Women on the Edge

Artemisia Gallery is facing its worst crisis since Joy Poe staged her own rape on the gallery floor in the middle of an opening back in the 1970s and half the members quit in protest. “This is really serious,” says board president Judith Brotman: the co-op feminist gallery is facing its first deficit in 30 years. The board learned late last year that the death of major donor Reinhardt H. Jahn meant the loss of Artemisia’s $25,000 annual grant from the Jahn Foundation–at least for the foreseeable future. For the past three years the foundation has been the gallery’s largest single supporter, contributing a quarter of its annual budget. At the same time, Brotman says, membership has fallen to just a dozen artists, when 18 or 20 would be optimal. The combination of vanishing funds and shrinking membership is a double whammy the board will tackle when it meets for its annual retreat this weekend.

The financial squeeze has already been felt. Artemisia’s gallery coordinator, Tricia Alexander, was presented with a three-month contract instead of a yearlong one when her term recently came up for renewal. Alexander handles all day-to-day operations, from PR and billing to manning the front desk. “She’s a treasure. It would be really tough if we were to lose her,” Brotman says, but Jahn Foundation money funded the position. And it’s not like current members could step in and fill her shoes; although in years past members have run the gallery without paid staff, Brotman doubts they could return to that arrangement. “All our members are working women now with, I believe, more obligations than members had when we were first founded.” The board is scrambling for grants and donations; worst-case scenarios include reducing gallery space (they now have 2,280 square feet in River West) or closing altogether. Everyone’s committed, Brotman says, but “there is that possibility. I guess this will be a decisive year for us.”

Artemisia opened in September 1973, when it was still difficult for women to find places to show their work and to be taken seriously as artists. The 20 founding members included Phyllis Bramson, Vera Klement, Linda Kramer, Sandra Perlow, and Claire Prussian. They took the name of 17th-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (who, raped by her tutor and denied credit for her best work, persevered in an even harder time) and rented a space on Ontario within spitting distance of the Museum of Contemporary Art. (A splinter group formed its own co-op, ARC Gallery, which opened the same year.) Three years later they moved to Hubbard and State and then to Superior and Orleans before landing in their current quarters, on the third floor of a former warehouse at 700 N. Carpenter. The group’s annual budget is now $100,000, with revenue coming from artist rentals and member fees as well as grants and donations. (Local members currently pay monthly dues of $75 and put in at least nine hours of volunteer time every two months. In return they get one one-month solo show a year, plus the chance to participate in group and exchange shows.) Outside artists (including men) whose work passes a members’ jury are charged $700 to $1,500 plus some mailing costs for solo shows in one of the gallery’s five spaces (soon to be six with the conversion of a storeroom), but no commissions are charged on sales. Brotman, who’s been president for a year, says Artemisia remains committed to diverse, high-quality art (the gallery shows everything from painting to sculpture to photography to performance art) and to mentoring new artists. She says the board wants to avoid cuts in space, programs, or staff. “I think we can get through this–we’re hoping for a real celebration on our 30th anniversary–but we’ll do what we have to do.”

Location, Location, Location

Curious Theatre Branch is getting literal about the “fringe” label that’s usually attached to it–it’s leaving Lunar Cabaret, at 2827 N. Lincoln, its home for the last eight years, and moving to 7001 N. Glenwood, formerly Turtle Island Books and an early location for No Exit Cafe. “We’re moving as far north as we can because of the price,” says Curious leader Beau O’Reilly. He’ll inaugurate the bigger (60-seat) space February 23 with a new “semiautobiographical” piece of his own; This American Life host Ira Glass emcees a closing-night fund-raiser at Lunar this Saturday, February 1 (shows are at 7 and 10 PM, tickets $25)….Shortly after Choice Theatre founder Mark Alexander complained to Oak Park’s Wednesday Journal about a noticeable lack of heat in the theater’s digs at the Harrison Street Cooperative of Performing and Fine Arts, he says the troupe–rehearsing Ibsen in snow gear for a late January opening–was booted from the space. Alexander says he invested about $1,000 plus sweat painting the place (which formerly housed Excaliber Shakespeare Company), laying a new stage floor, and putting in lights. He thought he had a solid lease and was hoping to bring “cutting edge” plays to Oak Park. His suspicions were raised, however, when he arrived early on opening night of Choice’s first production (Art, last fall) and found building owner Chris Kleronomos showing the newly improved space to another theater company. Kleronomos says Alexander hadn’t met his financial obligations and walked away of his own accord….”After I closed World Tattoo [in ’95], I didn’t ever want to be involved in owning a gallery again,” says artist Tony Fitzpatrick. “It’s the quickest way to go broke.” But in August former Chicagoan Dan Ferrara–a partner in Big Cat Press, which issues Fitzpatrick’s prints–showed him a tiny storefront on New York’s Lower East Side, “a block where everyone else is selling leather coats and mattresses and boxes of feathers.” It’s Ferrara who’s taking all the financial risk on Big Cat Gallery, which opened at 154 Orchard Street in November and will sell prints by Fitzpatrick and others. “I’m just along for the ride,” says Fitzpatrick. Ferrara calls Fitzpatrick the “permanent artist in residence.” Adds Fitzpatrick, “A lot of galleries that dealt with prints in New York went out of business in the last few years.” He sees that as an opportunity….C.J. Laity, speaking for Chicago’s slam community (www.chicagopoetry.org), declared a mock war this month–on Canada’s poet laureate George Bowering, over a January 1 Globe and Mail article by Alexandra Gill in which Bowering compared slam poets to “dogs who walk on hind feet.” Laity called the poet’s comments “an evil Canadian plot.”

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