Full Retreat

Beret International

folds, but Wicker Park’s deteriorating art scene

may not be entirely

to blame.

By Jeff Huebner

When Beret International Gallery first opened for business on an industrial stretch of Elston Avenue in May 1991, it was immediately recognized as one of the city’s most inventive art venues. Even after moving to the heart of Wicker Park three years later, the gallery continued to promote a quirky, satirical conceptualism that reflected the sensibilities of its founder and director, Ned Schwartz. Over the years, Schwartz has championed a rogue’s gallery of art-world mavericks, mad scientists, playful provocateurs, and “aesthetic cranks” (the title of one show)–square pegs who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, fit into the round holes of the commercial gallery system.

Beret International has always been a commercial gallery, but it has never been a business in the traditional sense. Schwartz didn’t expect to get rich dealing art; he rarely, if ever, turned a profit. In the fall of 1991 he joined forces with three other out-of-the-way galleries–Ten in One, Tough, and MWMWM–to form Uncomfortable Spaces. The group shared promotional costs and, more important, created an adventurous scene that influenced much of what was shown in alternative spaces here during the 1990s. Since Schwartz runs the gallery largely out of his own pocket, he has the freedom to go out on a limb. It’s astonishing his enterprise has lasted nearly a decade.

“Only a few other galleries get it,” Schwartz told me in a July 1996 Reader cover story. “They shouldn’t be about making money but about making statements. The foundation of this gallery was oriented toward critical success. My primary goal has always been to provide a forum, a consistent quality arena for artists’ exposure.”

Few of the artists whose careers Schwartz has helped–including Jno Cook, Dennis Kowalski, Alison Ruttan, Karen Reimer, Mike Slattery, Paul Kass, and Marc Alan Jacobs–expected to make big bucks either. Few of their pieces are salable; some were even temporary. The artists often pitch in money themselves, sticking with Beret because of its experimental, risk-taking character. Payoffs frequently come in the form of laudatory reviews in the art press, though these notices usually haven’t translated into sales. “It’s erratic,” says Schwartz. “It goes by the artist.”

The Uncomfortable Spaces alliance gradually unraveled, with each departing member explaining that cutting-edge art was a hard sell in Chicago. MWMWM was the first to leave, in 1996, but the gallery was revived two years later in Brooklyn by founder Chris Murray; Richard Kelley’s Tough–perhaps the most uncompromising of the four–toughed it out until early last year; and Ten in One’s Joel Leib decamped to New York in September.

Now Beret International is calling it quits too, at least in its present form. Its final show–titled “Beret’s Final Show”–is a hodgepodge of greatest hits and recent works by gallery artists. After the exhibit closes May 20, Schwartz can finally give his pocketbook a rest. He’s been subsidizing the gallery with a job at the Illinois Department of Corrections, where he’s worked for seven years, first as a work-release and home-monitoring counselor and more recently as a parole officer in an office near Cabrini-Green. Schwartz figures his gallery has cost about $2,000 a month–even after he scaled down the exhibition area more than a year ago, carving out spaces to sublet. In recent years he’s only worked there on Saturdays, usually accompanied by his four-year-old son.

The 40-year-old Schwartz concedes he’s run out of energy. “But it’s mostly a financial issue. Not having the time or the resources to commit to the gallery, it just doesn’t make sense. It takes a lot of time to organize, promote, and staff shows, to find new things, and doing it as a second job doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s been a challenge to keep open, and in the absence of a financial partner, it’s not a productive thing to do. If it weren’t losing money, I’d probably stay open.” Schwartz holds the lease on the space, at 1550 N. Milwaukee, so he hopes a new art gallery or galleries will take it over and continue “in the spirit of what Beret has begun.”

Beret International is one of three art galleries calling it quits in West Town. The Chicago Project Room, just down the block at 1464 N. Milwaukee, will fold when a show of wall graphics by Danish artist Henrik Plenge Jakobsen closes June 1. Owners Dan Hug and Michael Hall are moving their gallery to Los Angeles. Bona Fide, opened by Patrick Collier in CPR’s old space at 2136 W. Chicago a year and a half ago, is ending its run May 27 with an exhibit of works by Dutch photographer Hans Wijninga.

The loss of these galleries spells the declining influence of the Wicker Park area as a vital, eclectic art community. There are still places willing to experiment, including Standard, Sixspace, and Bodybuilder and Sportsman. But few aspiring art dealers can afford to open a storefront (or a walk-up) in this increasingly gentrified neighborhood. And those willing to take the chance can’t expect to survive by showing challenging work. While contemporary cutting-edge work continues to get press in Chicago, hardly anyone here is buying. “There’s a tremendous amount of support here, a huge community of art collectors,” says Hug. “It’s just a lot harder to access collectors and curators here” than in New York or Los Angeles.

A few months ago CPR was planning to move into a contemporary arts center being developed by patron Lewis Manilow in the South Loop. The center–consisting of new and established galleries, offices for arts organizations, and temporary exhibition areas–will be housed in the long-abandoned Continental Trailways bus terminal at Roosevelt and Wabash. The building, which Manilow took possession of May 1, is not expected to be ready until next year. Of all the galleries he asked to join the venture, CPR seemed like the only sure bet.

Now Manilow has lost his best prospect. “He’ll get some good international galleries in there,” says Hug. “It’s just that this opportunity came up to be in this great building in Westwood, with three other prominent Los Angeles-based galleries. It’ll be like being in the Manilow building, but in LA. The market is better out there. We have better connections outside of Chicago. It’s sad.”

CPR isn’t moving because of a lack of business, Hug says. “We actually made money last year. It just wasn’t locally. The bulk of our sales is abroad–our market is international.” He won’t be losing customers in the move. “If anything, we’ll be gaining more by being there. We won’t be labeled ‘alternative’ there. People will get it. Big curators and collectors don’t think we’re alternative–it’s a localized perception.”

