When Peter Taub came to Randolph Street Gallery in 1985, as executive director, it had an annual budget of $60,000 and was $50,000 in debt. That was in the midst of one of the biggest art-market booms in U.S. history and during a period of enthusiastic governmental support. Eight years later, at a time when the private art market and government funds are best described as meager, RSG has increased its annual budget eightfold, has erased its deficits, and is aiming to raise $600,000 to buy its space on Milwaukee Avenue. And though many of the artists RSG has showcased are the very ones who stirred censorship and funding controversies, the gallery still receives 70 percent of its funds from government sources.

That’s a well that’s pretty much run dry for other arts groups with progressive social agendas. But Taub says he’s bucked art-world trends by integrating art into the life of the gallery’s community. Of the 200 exhibitions and events the gallery puts on a year, almost half are jointly sponsored by social-service agencies, community groups, schools, or other arts organizations. When Taub came to the gallery, RSG saw its mission as providing exposure for artists who had yet to gain acceptance in the local commercial galleries. But at that time the opportunities for local talent were expanding quickly: where there had been only 35 commercial galleries in the early 80s, by 1985 the city had 85.

Taub started by asking RSG to overhaul its mission: Chicago no longer needed a channel into the commercial art world but a place that could channel art into the everyday life of the city. “Most people think of art as a leisure activity, something incidental they do on Sunday, or after everything else they need to do is finished,” he says. “We wanted to present it as something vital and integral to community life.” To help the gallery make connections, Taub oversaw a vast expansion of activities. Exhibits are now accompanied by performances, community workshops, in-house residencies, and political forums. A recent series on feminism included a gallery show, films, lectures, and workshops on self-defense.

Taub writes all the grants that define and explain the RSG mission and curates many of the programs, but his talk is nearly exclusively about the efforts of others. About himself he offers only that he “went to school out east,” pointing vaguely in the direction of Lake Michigan (we think it’s toward Princeton). He studied photography and sculpture as an undergraduate and as a graduate student in New York, but he left because it was too easy to get lost in the commercial whirl of the art scene there. He continued his studio courses at the School of the Art Institute, then worked as an assistant curator in the Art Institute’s Department of Photography. RSG offered a change from what Taub calls that museum’s “corporate bureaucracy.” The gallery didn’t fulfill his long search for community, however, until he reshaped it. Along the way his own art got lost.

“I am probably the only person who would still describe myself as an artist,” Taub says. “But I approach everything with the problem-solving approach I brought to my photography.” When asked if he would return to the subjects he photographed before–he focused on the juxtaposition of man-made and natural objects–Taub says, “No, that would be impossible. I’ve become interested in too many more and bigger things.”

On Saturday, April 24, Randolph Street Gallery will hold a benefit and auction. The artists who have contributed works for sale include Dorit Cypis, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Laurie Hogin, Risa Sekiguchi, Andres Serrano, Lorna Simpson, Annie Sprinkle, Carrie Mae Weems, and Sarah Whipple. The evening begins at 7 at RSG, 756 N. Milwaukee, and includes roulette on a dadaist wheel a la Marcel Duchamp, dinner (donated by some of the city’s top caterers and restaurants), and entertainment by John (“Sinatra”) Connors, who does a spookily familiar take on Ol’ Blue Eyes. Admission is $35, $25 for RSG members. Tickets are available at the door or by calling 666-7737.

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