The New Art Examiner was dead, to begin with. Dead as a doornail.
In 2002, after 28 hardscrabble years, Chicago’s scrappy—some have said “cranky”—nonprofit art rag was put out of its misery by volunteer publisher Curt Conklin, who’d left no stone unturned trying to save it. One day all the good and bad prose, late checks and missed deadlines, triumphs and insults, were tradition. The next they were history.
And then, a few fortnights ago, on the chill wind of an early winter, NAE cofounder Derek Guthrie blew into town, like some Ghost of Christmas Past, with a wild tale to tell. On Tuesday the second, at the stroke of six, the Dickensian Brit—white-bearded, portly, and slightly disheveled—showed up in a fourth-floor conference room at the Cultural Center to regale an audience of about 40 people with his story of a Chicago art world gripped by the provincialism, greed, and intolerance of a crowd as ruthless as the City Hall machine. “Defilement: A Story of the Art World,” he called it.
As it happens, Defilement: A Story of the Art World is also the title of a 1978 novel by C.L. Morrison—a crude thing, according to Guthrie, with “dirty bedsheets and all,” that satirizes the NAE, him, and his wife, Jane Addams Allen, great-grandniece of the founder of Hull House.
Guthrie’s version starts with his account of the two blows, dealt to him and Allen in their early days in Chicago, that resulted in the founding of the NAE. He shared the sorry details in the lecture and in a conversation the next day.
Guthrie came here in 1969, when abstract and pop art from America was “overwhelming the UK art scene,” to see for himself what all the fuss was about. He met Allen when both of them were teaching at Chicago State College. By 1972, sharing a byline, they were ensconced as art critics at the Chicago Tribune. “We never missed a deadline and our copy was clean,” Guthrie says. But the city was enamored of its Imagists in those days, and if you weren’t cheerleading, he claims, the ruling clique gottook offense. “We took the position that to become a major art center Chicago couldn’t put all its eggs in one basket,” Guthrie says.
Indeed, a peek at their clips shows them daring to find fault with individual Imagists like Roger Brown (“suffers from a failure to edit”), younger Imagists as a group (obsessed with “bric-a-brac”), and an entire MCA show (“pedestrian and dull”). After 18 months, he and Allen were abruptly fired. They were never told why, Guthrie says, but he has his theories.
Despondent, Guthrie and Allen took a trip to New York, met with editors at Art News, and were commissioned to write a major article on—yes—the Chicago Imagists. Guthrie says the piece got an enthusiastic reception when they turned it in, but its publication was delayed and then canceled, although they were paid their full fee.
They were later told in confidence that “Chicago gallery owners had threatened an advertising boycott” if it was published, he says. “We ran into extreme institutional hostility and dirty tricks. We were demonized, characterized as anti-Imagist, though it wasn’t true. We were like Republicans at City Hall. Jane said to me, ‘We’ll either have to leave town or become our own publishers.'”
Ergo the New Art Examiner, started as an eight-page tabloid in 1973 with a measly $250. Their motto was “The independent voice of the visual arts,” and Guthrie says they were interested only in applying journalistic standards to art coverage and having a diverse discourse. But they still failed to understand that in Chicago “you’re either with us or against us,” he says. The NAE was “on the wrong side of the anti-intellectual machine that runs this city” and would never be accepted. Even now it pains him to recount how he and Allen were excluded from the guest lists for opening parties and the mansions of the North Shore. Artists were afraid to talk with them, Guthrie says, and though they launched “dozens, even hundreds” of writers, including New York magazine columnist Jerry Saltz, employed critics like Alice Thorson and James Yood as editors, and once published a major piece by Robert Hughes, “we were not invited to talk or visit at any university in Chicago.”
Guthrie says the “folklore of Chicago is that anti-Semitism at the Art Institute” led to the founding of the MCA in 1967; “true or not,” the result was a sharply divided art scene that was acutely sensitive to criticism. He places the late MCA director Stephen Prokopoff among those who “tried to kill our career,” but he and Allen also managed to alienate curators and trustees at the Art Institute. By the early 1980s they had decided that the only way to save their perpetually struggling publication was to take it national. Guthrie and Allen moved to Washington, D.C., where she became art critic for the right-wing, Moonie-owned Washington Times (which he claims never interfered with her copy). NAE headquarters remained in Chicago; at its peak, he says, it had a budget of about $500,000 and a circulation of 7,000.
In 1992, with Allen battling cancer, the couple moved to England, where her medical care would be free. Meanwhile, under new leadership, Guthrie charges, the NAE became more academic, sedate, and respectable. In the final years of the NAE‘s existence, he and Allen were “cut off, forbidden even to write for it.”
Allen died in 2004. When Guthrie traveled to America a year or so later and visited a few university art departments in other parts of the country, he was “blown away” to find that during the “dark Bush years” the “little light” of the New Art Examiner was still “burning bright” in memory. “I had no idea of the impact it had had,” he says. Still, when he put together this lecture about it, and looked for a host institution in Chicago, he says he ran smack into the same old problems: “Imagist art reflects the cruelty and hardness that defines this city,” where culture is reduced to “boosterism,” the insiders who sit on museum boards “have the advantage of manipulating the [art] market,” and those in power tolerate only what they can control, he rails.
Turned down by the organizations he first approached—and convinced that the rejections were evidence of an undiminished effort to “blacklist” him—he gave his lecture at the Ukrainian Institute before being invited by the Chicago Artists’ Coalition to do it at the Cultural Center.
He also told his tale in a Bad at Sports podcast that inspired a lengthy comments brawl on the BAS Web site. And that’s when something extraordinary happened. Amid the bluster came a message from art fair impresario Michael Workman: “I know I could personally, pretty easily, given six months, work up roughly enough funds to underwrite NAE on its old bimonthly schedule and in its old saddle-stitched format for ten years.” (Workman, once an NAE bookkeeper, had to shut down his own magazine, Bridge, for financial reasons a few years back.) He invited Guthrie to come down to the Bridge Art Fair in Miami Beach to talk about it, expenses paid. And sure as I sit here under Chicago’s frozen grey sky, that’s where the old fellow is now—laughing heartily in the sunshine and making his plans for a new New Art Examiner.
Guthrie will be back to participate in a panel discussion with political consultant Don Rose, artist David Gista, and Workman. It’s Friday, December 12, 7:30 PM, at ThinkArt, 1530 N. Paulina, suite F. Admission is free, RSVP to 773-252-8672, ext. 10.
Olga Stefan to Telecommute
The Chicago Artists’ Coalition board has announced that Laura Harper will replace executive director Olga Stefan, who resigned effective January 3, 2009. Stefan, whose initially controversial tenure brought major change to the CAC—including the launch this fall of a biannual journal, Prompt—is relocating to Switzerland, where her husband has a job. She’ll continue as managing editor of Prompt from there. You can say good-bye at a CAC party on Friday, December 19, 6-10 PM, Packer/Schopf Gallery, 942 W. Lake, $20 plus an art gift to exchange.v
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