In 1995 Hug opened RX Gallery in CPR’s current Milwaukee Avenue space; then two years ago he joined forces with Michael Hall. He worries that his comments will be misconstrued as Chicago bashing but adds that he’s just being realistic about the “different art markets” in the city. “Even though it’s possible to function within the international art world based in Chicago, it’s easier in New York and LA–these are the centers of contemporary art,” Hug says. “There’s a big audience of collectors here, but it takes a couple years of working at it. It takes a long time to establish a dialogue with them. It’s like you have to make it outside of Chicago first. Younger, newer collectors just aren’t showing up–they’re more enamored of New York and LA. To them, the glory is in River North–that looks like an art center. It’s important to have a slick space and a good location if you want to be taken seriously in Chicago, to get younger collectors’ interest.”

Bona Fide’s Collier–an artist who has two photographs in “Beret’s Final Show”–always understood that failure was a possibility. He says, “We’ve gotten tremendous reviews, locally and nationally, but we just haven’t had the sales to keep the place open. Chicago is a great place to work as an artist, and the art community is active. But outside of that, there isn’t much call for us to be here. We’ve gotten more attention elsewhere–people outside are more aware of what’s going on in Chicago than here. For some reason the financial support doesn’t match the artistic community’s enthusiasm. The collector base can only do so much–and that’s nothing against collectors.

“If nothing else, we’ve helped a lot of Chicago artists and artists outside Chicago get the notoriety and exposure they deserved. It’s unfortunate that people can spend $250 on dinner that’s gone the next day, but they don’t spend $250 on a drawing.”

Collier, who ran Bona Fide as a full-time job, says he’ll be spending a lot more time in his studio. “I’ve learned I’m an artist, not a businessperson. I’ll keep the Bona Fide idea alive, at least the curatorial aspect of it, outside the gallery. I’ve got a couple more things up my sleeve. I’m thinking outside the box.”

And so is Ned Schwartz. A sometime artist himself, he’s keeping his options open–at least a little bit. While he doesn’t rule out that Beret may “resurrect anew in another shape or form,” for now he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Michelle, and their two children. The Schwartzes, who previously lived in a Wicker Park apartment, bought a home in suburban Northfield two years ago.

Schwartz admits Beret could’ve been more of a contender had he done a few things differently. “I’ve always been frugal, possibly to my detriment,” he says. “I could’ve done more publicity, had more convenient hours. I could’ve done away with postcards and openings. Not having a good sign and a consistent paid staff prevented a lot of things from happening too.” He ruefully points out that his landlord has finally gotten around to replacing the beat-up steel door at the entrance with a spiffy glass one more in keeping with the block’s upgraded image.

Schwartz says his “participating artists” aren’t taking the closing too hard. In fact, he thinks it’ll be liberating for them–they can go elsewhere and try to make more money. “I gave them a place to show their work and develop without having to worry about other types of galleries,” he says.

Beret never claimed exclusive rights to represent its artists. Some–like established conceptualist Dennis Kowalski, kinetic wizard Jno Cook, and nonconventional sculptor Alison Ruttan–have long shown their work at other spaces. Marc Jacobs, known for his “Jewboy of the ’70s” series, has since moved to New York. Karen Reimer’s recent show, a series of obsessively embroidered facsimiles of pop-culture artifacts, drew a spate of good reviews. “Mike Slattery, Paul Kass–these are all phenomenal artists,” says Schwartz. “They shouldn’t have any problems finding galleries where they have a lot more potential for reaching collectors and curatorial interest.”

“I’m not looking for a gallery–I don’t sell work,” says Cook, a former electrical engineer whose show “Scary Machines” was among Beret’s first exhibits and whose pieces in the final show include two “flying toasters” (priced at $900 each). “Ned came after me and I stayed with him. It’s sad. It’s been a very supportive place. Ned’s been a sweetheart to deal with, honest and straightforward. His shows always amazed me. I never knew where they were coming from–they were so antigallery. But in the last couple years he’d gotten more and more grouchy because stuff didn’t sell.”

Beret International may be on its way out the door, but Schwartz still has the keys. “Ideally,” he says, “I’d like someone to take over the space and let me use part of it for storage.” He wants the new occupant to be either a not-for-profit or commercial gallery focusing on cutting-edge local art, a gallery featuring the work of recent graduates from Chicago-area art schools, or three or four “like-minded” galleries sharing the total 4,000-square-foot space. “The key is to keep the place open, have reliable hours, and keep the place presentable,” says Schwartz. “Other galleries could do better than I could. If something comes up that makes sense, I’d consider doing it.”

Beret International never did anything by the book, and for that reason, Schwartz says, “alternate avenues of closure” are being explored. He is hosting a series of meetings under the general title “Who wants to be a gallery owner?” People are invited to come to Beret to discuss how the space could be best utilized. The last meeting will be held this Saturday, May 6, from 3 to 4:30. (Call 773-489-6518 or 773-297-9115 for more information.)

The initial April 15 meeting drew five participants, including Schwartz. The theme quickly degenerated into “What’s wrong with the Chicago art scene?” Abstract painter Pedro Velez said, “I like Beret, Bona Fide, and Chicago Project Room. But now they’re all gone. Where am I going to go? Who’s going to show me?”

Bona Fide’s Collier believes Beret International and the rest of the Uncomfortable Spaces were a “precursor, curatorially and financially, that opened some doors” for his gallery as well as others. “There’s always a lot of new places opening,” he says, “a few places that take on the role of other places so the dialogue stays active. There are places we’re not even thinking about yet that will pick up the slack for a while, make it or break it or move on.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.