By Jeff Huebner
Ned Schwartz thinks he sees a customer. The guy’s 50-ish and ponytailed, and he’s been eyeing Surface Lure, a five-foot-long metal fishing lure by artist Mike Slattery. It’s hanging on the edge of Schwartz’s booth at Art 1996 Chicago, the international art exposition at Navy Pier. The five-day fair is only hours from closing, and Schwartz hasn’t sold a piece yet.
Slattery’s one of the five artists Schwartz is showing. He also has Karen Reimer’s broken and oddly reassembled dishes; Ron Grenko’s gold-leaf noose; Marc Alan Jacobs’s postcards and booklets of family snapshots from his “Jews of the 70s” series; and Jesse Bercowetz’s aluminum plates etched with graffiti he found in public rest rooms (“I’d love for the / blonde lady cashier / to piss in my mouth”).
But it’s the giant fishing lure that’s caught the man’s attention. Schwartz chats the guy up, angling for a sale.
The man’s not sure. Schwartz says he could “probably come down to 25.”
The guy rubs his chin, brooding over the rainbow-colored artwork. The lure has several large, threatening metal hooks, each ideal for snagging, say, the Loch Ness monster. Slattery says he made the oversized lure to illustrate how a hook might look from the fish’s perspective.
Schwartz sits the man down at a small table and shows him a few of Slattery’s other works, but the guy’s not buying. He wants the lure. Business cards are exchanged. The man explains that he owns four sporting goods stores in the suburbs; he thinks the lure would be perfect for his Northbrook office. He says he’ll think about it and disappears into the crowded aisle. Schwartz sinks back in his chair and sighs–the one that got away.
Schwartz, the owner of Wicker Park’s Beret International Gallery, split the cost of a $10,000 booth at the art fair with Joel Leib, owner of Ten in One Gallery in Wicker Park, and Richard Kelley, who runs Tough Gallery on the near west side. For the last five years they’ve been aligned as Uncomfortable Spaces, sharing the costs of mailings and art fairs while trying to build an audience for their product–recent art with a conceptual bent.
Sometimes the group displays a knack for self-promotion that verges on the shameless–last year they crashed the Gramercy Park Hotel International Art Fair, an “alternative” art expo in Manhattan, by booking four suites on the floor above the fair. But the publicity has undeniably brought attention to their artists. After years of giving Chicago a cold shoulder, the national and international art magazines–including Art in America, Artforum, and World Art–have been regularly reviewing the shows at Uncomfortable Spaces galleries. Other galleries have complained to Tribune critic Alan Artner that he’s been devoting too much ink to their shows–nine reviews this past season. In February, Uncomfortable Spaces was one of 25 dealers invited to ARCO, the annual art fair in Madrid, Spain (two more-established Chicago galleries, Rhona Hoffman and Feigen Inc., were also at the fair). None of the Uncomfortable Spaces galleries made any money in Madrid, but Schwartz says being there was worth it anyway. They made connections, and their artists’ work was being seen. They’ve found partners in other cities: next spring SoHo’s TZ Art gallery will host an exhibit of Uncomfortable Spaces artists.
But even gallery owners committed to noncommercial fare have to pay the bills. That’s why the unassuming Schwartz seems especially out of place at a big-bucks art fair like the one at Navy Pier. He’s cultivated a merry prankster image, poking fun at the art market every chance he gets, staging such group exhibits as the “Un-Art Expo” (intended “not to capitalize” on the ’91 fair) and “The Free Show” (all the pieces were given away). In 1992 Schwartz passed out coupons at the Chicago Art Expo promising 20 percent off all purchases at the fair.
So what’s Schwartz doing in a place like this?
“A lot of people in the art world are here,” he explains. “The entire art community from Chicago comes here. This is our fourth year, and we’ve really created some buildup, not just from Chicago, but elsewhere. You get more of an audience here in five days than you would sitting in an alternative space for years.”
When the guy with the ponytail reappears, Schwartz is surprised but cool. They sit down at the table again and this time they close the deal. The man arranges to have Surface Lure delivered to Northbrook the following week. They shake hands.
It’s Beret International’s only sale during the fair. Of that $2,500, Schwartz will keep 40 percent–or a grand–and the artist gets the rest. But for a gallery that on average sells one artwork every couple of months, it’s a pretty significant catch.
Schwartz says his take will cover a month’s rent, though “art sales have never covered the rent. I pay bills with the money I earn elsewhere, and because of credit I’ve been able to keep things floating.” Most established galleries keep a full half of the sale price; Schwartz says he takes less to keep his prices down. Supported by money from a day job, the gallery continues to put him in debt. In 1995, Schwartz says, “there were a couple of small rent increases and an almost doubling of gas and electricity costs. Along with $300 to $400 in monthly expenses, that can translate into another $4,000 to $6,000 a year in debt, which is an extremely significant amount for my budget.
