A Museum of Our Own

Does the Second City need a third major art museum? Paul Klein, who’s had a museum on his mind since he closed his gallery last year, thinks so. Unfazed by the recent demise of the Terra, Klein is proposing the Chicago Art Foundation, an institution that would focus entirely on Chicago art, presenting both history and the current scene. The plan is that CAF (OK, so those initials are taken) would collect, exhibit, and chronicle the work of Chicago artists, export shows, run a whopper of a Web site, offer workshops, and collaborate with other institutions, all to the greater glory of the city and its talent. Klein says the new museum would fill a niche that others, notably the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art, have been unable or unwilling to.

He’s talking it up on his Web site (www.artletter.com) and at meetings around town, has assembled a seven-member board–which crowned him director–and is working on the organization’s nonprofit status. Now all he needs is a building (say, 25,000 square feet) and $15 million–no, make that $100 million. “At this point it’s all Monopoly money,” Klein says.

“We want to be positive,” he goes on. “We don’t fault the other institutions for not focusing on Chicago. We accept that the mandate of the Art Institute and the MCA is to bring art in [from outside]. But we want to invert the museum model.” In Klein’s vision, the Chicago Art Foundation would be an inclusive, intergenerational “incubator” where artists would have an advisory voice, an opportunity to sell their work, and a vested interest. “There’s an incredible amount of talent in Chicago that’s not getting recognition,” he says. “My position has always been that at least 50 percent of the people who go to the Art Institute and the MCA are from out of town and want to know what’s going on in Chicago.” Board president and fine-art insurance adjuster Robert O’Connell chimes in, “People come to Chicago because we’ve got great art schools. Then they’re told if they want to make it as artists, they have to go somewhere else. We want to include an educational component that would help artists learn how to run their business and make a career here.”

Last month Klein and O’Connell invited about 50 artists to Flatfile Gallery to talk about their plan; 35 or so showed up. Most were enthusiastic, Klein says, though a few fretted about provinciality. Muralist and painter Dzine, for example, thinks the meeting was an “old-guard” effort and that “people were focusing too much on being local.” On the other hand, Dzine says, “There’s a lot of people from Chicago getting picked up by New York and LA galleries. We need to make sure these artists shine here first. That’s where this can come in.” Among the enthusiasts were printmaker Tony Fitzpatrick, who says “Nobody’s keeping the history of Chicago art; somebody needs to stand up and say this is us,” and painter Rhonda Gates, who says she and her husband, sculptor Peter Stanfield, have been thinking they’d have to leave Chicago to make it as artists, “but listening to Paul and Bob convinced us to stay.”

At institutions whose missions might overlap with the new entity, the reaction is more cautious. City visual arts head Greg Knight admits that Chicago institutions could have done more over the years to collect Chicago art. The Cultural Center, however, is not a collecting institution, Knight says, and “I have not personally wanted to see Chicago art ghettoized.” Russell Lewis, who takes over as acting head of the Chicago Historical Society next month, says there’s no conflict there–the Historical Society’s art collection is dominated by portraits of prominent citizens. “But as a museum director you’re always somewhat ambivalent,” he adds. “You always welcome another museum to the fraternity, but with us all struggling for financial support, you wonder whether it’ll be a catalyst or just more competition.”

Klein says about $10 million would be needed to “fix up a piece of real estate” and the rest of the $100 mil would be for programming and an endowment. He thinks an appeal to civic pride will shake the money tree, even in this tight economy. Northwestern University professor and painter William Conger thinks there will also be support from “people who have extensive collections of Chicago art and from corporations, many of which have diminished their own collecting in the last ten years.” O’Connell says they’re reaching out to people who don’t feel a part of other institutions. “We’re passionately committed to this, and we think the passion is contagious. We want people to jump on board.” So far they own 20 folding chairs.

The Underperforming Arts

Performing Arts Chicago shut down late last month because of a $350,000 debt, most of which it had been carrying for years. The staff of five–including executive director Susan Lipman, who’d been there 23 years–was laid off, and the Fine Arts Building office the organization had occupied for a quarter century was closed (they’re looking to sublet). PAC was founded in 1959 as the Fine Arts Music Foundation; it later became Chamber Music Chicago, with the Vermeer Quartet in residence.

In ’92 the name changed again, as did the focus–this time to contemporary work. Lipman says the current financial problems began in ’97, when PAC sold a million dollars’ worth of tickets but missed a fund-raising goal. The nonprofit’s debt rose to $500,000, and they could never get out from under it. “Every year we cut back on expenses, from an operating budget of $2.2 million in ’97 to about $600,000 last year,” she says, “but it didn’t help.”

According to Lipman, audiences for the three-year-old PAC/edge festival of local performance increased every year–including this one, when it reported attendance of 5,000. But acting board president Steve Jaeger says the festival was still a money loser and needed to attract a bigger audience. Jaeger is courting debt forgiveness and donations, and says once $150,000 of its current bills is paid off, PAC should be operating again. He hopes its partnership with the School of the Art Institute will continue and says there’s a good chance Lipman could work as a creative consultant for the festival. He’s putting together a restructuring plan and looking for a new executive director for fiscal 2006, which begins July 1. Lipman’s looking for a new job.

Find Your Own Seat

There might be angels in the audience at the League of Chicago Theatres annual awards gala Monday at the Goodman Theatre, but there won’t be any Saints. The volunteer ushers are celebrating their 25th anniversary with a party at Chicago Shakespeare Theater the same night. The Saints’ Penny Schaefer says they found out about the scheduling snafu when the League “called some of our people to volunteer at their event.”

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