An art exhibit was abruptly taken down from Uptown’s Beacon Street Gallery last week amid controversy over its content and events surrounding the exhibit’s October 27 opening. Presented as part of a conference called “Youth Subcultures in Complex Societies,” organized by the Goethe-Institut Chicago and Northwestern’s department of performance studies, the exhibit showed photos by German artists Ludwig Rauch and Johannes Kubiak, who’ve spent the last five years documenting neo-Nazi youths in their native country.
In the Beacon Street exhibit, photo panels were suspended from the ceiling along with black rubber straps. Images included a young man wearing a small swastika button on his shirt, three women with arms outstretched in a Nazi-style salute, and a close-up of a military boot and a baseball bat. Kubiak says the show is exposing a violent subculture that’s often ignored. “It was intended to be a description of the political situation now in Germany,” he explains. Goethe-Institut director Hans-Georg Knopp adds, “The exhibit was meant as a strong statement against racism and violence.”
But Beacon Street Gallery director Pat Murphy apparently saw the work in a different light once the photos were on view. The gallery has been housed for the last 14 years in the Uptown Center Hull House, which is also home to social service organizations counseling troubled youths, battered women, and immigrant torture victims. Murphy says clients and workers in Hull House were disturbed by the imagery and wondered if it was promoting violence since it carried no explanatory text or disclaimer. Beacon Street has had a written policy since 1986 prohibiting art containing gang symbols, such as swastikas. “It’s a very volatile situation in this area,” she says, adding that in a neighborhood rife with gang violence “people could die if it looks like we’re taking a side.”
According to Knopp, two weeks after Kubiak and Rauch arrived to install the exhibit the Goethe-Institut received a call from Beacon Street asking that they remove two photos containing images of swastikas because there had been complaints. On October 26 Murphy called the Goethe-Institut and said that if the troublesome photos were not removed immediately the entire exhibit would be taken down. That same day Rauch and Kubiak replaced the photos with two different works and then wrapped the display cases in rubber to call attention to the fact that the contents had been changed.
The opening was held on October 27. Chicago writer Luis Rodriguez attended the reception, but says, “What I saw is not anything that would get people going.” Murphy didn’t attend the opening because she was in New York on business. When she returned, she found that objections had increased. One psychologist wrote the director of the Hull House Association, saying, “The fact of the matter is that these portraits of violent youth are not being shown in a free-standing art gallery. They are being shown in a day care center and a counseling center for survivors of violence.”
On November 1 Knopp received a call from Murphy, who told him the exhibit had “created disturbances” and would have to be taken down. Murphy admits, “I was getting pressure from people at the Uptown Hull House to dismantle the exhibit.” Knopp says he called Murphy back on November 2 and was told the exhibit had already been taken down. When the artists picked up their work at the gallery’s loading dock, they say some of the photos had been damaged “beyond repair.”
Murphy says the experience has been difficult for her because she’s always considered herself a champion of free expression, having presented the work of controversial performance artists Karen Finley and Tim Miller. But now she says, “You have to consider the effects of your actions. After all, you can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.”
Rauch and Kubiak may both be persona non grata at the Beacon Street Gallery, but Chicago hasn’t seen the last of their work. They’re scheduled to return in February for an exhibit under the aegis of art fair organizer Tom Blackman.
Last Dance for Joseph Holmes?
The board of directors for the 21-year-old Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre voted last week to suspend operations and lay off its entire staff. “We owe a lot of bills, and we are trying to get a handle on our financial situation,” says board president Cheryl McWhorter, who characterized the company’s plight as “pretty severe.” One source said the combined salaries of newly arrived artistic director Kevin “Iega” Jeff and managing director Diane Shober were in six figures. The company had recently indicated it would not sign on as a tenant at the planned Chicago Music and Dance Theatre because of the high rent.
In a move that could mean major changes for the 31-year-old Chicago International Film Festival, the management committee of the fest’s board of directors voted last week to remove founder Michael Kutza from his post as artistic director; any final action will have to be approved by the entire 32-member board. As reported in this column last summer, Kutza had come to loggerheads with board president Ellis Goodman, and sources indicated that Marc Evans, the festival’s programming director at the time, had been offered Kutza’s post. But Evans rejected the offer, citing a desire to head to Los Angeles to explore other opportunities in the film industry rather than play a role in Kutza’s ouster. Evans did not return calls earlier this week, but a source on the festival’s board says Goodman thought highly of Evans, who could be considered a prime candidate to replace Kutza.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Ludwig Rauch and Johannes Kubiak, Nathan Mandell.