Red Cross Disaster

Nothing smarts like getting whacked while you’re doing good. Artist Lois Keller noticed an ad in the November edition of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition newsletter soliciting work for a 9/11 benefit. Keller had the perfect piece. A week after the attacks in New York and Washington, she’d gone to her Byron Street studio, taped a piece of heavy paper to the wall, and–ditching her usual preliminary sketches–began slapping paint on it. What emerged was a yellow, “alienish” figure standing against a red-and-white-striped background, a stream of stars falling like teardrops from its eyes into a blue pool at its feet. In response to the barrage of media coverage, she titled her painting Stop Saying It.

The ad had been placed by Jeannett Walczak, owner of Jettsett Gallery at 3350 N. Paulina, for the “911 Show: Artists Respond to September 11, 2001.” When Keller’s framed painting, priced at $500, was accepted for the exhibit, she understood that Jettsett would get 40 percent of the proceeds if it sold but would donate 20 percent of that to the Red Cross. Keller planned to donate 20 percent of her share as well, leaving her enough to recoup material and frame costs. The show opened January 12 with a standing-room-only party. The gallery was crammed with work–125 pieces by 50 artists hung salon style on every inch of wall space–and the overflow crowd lined up outside in the winter night waiting for a chance to get in. Walczak had put together an eclectic panel to discuss the artist’s role in times of crisis: moderated by WLS radio host Jay Marvin, it included painter Ed Paschke. Keller was impressed.

She was even more impressed when she got an E-mail from Walczak a few days later announcing that her painting had been sold. She called to discuss the sale and was told she’d get a check after the gallery collected. Not wanting to make a pest of herself, she waited. But when she tried to reach Walczak again this spring, it seemed Jettsett had taken off. The phone was disconnected without a forwarding number, and the gallery was gone. So when the June issue of “Chicago Artists’ News” arrived with a letter to the editor from another artist who’d lost a piece in the show, Keller was riveted. Tim Lillig wrote that when he went to pick up his artist’s book in February, Walczak told him it had been stolen at the opening and refused to reimburse him for it. His letter was followed by a plaintive note from the editor: “If anyone knows how to contact Ms. Walczak, please let us know at the CAC office.” Keller realized she wasn’t the only one who’d been stiffed, but worse than that, she says, Walczak had been saying “this was going to help the victims of 9/11”; running out on that seemed “really low.”

This week Walczak surfaced, by phone, to tell her side of the story. She says she warned Lillig up front that she couldn’t take responsibility for his small, unframed piece. As for the rest of it: “I’m going through bankruptcy. There might be a couple of artists I still owe money to, a couple hundred dollars at the most. I collected all the money after the gallery was closed and just didn’t contact the artists.” Walczak says she was spending a year in Greece when she got the idea of running a gallery with a coffee bar and a friendly atmosphere; she opened Jettsett as a combination cafe and gallery three years ago. The food never worked, and in the last year she gave up even buying coffee: the only people who were coming by were the artists, and they drank for free.

A painter herself, Walczak says her real interest was the art, and she thinks she did well there: she “discovered” two neglected artists–David Simpson and Joe Rode–and had great openings. She says she sold paintings at nearly every show, but “the money I was spending monthly I could never make on the sales. The overhead was too much.” When her mother became ill and the landlord offered her a chance to break her lease, she jumped at it. “Now I’m trying to find a job. I told myself I was going to take the summer off and reopen [a gallery] in the fall, but I think I lost my passion for it. You work your butt off. I made no money for myself. Everything went back into the gallery, and it doesn’t seem to be appreciated.” No money from the 9/11 show went to the Red Cross, and Walczak says she hasn’t heard from them. As for the artists: “I know where I’ve been wrong and I want to do right by them. I do intend to pay them once I get a job. And I do intend to leave Chicago, because I don’t think they deserve me. I did so much for so many people, and then I get this backlash.”

New Art Examiner on the Block

New Art Examiner publisher Curt Conklin says it’s liquidation time for the magazine, which stopped publishing with the May/June issue. After three months of fund-raising Conklin came up short of his recently downsized $100,000 goal. (The nonprofit corporation that owns the magazine has debts of $150,000.) “I presented everything to the board last week,” says Conklin, who’s trying to avoid bankruptcy. “We’ve got a terrific business plan, a brand name with a 30-year history, a subscription list of 5,000, and an editorial plan.” Conklin hesitated to say what those assets might command, then speculated maybe $25,000. “But you’d need another $50,000 to get the first issue out,” he cautioned. “After that,” he claims, according to his business plan, “it would be self-supporting.”

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