Uncomfortable Spaces Back at Art 1996 Chicago

Art 1996 Chicago, the international art fair at Navy Pier this weekend, is big business, featuring many of the world’s most prestigious dealers. But the fair will also include three cutting-edge Chicago galleries–Tough, Beret International, and Ten in One–that for the last five years have cooperated under the banner of Uncomfortable Spaces.

“Basically we wanted to start a guide to alternative spaces in Chicago,” says Ned Schwartz, owner of Beret International. “But the nonprofits all had boards to answer to, and it was hard to get them involved.” So Schwartz joined forces with three other gallery owners who shared his commitment to contemporary conceptual art: Joel Leib of Ten in One, Richard Kelley of Tough, and Chris Murray of MWMWM. “We considered ourselves to be between commercial and nonprofit spaces,” Schwartz says. Unlike many for-profit galleries, Uncomfortable Spaces showed work that was decidedly noncommercial. And unlike the nonprofits, they were subject to the vagaries of the art market and could not accept grant money to stay afloat. Yet, as government and foundation money has dried up, many nonprofit spaces have had to cut back on their programming. And some big-money galleries have gone belly-up after the market fell on hard times. But the Uncomfortable Spaces have survived.

“We’re all artists, so we were less cutthroat about the business,” says Leib, the only one of the four able to become a full-time art dealer (the others have always held outside jobs; for instance, Schwartz is a social worker). “But we’ve supported each other. We do all our mailings together, we do projects together, and we do art fairs together.” Leib says their commitment to art has kept them together. “We’ve always been about trying to make things happen.”

Their galleries show work that’s considerably less expensive, and usually less accessible, than the vast majority of work for sale at the fair. And the artists they represent also tend to be young. But they’ve also filled an important niche for hometown artists, even attracting the attention of the national magazines like Art in America. “What we offer in exhibition opportunities is pretty significant,” Schwartz says.

Though Murray recently left town to try to set up a gallery in New York City, his former partner, Janet Eckelbarger, has taken over MWMWM. But she’s elected not to participate in the Navy Pier fair this year. “It was too much to handle at this moment,” she says. The remaining three–Leib, Schwartz, and Kelley–all say Art 1996 Chicago is an expensive proposition: their relatively small booth cost nearly $10,000. But they agree the exposure it affords their artists and the networking the fair provides are worth the price. “If you’re not at the fair, you’re not in the box,” Kelley says.

Sweet Home Steppenwolf

The image of a ballot box in the lobby of the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway looms large in the memory of playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, whose new work, Supple in Combat, began performances this week at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The ballot box was put there so theatergoers attending previews could vote on her first play, My Thing of Love.

First produced at Steppenwolf in 1992, My Thing of Love is a dark comedy about the effects of adultery on a suburban Chicago family. The play won a Joseph Jefferson Award here for best new work, but it went back to the drawing board before its New York premiere. Preview audiences there were asked to rate various aspects of the production on a scale of one to ten, presumably to help producers Barry and Fran Weissler fine-tune the play. Instead, the rating cards may have upset the applecart.

Laurie Metcalf, the play’s lead, “used to grab a bunch of cards out of the ballot box and just start reading them,” says Gersten-Vassilaros, who still cringes at the memory. “We just tried to keep some perspective and keep laughing.”

The tyranny of the ballot box was just one of the ugly realities she had to confront as My Thing of Love lurched toward its Broadway premiere. During rehearsals the male lead was fired and replaced, and the day before previews began director Michael Maggio walked out, irreconcilably at odds with Metcalf and Gersten-Vassilaros. British director Howard Davies, who worked with the Weisslers on a revival of My Fair Lady, stepped in, but his name never appeared in the program or on the marquee. Then during previews a supporting actress was fired and replaced by her understudy, and Davies decided at the last minute to replace the young children–a vivid image in the play’s final scene–with recorded voices.

By the time My Thing of Love opened, Gersten-Vassilaros was understandably a little shell-shocked. “I kept having the feeling I had walked into a bad neighborhood where I didn’t belong.” Then came the final blow–the New York drama critics were overwhelmingly negative, though there were a couple of notable exceptions, including the New York Post’s Clive Barnes and Variety’s Jeremy Gerard. To this day, Gersten-Vassilaros doesn’t know what New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote because her husband refused to let her read it. “He was afraid it might affect how I approached my writing in the future.” It came as no surprise when My Thing of Love closed quickly. One year later, Gersten-Vassilaros says she would have handled the show’s move to New York differently. “I would have been more protective of my play, and I would not have gone directly to Broadway.”

Pregnant with her second child, she’s back at Steppenwolf to watch the birth of her second full-length play, Supple in Combat, commissioned for the company’s 20th anniversary. The play is another dark comedy, set this time in Washington, D.C., and the family under scrutiny is headed by a career CIA operative. Like My Thing of Love, the new play is about relationships and the secrets that sometimes destroy them. Narelle Sissons’s elaborate set will reflect Gersten-Vassilaros’s belief that relationships are “always shifting, always changing.” No two scenes take place in the same location, and each time the setting changes, audiences will view the action from a slightly different perspective. This strategy artfully mirrors the shifting relationship between a husband and wife, played by John Mahoney and Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey. Max Mayer, a pal from Gersten-Vassilaros’s college days, is directing the production. This time around Gersten-Vassilaros wanted someone she knew and trusted at the helm. “I think it has made the whole process much easier to be working with a friend.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.