Mike Lash’s Out

Mike Lash was busy numbering rubber duckies this week when the Department of Cultural Affairs finally confirmed months of rumors that he’d been fired from his job as the city’s director of public art. A city source said Lash, who’d held the job since 1992, was terminated on May 1. Assistant public art director Elizabeth Kelley is functioning as acting director.

Lash took a leave of absence three months ago after a temper tantrum during which he threw a cell phone and it hit a staff member. According to sources, this was the last straw: despite successes like Cows on Parade, the public art program has had persistent administrative problems, including a lack of financial accountability and inventory control. When pieces of the city’s $50 million art collection turned up in weedy lots or were accidentally crunched by heavy machinery, the problems became painfully apparent. And Lash–who once justified public art by saying that rats do better in an interesting environment–seems to have rubbed at least a few people the wrong way. Still, just a couple of months before his departure Lash got a promotion. Besides retaining the title of public art director, he was elevated late last year to assistant commissioner of cultural affairs.

Lash, a prolific artist himself, has an MFA from Northern Illinois University and was director of the Freeport Arts Center before joining the cultural affairs staff as a public art coordinator in 1990. He took over as director when the previous head, James Futris, died in ’92. Over the last six years his department has been the target of a stream of criticism and two lawsuits filed by its nemesis, Scott Hodes, an attorney with the firm of Bryan Cave, LLP, and president of Lawyers for the Creative Arts (actions reported in extensive Reader stories by Jeff Huebner). In 1999 Hodes sued to demand financial accountability for the program, which controls the 1.33 percent of every city construction project dedicated to the purchase of art. According to Hodes, the department’s lack of records made it impossible to determine how much money had actually been allocated for art over a 20-year period and how that money had been spent. He dropped that suit when the City Council passed an amendment requiring the department of public art to submit an annual financial report, beginning in 2000. (The 2003 report was due May 1.) Last September Hodes sued again, charging that the public art committee has been operating illegally for years because they’ve seldom had a quorum present when they make decisions.

Hodes says the public art program still isn’t functioning properly because it’s dominated by city government. Until last fall, he says, 13 of 17 members of the public art committee, which oversees the program, were government officials or had close ties to City Hall. (After he filed suit in the fall two members were replaced by members of the public.) Also, he says, “three days after I filed my suit, the city pushed through an ordinance permitting proxy votes by the committee.” Hodes says that doesn’t alter his claim that its actions before that were illegal, or the fact that “there’s no independent appraisal mechanism for any art the commission buys.” Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, and Robert Atkins (who once sued Jane Byrne) will be representing him in the suit, and Hodes says they’ll soon be taking depositions, including, perhaps, one from Lash. That should be interesting, he says, since it looks like Lash may be saddled with all the blame for public art’s problems.

Lash says he’s filed a complaint with the Illinois Human Rights Commission: “You can’t fire someone because of a disability.” When he threw the phone he wasn’t himself, he says–“I had a low-blood-sugar episode.” Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, he says he was on medical leave when he received notice of his termination. In the meantime he’s been working feverishly, “up to my elbows in paint, passing 300 paintings and heading for 400,” in anticipation of two events this week: an opening at Agnes B. boutique and a booth under the auspices of Gescheidle at Art Chicago. At the expo Lash will be selling his work at bargain prices of $300 and $100 each–with a catch: buyers won’t have any say in what they get. They’ll pick a rubber duckie from a tub and take home whichever of the paintings corresponds to a number on its bottom. If they don’t like the outcome they can pay $900 altogether to make their own choice, or try a classic Chicago option and “bribe the gallerist for a second chance.”

No Room at the Fair?

One dealer you won’t see at Art Chicago this year is Aldo Castillo. You haven’t seen the Aldo Castillo Gallery there any other year either, but it’s not for lack of trying. After eight straight years of rejections, Castillo, who mostly represents Latin American artists and may be the most persistent dealer in town, has given up. What’s the point of applying, he asks, when he always gets the same response: “There isn’t enough space.” It’s puzzling, Castillo says, and it can’t be true. The show is down in size, from highs of over 200 dealers to 158.

It’s not like Castillo is an unknown. He’s had a gallery in Chicago for a decade and has been in his current quarters, at 233 W. Huron, for seven years. A force in the community, he’s been spearheading a drive for a tax break for gallery landlords, hoping to halt rising River North rents that could push more art dealers out. He’s even done a show organized by Art Chicago head Thomas Blackman before–in San Francisco, a couple of years ago–and says coming up with the $4,500 or more for a booth wouldn’t be a problem. He suspects the real reason has something to do with “the ideas people have about what Latin American art is. I don’t say [Blackman] is against Latin American art, but I don’t think his answer is valid. There is space.”

Blackman didn’t return calls, but an Art Chicago source said a selection committee chooses the galleries. Chicago Art Dealers Association executive director Natalie van Straaten speculates that the fact that Art Chicago is smaller than it once was may be making it harder rather than easier for Chicago galleries to make the cut. “It’s not a Chicago show; it’s not a midwest show; it’s an international show,” she says, and too many local galleries could change that profile. “Possibly if Aldo had a gallery in Nicaragua, he’d have a better chance.” The Art Chicago source didn’t know anything about a quota on locals.

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