The Taxman Cometh

Contemporary Art Workshop director Lynn Kearney found a surprise in the mail a couple of weeks ago. A form from the Cook County assessor’s office announced that they’d taken a new look at the CAW building–a rambling, three-story structure across the street from Grant Hospital in Lincoln Park–and its value had gone up. For the past three years CAW paid taxes on an assessed value of $80,779, a figure arrived at after Kearney filed an appeal on the basis of the building’s nonprofit use. Now the valuation has tripled to $236,957. If something can’t be done this time around, the 54-year-old workshop, which houses two galleries that show local artists and 20 rental studios, will have to close. “We’ve been here since 1960,” Kearney says. Now that the old building is surrounded by elegant homes instead of rooming houses, it seems to her that “they just want to get rid of us”: if the CAW building is torn down and replaced with pricey condos, it’ll bring in more tax dollars.

The Contemporary Art Workshop was founded in 1949 by Kearney’s husband, sculptor John Kearney, a World War II vet who’d gone from the Pacific front to the Cranbrook Academy. His cofounders were painter Leon Golub, sculptors Cosmo Campoli and Ray Fink, and ceramist Al Kwitz. Lynn entered the scene a few months after they’d opened, as a Northwestern University art history graduate looking for instruction in silversmithing. John Kearney was her teacher. They were married in ’51 after two dates, and Lynn gave up her own artistic endeavors to raise their two children and manage the workshop. “When we started, almost no one was showing Chicago artists,” she says. “Artists would come here for a wonderful education and leave afterward because their work wouldn’t be seen.” CAW’s first space was in Cyrus McCormick’s abandoned carriage house, just off Michigan Avenue between Superior and Chicago. When that building was slated for teardown seven years later, the workshop moved to a space behind the Wrigley Building, and when that one was also demolished, they left for this building, which the Kearneys and Campoli (the other founders had moved on) purchased for about $29,000. CAW leases the building from them and pays all expenses, including taxes. The organization’s budget this year is $86,000; like most nonprofits, it’s feeling the pinch in donations and grants.

The raw, chilly, 11,000-square-foot brick structure was already old when CAW came to it. Built in 1885, it had been expanded in the 1920s. “It used to be a dairy,” Lynn Kearney says, leading the way through the galleries (where shows change every month) and two small offices to a large sculpture workshop in the back that’s dominated by John Kearney’s menagerie–dozens of larger-than-life animals (and a few humans), most crafted from chrome bumpers. (If you’ve seen the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion sculptures in Oz Park, you’re familiar with his work.) A precipitous flight of stairs leads to the warren of studios on the two floors above. “The dairy had a ramp to the second floor–that’s where they kept the horses,” she says, offering a peek into spaces variously cluttered or neat, windowless or skylit, claustrophobic or soaring, most of which only an artist could love. “We put up the walls and skylights, mostly with our own hands. We’re not glamorous. What we wanted was to have a place for emerging artists to survive and to show. In the beginning we were young and emerging ourselves, and we just watched everyone else come along.”

Up until five years ago CAW offered classes, but with only John left of the original partners (Cosmo, like “so many” of the people around at the beginning, is dead now) and Lynn running the space with just one part-time assistant and an intern, they stick to renting studios and mounting shows. Studio rents range from $120 to about $300, including utilities. “Artists don’t have to take a lease here,” Kearney says. “They can’t make that kind of commitment. Some have been here as long as ten years, but many are right out of art school.” Kearney says several thousand have worked or had shows at CAW, some going on to major careers–among them June Leif, Ellen Lanyon, Seymour Rosofsky, Jin Soo Kim, Jim Lutes, and Didier Nolet.

The Kearneys spend their summers in Cape Cod, and Lynn is a trustee of Robert Motherwell’s Dedalus Foundation, which is based in New York. John will turn 80 next year. Could it be time to give it up? “Artists don’t retire,” she says. “At this point we’re an institution in Chicago–the oldest alternative space in this area, and one of the oldest in the country.” CAW has until October 27 to file an appeal with the assessor’s office, which usually requires that a property be owned by a nonprofit organization to qualify for a lower assessment. Kearney thinks letters from CAW friends and alumni might help make their case. “We’re categorized as a commercial property, but we’re not,” she says. “We just have to hope they’ll see that we deserve a break.”


Rising Moon, a new theater company, was aglow about its first production, The Lion in Winter. Artistic director Christian Gray says he and cofounders Laura Maerz and Jonathan Nichols picked the play last fall, checked the posted schedules of other companies to be sure no one else was doing it, and applied to Samuel French for the rights. “We found a space, got Robert Scogin to direct, and cast the play in March,” Gray says. Then they got a call from TimeLine Theatre Company artistic director P.J. Powers with the news that TimeLine would also be doing Lion. Samuel French, which issued rights to both companies, does not check for scheduling conflicts between smaller theaters, and both groups say they were in too far to back off. Gray says Powers told him TimeLine’s show would open the weekend Rising Moon’s closed, but it somehow got bumped up to the day before they open. Powers says TimeLine is just following its regular production calendar. TimeLine’s Lion opens at Baird Hall Theatre at 614 W. Wellington this Saturday, October 4; Rising Moon’s opens Sunday, October 5, in the studio at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport….Will Le Comedie du Bicyclette survive a change of cast? It closed September 28 and is reopening October 3 for four weeks at the Lakeshore Theater, with Tim Kazurinsky and Rob Riley among the replacements for the original bicycle men, who’ve pedaled back to LA….Actor and writer Michael Fosberg, biding his time until his one-man show Incognito opens in New York (it will, he says), is bringing Chicago a really moving production: Fosberg will be one of two actors performing Ralph Concepcion’s play Job Opportunity in the front seat of a 1985 Delta 88 while an audience of four sits in the back and the whole thing takes to the road. Directed by Cecilie Keenan, the hour-long performances start Friday, October 10; tickets are $35 through the Mercury Theater box office.

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