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Dear editors:

Although Jeff Huebner’s article “Nice Works if You Can Find Them” [April 9] primarily focused on the conservation of Chicago’s public art, it raised another critical issue for Chicago’s visual arts. Scott Hodes highlighted it when he said, “Chicago doesn’t have the cultural infrastructure to support [its] artists–bottom line.” We cannot proclaim Chicago a great international art city if world-class artists don’t want to live and work here. While Chicago has many strong cultural institutions, it has very few whose mission it is to support and to promote Chicago artists.

The Hyde Park Art Center is one of those few, and its experience reinforces Mr. Hodes’s point. Founded in 1939, the center has a 60-year record of supporting new and emerging Chicago artists. Artists as varied as Cosmo Campoli, Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, Ken Warneke, Paul Sierra, Arnaldo Roche Rabell, Gelsy Verna, and Hyonae Blankenship all count the Hyde Park Art Center as one of the first spaces to exhibit their work. Over the past ten years, the center has seen the need for this type of support grow exponentially. With important nonprofit galleries gone (such as Randolph Street and N.A.M.E.) and the commercial galleries retrenching, a much broader range of artists are turning to the center as one of the few viable spaces in which to exhibit their work. Previously, the center primarily supported young artists just starting out in their careers. Now, there are many mid-career artists that need that same support. The center obviously will continue to meet as many of these demands as it can, but there is need for more.

This need brings me to the Department of Cultural Affairs. Both its public art program and its exhibitions program are without doubt the most important and effective part of the current infrastructure that supports Chicago artists. It has the double bang of not only exhibiting art but also purchasing art. Since it does such an excellent job, it is odd that it will not accept the role of promoting Chicago art and artists–that somehow this would diminish the program. If the city of Chicago is not the proud parent who proclaims “our artists are great!,” who is? The city promotes its die casters, its candy makers–even its opera and its theater–in this way. Why not its painters and sculptors?

Mr. Hodes’s idea that certain projects, such as the Midway Airport terminal, should proclaim the greatness of Chicago art and artists is excellent. This should not be the goal for every public art project, but it should be used for such major visitor sites as the airports and the river walk. These are the places where the city can puff out its chest and proclaim the superior quality of its artists.

Chicago already has an excellent model on which to base such programs–the James R. Thompson Center. It is filled with art by Illinois artists. No one walking through that building thinks “How parochial.” Instead, the first reaction is “What great art!” and the second, “Wow, all of them are from Illinois.” It is also a strong statement on the part of the state of Illinois of its belief and pride in its artists. Nor did it stop the state from accepting the private donation of a grand piece by Dubuffet for its plaza.

The argument that “We’re an international city, and we don’t want a regionalist collection” seems off the point. As the Thompson Center shows, there is no fear that the collection of public art in Chicago will become provincial. The public art program could go 100 percent to Chicago artists, and this would still not be the case. The city is not the only entity investing in public art. Corporations, private institutions, and art patrons are also adding pieces. Chicago will not be less of an international art city if the city of Chicago expresses confidence and pride in its own artists.

For the city of Chicago to become more promotional is one girder for building the infrastructure that is called for in Mr. Huebner’s article. The annual report discussed in the article could be another. Such a report could be as much a challenge to the rest of the visual arts organizations to keep pace with the city’s efforts as it would be an accounting of which artists the city has bought. It could be an annual assessment of the support for the visual arts.

Finally, however, there is one key part of the infrastructure missing entirely–the bridge that gets the train across the river. Currently, there is no institution whose mission it is to document and preserve Chicago art–a Museum of Chicago Art. There are great private collections of Chicago art, but there is no great public collection. Such an institution would be collecting Gertrude Abercrombie and Miyoko Ito in depth rather than wanting a few good, representative works. It would be documenting and preserving major Chicago contributions to art, such as its WPA artists who were so important in opening the doors for contemporary African-American artists. It would be an exciting museum. The story of Chicago’s contribution to art is rich and intriguing.

It is in the interests of both the Hyde Park Art Center and the Department of Cultural Affairs to help foster such an institution. It would do much more than simply add to their efforts to promote contemporary Chicago artists. It would give those efforts a context and a lasting impact that they currently do not have.

Chuck Thurow

Executive Director

Hyde Park Art Center