River North Gallery Goes South

Since the art business went into a tailspin in the early 1990s, River North galleries have been going out of business with astonishing regularity. The three latest casualties are especially prominent. After eight years running his own art gallery, Ken Saunders plans to lock the doors of the Deson-Saunders Gallery for the last time on April 1. Bill Struve, who opened his first gallery in 1979, has announced he’ll close up shop in June, and the prestigious Betsy Rosenfield Gallery has announced it too will close this spring. In a letter to her friends and customers announcing the closing, Rosenfield stressed she wanted to spend more time with her family, but observers who know her believe the difficulties of selling art in the current economy may have been a factor in her decision. According to Struve, “The economic activity that once justified large galleries is no longer here in River North.”

Saunders says that despite some indications that collectors were beginning to buy again and that prices for art were on the upswing, overall “business was not picking up.” He says many of his sales in recent months were made to people decorating their homes rather than serious collectors. “The business was rebounding at the bottom end,” explains Saunders, adding that selling a lot of inexpensive, small works of art meant slimmer profit margins.

Saunders says he got into the business in the mid-80s with a goal different from that of other River North art dealers, who he maintains are in it for the cachet: “I was one of a new breed that came into the business actually thinking I could make a living selling art.” Saunders’s subsequent experience has convinced him otherwise, but other young dealers, such as Michael Wier of the nearby Lyons-Wier+Ginsberg gallery, are still trying to prove Saunders wrong. “The closing of a gallery like the one Ken operated gives us a chance to take our place as a major player in the River North art scene and see if we can succeed,” says Wier, though he adds that he’ll miss the competition for the diversity it provided.

Power Play Behind the Scenes at Steppenwolf

The recent transition in artistic leadership at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company may not have been quite as smooth as it seemed, according to a confidential, three-page, typewritten letter outgoing Steppenwolf artistic director Randall Arney sent to his 29 fellow ensemble members. As reported here last week, when Arney, citing a desire to do more acting and directing, resigned effective August 31, Steppenwolf announced that ensemble member Martha Lavey would assume the post of acting artistic director, assisted by a newly created executive artistic committee made up of Steppenwolf cofounders Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry, and Terry Kinney.

In his letter to the ensemble Arney clearly indicates that his decision to resign was spurred by developments that seemed intended, from Arney’s perspective, to strip him of artistic control. According to Arney’s letter and Steppenwolf board sources who confirmed factual aspects of its content, Steppenwolf co-founders Sinise, Kinney, and Perry met February 7 with the executive and personnel committees of the Steppenwolf board of directors. At that meeting, Ar-ney’s letter says, the theater’s cofounders “requested and were granted an Executive Artistic Committee made up of the three of them to have authority or oversight over artistic policy and the artistic director and direction of the theater.” After noting that he was not invited to attend the February 7 meeting, Arney goes on to say he strongly objected to how the cofounders and the Steppenwolf board of directors went about establishing this new committee, and also to the way in which it might affect the company’s artistic life.

Over the past two or three years, Arney says in his letter, he and Steppenwolf managing director Steve Eich had been meeting on and off with Sinise, Perry, and Kinney to discuss the “future and direction” of the theater. While Arney says he applauded the three cofounders’ renewed involvement with the company, he also states that in March of 1994 at his last meeting with them, he tried to emphasize that he considered the “formation of an artistic oversight committee untenable and unacceptable.” Arney then writes: “The fact that a year later without any more discussion with me, they, for the first time in our theatre’s 20-year history, involved the board [of directors] in artistic policy and caused the board to legislate artistic relationships is unacceptable to me….That they [the board] acted at that meeting…without asking or informing the artistic director of their action…is also unacceptable.”

In the final portion of his letter Arney explains why he resisted attempts by Sinise, Perry, and Kinney to formalize their power: “We are moving the authority over our artistic lives out of the theater and into the hands of a ‘part time’ committee that, no matter how dedicated, is not resident and therefore not in tune with the day-to-day needs and operation of the theatre.”

Late last week several Steppenwolf board members expressed surprise at the existence of Arney’s letter. Steppenwolf board president Larry Brady did not return a call to his office, but a source on Steppenwolf’s board claims that for at least three years Arney had been aware that there was a problem with his “artistic vision.” The board source says that Arney’s unwillingness to listen to suggestions, coupled with a growing concern about his artistic choices, prompted board members to respond favorably to the three cofounders’ request.

Though Arney maintains in his letter that the artistic director will have little actual control under the new power structure, newly named acting artistic director Martha Lavey disputes this. Says Lavey: “I feel confident and empowered by the board of directors and the executive artistic committee.” While she expects to have the final say on artistic programming, she also still expects to consult with Sinise, Perry, and Kinney and other ensemble members on play selection and other matters.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Robert Drea.