He Has a Dream

Artist Michael Hopkins has had enough of second-class treatment. Last Friday evening he and an intrepid band of three other local artists and two sympathetic souls manned a picket line in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art as guests arrived for the members-only opening of “Under Development: Dreaming the MCA’s Collection.” Hopkins and his picketers were protesting what they consider the MCA’s arrogant and dismissive attitude toward the hundreds of visual artists toiling for recognition in the museum’s own backyard. Hopkins claims the picket line would have been larger except that many artists declined his invitation for fear of being blacklisted by the MCA.

No more meek kowtowing for Hopkins. “I don’t want to be ushered into the MCA at age 70, have them view slides of my art and say ‘thanks,’ and then know I can die in peace because the museum has seen my work.” He is fighting for the museum to devote space in its new building (scheduled to open in about two years) to a permanent gallery for Illinois artists, a venue for all kinds of exhibits of local work: theme shows, one-person shows, group shows. He is tired of going to see the work of what he maintains is a closed set of artists. “Art exhibits nowadays have a franchised feeling–you see the same artists everywhere,” he says. Hopkins would rather major museums take a chance on something new and different and preferably local. “It may not always be very good art, but at least I can be shocked or surprised by how bad it is.”

Thus far Hopkins’s battle cry has fallen on relatively deaf ears. “This kind of dispute is business as usual for a contemporary art museum,” says MCA chief executive Kevin Consey. “[Hopkins] is entitled to his opinion and we are entitled to ours.” Consey says the museum has held community meetings–attended by a total of some 350 local artists, dealers, and collectors–and concluded that separate gallery space for local artists is a “silly” idea. “We believe it demeans local art and ghettoizes it.” He also argues that he and his curatorial staff are well informed about the local scene: “We are out in the studios and out in the galleries every week.” Furthermore, he says, MCA shows in the works for next fall will spotlight the work of six Chicago artists.

But others on the local art scene side with Hopkins. “I think what Hopkins is doing is warranted,” says Michael Wier of Lyons Wier Gallery, which represents a number of young artists in the Chicago area. Bill Struve of Struve Gallery says devoting space to local work is becoming increasingly common at museums across the country. “Art museums in Denver and Hartford have rooms devoted to local art, but here in Chicago we’re used to accepting scraps.” He also discounts the notion that a separate display space demeans the artists. “Every artist I have spoken to wouldn’t object to such an exhibition, because they want above all to have their work seen in the hope that people will respond to it.”

Paul Klein, one of the city’s most outspoken gallery owners, also believes in what Hopkins is trying to make happen. “I [wouldn’t quite] equate [Hopkins] with Martin Luther King, but I like what he is doing…though I wouldn’t do it in the manner he is.” Klein says he is familiar with the MCA’s concern about ghettoizing local artists. His response? “Various excuses can become a rationale for various kinds of behavior.”

After the picket line dispersed last week, Hopkins began planning for future picketing of MCA events and remained optimistic about what looks to be a long, hard fight. In the meantime he is being seen and heard. A number of MCA members applauded his stance as they entered the museum last Friday. MCA associate curator Lynne Warren ventured out the door and shook an outstretched finger at Hopkins as if to let him know he was a naughty boy. At Hopkins’s request MCA chief curator Richard Francis has agreed to meet with the artist at some future date to discuss his concerns.

Fair Market Value

Tom Blackman is back this year with a bigger and, he hopes, better New Pier Show, running through May 9 in a 90,000-square-foot tent at Cityfront Center. John Wilson, Blackman’s former employer and now his arch rival, is back too with the 15th Chicago International Art Exposition, scheduled for May 12 through 16 in the rotunda at Navy Pier. But David and Lee Ann Lester are not back this time around. Unhappy with the overly competitive situation here and concerned that Chicago is no longer a mecca for art collectors, they opted to mount a spring fair in New York City. At the moment, the Lesters plan on returning to Chicago in the fall of 1995, with a fair in the new exhibition space at Navy Pier.

Blackman’s show clearly has gained in size and clout with the Lesters’ departure. The number of galleries exhibiting at the second New Pier Show is 135, up from 80, while Art Expo, in decline for several years, is down to 43 exhibitors from approximately 50 last year. Blackman admits to having learned a lot from last year’s show: the 1994 affair will be more attractively laid out in a larger, better ventilated tent with a more varied and higher quality food service. The admission fee is staying at $10. Art Expo is a low-key affair by comparison; “survival” is the buzzword in the Wilson camp, according to an Art Expo spokesman. Wilson’s Lakeside Group, which has presented Art Expo for the past 15 years, filed suit against Blackman last fall, charging, among other things, that Blackman used deceptive trade practices and misappropriated trade secrets in starting his competing fair. Blackman’s attorney says he has “denied all the allegations.”

Lawsuits aside, one factor certain to affect the fate of the fairs is sales. Some local dealers don’t expect much improvement over last year’s slow pace. And they worry that major international collectors won’t travel to Chicago to buy art. If these fears prove valid, attracting both buyers and exhibitors will be even tougher next year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.