Raw Dealers

Abstract painter Wesley Kimler has never hidden his disdain for Chicago’s art community. “Chicago has gone from being the second major art city in the 1980s in America to being a blip on the map,” he declared in a Reader cover story last June. “That’s because the same people who decided what was important when I came to this town 15 years ago are still calling the shots.” But now the gadfly of the local art scene is putting his money where his mouth is and moving to New York City. He hopes to line up a New York gallery in the coming months and complete the move by June. “I spent a lot of time trying to make [Chicago] more interesting, but it’s all so political here,” says Kimler. “I had the illusion I could change things back in the 80s, but now I know I can’t.”

At the very least Kimler knows how to change galleries: since arriving in Chicago in 1982 he’s had formal business arrangements with Peter Miller, Bill Struve, Thomas McCormick, and Ingrid Fassbender. “There aren’t a lot of good options in Chicago when it comes to dealers,” he says. “Galleries work under the assumption they have an entitlement to your work, when it’s really a consignment situation.” McCormick, who handled Kimler’s work from 1995 to 1997, acknowledges that Kimler is a “handful” but points out that, unlike many local artists, Kimler supports himself with sales of his work. Whether that justifies his record of burning through dealers is a matter of opinion. “It’s not unusual for an artist to stay with one dealer for his career,” notes Paul Klein, whose Klein Art Works included Kimler in its recent survey of Chicago abstractionists.

According to McCormick, the painter ditched him for Fassbender because he felt “antsy,” and their parting was “amicable, with no sort of animosity.” But Kimler’s nine months with the Fassbender Gallery were anything but friendly. The gallery mounted a show of his paintings, and Fassbender made good on her pledge to broaden Kimler’s audience, lining up dealers in Santa Fe and Hamburg, getting him into three group shows at universities, highlighting his work at Art 1998 Chicago, and taking his paintings to Thomas Blackman’s international art fair in San Francisco. Kimler says the sparks began to fly after he personally sold two small paintings from the gallery’s inventory. When a dealer sells a painting, the artist and the gallery usually split the money 50-50, but the artist can also make a “studio sale” on his own and pocket the entire purchase price. According to Kimler, his agreement with Fassbender permitted him five studio sales a year, but he says the gallery threatened to drop him after he sold the two paintings. Fassbender would not comment on the split except to say, “I like Wesley’s work and thought I could work with him, but I made a mistake.”

McCormick has welcomed Kimler back, though he admits that Kimler’s large paintings are difficult to sell. At the Fassbender Gallery most of Kimler’s canvases were priced around $20,000, pretty high for the younger clientele that’s drawn to his work, and during his October show there, Kimler sold nothing. But his constant ax-grinding hasn’t helped either. The New Art Examiner–which Kimler describes as “a brochure for special interest groups in the Chicago art world”–took a pass on reviewing his last two shows. “Let’s just say I’m not on the A-list,” cracks Kimler. And don’t expect him to get all misty on his way out of town: two weeks ago, during another artist’s opening, Kimler marched into the Fassbender Gallery, demanded a painting of his that someone there had taken from the Klein exhibit, and left with the canvas under his arm.

Tapped Out

Lane Alexander, cofounder and producer of the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, says last summer’s two-week celebration of tap dance at the Athenaeum Theatre wound up more than $100,000 in the red, jeopardizing the festival’s future. In the previous two years the CHRP budget had grown significantly: Alexander spent more money on advertising and marketing, added performances, brought in more artists, and moved the festival from the Harold Washington Library Center to the larger Athenaeum. But the audience hasn’t grown enough to cover the increased overhead.

The 1998 festival had its headaches too. A deal to produce and market a videotape of the festival fell through shortly before opening night, and according to sources familiar with developments, Alexander also received less financial support last year from Richard G. Weinberg, a major backer. Weinberg, who pursues tap as a hobby and performed in earlier festivals, reportedly helped cover a significant deficit on at least one occasion. Weinberg says he hasn’t spoken to Alexander about the current financial crisis, but he didn’t seem surprised by it: “Lane always ran the festival hand to mouth.” He declined to say whether he would help bail out CHRP this time around.

GarthWatch ’99: Here Comes the Judge

Remember the final scene of The Producers?

Last week the U.S. attorney’s office in New York City indicted Garth Drabinsky, the ousted CEO of Livent Inc., on 16 criminal counts of fraud and conspiracy. The indictment alleges that Drabinsky and Livent president Myron Gottlieb inflated the weekly box office take for the Los Angeles production of Ragtime by directing an associate to buy thousands of tickets, reimbursing that associate, and listing the expenditure as a construction cost. It also alleges that a former senior vice president for finance at Livent asked the computer staff to create a software program that would enable the accounting department to falsify records without leaving a trace. Drabinsky and Gottlieb have vowed to fight all the charges, but if the U.S. attorney has a solid case, the two men could be rehearsing their next musical triumph inside a cell block.

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