In May of 2004 Paul Klein closed the door on his west-side gallery, Klein Art Works, and his 23-year career as a Chicago art dealer. He said his new ambition was to run a small museum, but by the end of that year he was the surprise choice to commission art for McCormick Place West, the billion-dollar expansion of what was already the nation’s largest convention center. Beating out experienced public-art curators for the job, Klein was handed $1.8 million to outfit the two-million-square-foot facility with Illinois art. He made his selections and notified the artists last fall and got the contracts signed in the spring, but it wasn’t until last week that the list of 30 winners was released.
The project has kept a low profile. There was no official announcement of it or Klein’s appointment. He mentioned that he’d gotten the assignment in a column he wrote for Chicago Life (a New York Times insert) in February 2005 and made the project one of many topics discussed on Art Letter, a website he’d set up after closing his gallery. He says he sent out a lot of e-mails and posted open calls for artists online, which yielded “500 or 600 submissions, about 85 percent electronic.” He whittled those down to 65 and finally to 30, showing what he had at both stages to a review committee made up of McCormick Place staff, the building’s architects, a representative from the Illinois Arts Council, and city public-art head Greg Knight. But for at least some people in the local art community the opportunity was under the radar. Former Chicago Artists Coalition executive director Arlene Rakoncay says she’d only heard rumblings about the project before she stumbled upon it on Art Letter. She put it into the CAC newsletter, but says that by then it was “pretty late” in the process.
That might be a problem if this were a “percent for art” program, where transparency is required, but it’s not. That’s because McCormick Place is, in effect, an independent nation within the city’s boundaries, as is its sister institution, Navy Pier. Although both are run by a board appointed by the mayor and the governor and supported with tax money, their parent organization, the Municipal Pier and Exposition Authority (aka McPier), is a municipal corporation supposedly not subject to city or state regulations, at least for public art. The money for McCormick Place West—$1.1 billion—is coming from bonds that will cost about $5 billion by the time they’re retired and will be paid off with a tax levied on airport transportation, car rentals, and hotel and restaurant bills. If that’s not enough, the difference will be made up by state sales taxes. The decision to include art in the project was voluntary, but there was a precedent: when McCormick Place’s even-larger south building was put up in the mid-1990s, it got a collection of 71 pieces by local and national artists like Kerry James Marshall and Dale Chihuly at a price of $2.1 million. That project, initiated at a later stage of construction, was curated by public-art consultant Joel Straus, who purchased, rather than commissioned, a major portion of the art.
At the same time that Klein was wrangling the McCormick job he was also trying to get a museum for Chicago art (with himself as executive director) off the ground. First dubbed the Chicago Art Foundation and renamed the Chicago Art Project last spring, this effort would require a building, a collection, and major donors. Klein threw his energy into soliciting all three, which had some people wondering if his enthusiasm for the project was affecting his work at McCormick Place. Painter Wesley Kimler, who split with Klein over the direction the museum would take—Klein, for example, was talking inclusiveness, Kimler selectivity—wrote on the Art Letter forum that Klein threatened him with the loss of a McCormick commission if he played the part of spoiler in the museum campaign. (The forum archive, according to Klein, was recently obliterated by accident.) Klein says Kimler misconstrued his remarks. In the meantime the CAP plan has stalled; the latest version, a possible shipping-container museum in the Loop, was apparently nixed by the city. Klein says he hopes to have something new to announce shortly.
As for his other project, Klein says the commissions are a signal that McCormick is being more supportive of what goes on locally. Not only do all the artists represent Chicago and Illinois, he says, but their pieces do as well. That’s no coincidence: Klein directed them to create work about either the city or the state. Examples he cites include a Bronzeville narrative by Preston Jackson, a series of paintings based on Nelson Algren’s City on the Make by Dan Ramirez, a backlit photo of “every building on every site in the Loop” by Jason Salavon, a skyline by Paul Sierra, and a stack of Illinois turtles by Robert McCauley. They’d all qualify for Klein’s art museum.
McCORMICK PLACE WEST ARTIST COMMISSIONS
Mary Lou Zelazny
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Randolph.