Changes in the organization of the Around the Coyote arts festival may confirm the suspicions of those who’ve long criticized the event as a front for real estate developers eager to showcase the gentrification of Bucktown and Wicker Park. Over the last six to eight months the festival’s founder and former artistic director Jim Happy-Delpech has ceded control over the annual weekend of gallery and studio walks, performances, and other arts-related events to a 15-member board of directors headed by Gavriel Mairone, CEO and a managing director of LaSalle International Group, a Chicago-based company involved in businesses ranging from real estate development to hotel, restaurant, health-club, and nightclub management. LaSalle International owns the Paulina Arts Center in Wicker Park, and since Around the Coyote’s inception Mairone has contributed space there for various events.

As ATC board president, Mairone promises a slicker, more corporate affair this year: “LaSalle Inter-national is helping out with the logistics and contributing staff, trying to make Around the Coyote a more stable, more full-time organization.” To head off the scrambling for money that’s plagued the fest in past years, Mairone has established a development committee to seek foundation and corporate support. “No one got any grants for the festival last year,” observes Mary Beth Cregier, a professional photographer and one of the few current ATC board members who was on last year’s board. Cregier says she is impressed by the structure Mairone has brought to the board.

“In the past everyone tended to scatter after the fall festival, which made it difficult to gear up for the event the next year,” Mairone says, adding that he envisions ATC as a year-round arts organization that just happens to encompass a weekend arts festival. One of the new people Mairone has lured to the board, Urban Gateways executive Jerome Hausman, is setting up a program of monthly artists’ workshops covering such topics as how to prepare a portfolio. Mairone also wants to launch a version of Around the Coyote for children, most likely in June. Mairone insists none of these changes will ultimately affect the festival’s focus. “We intend to remain true to our mission statement of supporting emerging artists.”

The festival’s new artistic director Raymond Benkoczy, an attorney with the firm of Phelan, Pope, Cahill, Devine & Quinlan, says, “We are creating a structure that will serve the purposes of the program and lay down a foundation for growing the festival.” An avid art collector, Benkoczy was recommended for the job by his friend Happy-Delpech. Though some observers think him an unlikely choice, sources on the ATC board predict he’ll make a major mark on the event, particularly if, as expected, Mairone relinquishes the board presidency after next fall’s event. “If that should happen and the board wishes to open up a dialogue with me about taking on the board presidency, I will respond,” says Benkoczy. A member of the board but not of the board’s decision-making executive committee, Benkoczy, who used to live in New York, has added New Yorkers such as ballerina Susan Jaffe and author-photographer-artist Christopher Makos to the ATC advisory board.

For this year’s fest, slated for September 7 through 10, Benkoczy has established nine divisions: visual arts, fiction and poetry, music, dance, theater, performance art, computer art, film, and fashion. A team of two to four curators will oversee each division. On April 29 Benkoczy will hold a town meeting for artists and anyone else interested in learning more about the new Around the Coyote. Before the meeting Benkoczy, Happy-Delpech, and other Coyote officials will plant a flowering tree in Wicker Park. Benkoczy says the tree is intended to stand as a lasting symbol of the rebirth of Around the Coyote.

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