuff” for free through May 29 at Beret International Gallery, 2211 N. Elston. The show opens with a reception Friday night from 6 to 11. Call 489-0282 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.