“This last year I lost as much money as I did in the previous two and a half years put together, though a lot of that had to do with moving the gallery, doing the art fair in Madrid, and increasing my profile. Still, I hadn’t planned for it being that bad.”
If things are so bad, how can they be so good? Over the past five years, Beret International–located in a second-floor loft above Lubinski’s Furniture at 1550 N. Milwaukee–has established itself as one of Chicago’s most inventive art galleries. A haven for art-world renegades and “aesthetic cranks” (the title of a recent group show), it mostly trades in nontraditional sculpture, mixed-media works, and installations that aren’t meant to match the home furnishings on sale in the showroom downstairs. “Only a few other galleries get it,” Schwartz says. “They shouldn’t be about making money but about making statements.”
The typical Beret statement is playfully provocative, experimental yet mining many of the same humorous and satirical veins tapped by Dada and Fluxus antiart. Last fall, Marc Alan Jacobs staged his piece How to Spot a Jew by taking a bar mitzvah cake decoration of a boy reading from the Torah, placing it on the roof of a hot dog stand across Milwaukee Avenue, and inviting viewers to look at the figurine through a telescope positioned in a gallery window. In the same exhibit, Lance Warren documented his efforts to land either a job or an art exhibit at eight of the country’s most prestigious museums. He mailed boxed sets of dinner plates and napkins that had resumes and cover letters printed on them. Warren displayed the returned boxes, some still unopened, and the form rejection letters.
“I never planned on opening an art gallery,” says Schwartz. “It was never my goal. But at a certain point it became clear to me that art galleries represent the status quo. If you’re an artist and if you only aspire to having your work displayed in established institutions, museums, and galleries, it’s a rubber-stamp endorsement of the status quo. If you feel that your interest in art revolves around issues of a progressive vision, one would be disturbed at the idea of anyone exhibiting in these established galleries. If you want to work toward making any kind of social change, I think a gallery needs to metaphorically and literally break down the walls and to rebuild them into a different structure, a new kind of exhibition arena.”
Since opening Beret in an industrial loft on Elston Avenue in May 1991, Schwartz has been staging exhibits that aim to show conceptual art doesn’t have to be some elitist, overintellectualized exercise. If you don’t “get it,” Schwartz will be more than happy to explain it until you do.
“Ned has a kind of quirky sensibility,” says Susan Snodgrass, a freelance critic who writes regularly for Art in America. “He’s often attracted to work with a satirical edge to it, responding to and spoofing things that are happening in the art world, with some kind of underlying truth to it. But it’s not always about the idea of critique and satire. He’s also interested in the material use of things, in plays on craft, and ideas about craft materials.”
Schwartz’s individualistic take may be reflected in the art that he shows, but Beret’s identity has become so intertwined with the fate of Uncomfortable Spaces that it’s nearly impossible to talk about one of the galleries without talking about the others. Inhabiting a sort of gray zone between not-for-profits and the commercial galleries, they’re lean-and-mean, self-financed operations neither wholly compromised by the profit motive nor subject to the demands of boards and grants. Nevertheless, while they’re all dedicated to showing new work, each occupies its own niche. Leib’s Ten in One Gallery at 1542 N. Damen specializes in two-dimensional work by younger artists, including Michelle Grabner, Tom Denlinger, and Walter Andersons. Tough, at 415 N. Sangamon, mainly exhibits sculpture and installations by more established local artists, such as Adelheid Mers and Frances Whitehead, both of whom will be included in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s upcoming exhibit “Art in Chicago: 1945-1995.” (Former Uncomfortable Spaces member MWMWM Gallery closed at the end of June, six months after founder Chris Murray decamped to New York.)
“I think these guys are the most important galleries in town because they’re showing younger, fresher artists,” says Michael Bulka, a freelance critic who contributes to the New Art Examiner and World Art. “Art’s about a conversation, and there are only so many times you can repeat the same line of dialogue. There have to be some places where you can go see things that don’t get shown because it doesn’t fit the program. But if you’re going to show some different stuff, you’ve got to take some kind of risks and not be afraid to lose money. And Beret does that more than most people do.”
It’s not that Schwartz, a sometime conceptual artist himself, wouldn’t like to run a profitable business. But Beret’s brand of art stresses exposure over lucre. Since he runs the gallery largely out of his own pocket, he can afford to take risks. Certainly he’s not the first art dealer to subsidize a gallery, but he’s not wealthy and he’s trading in a kind of art that offers little prospect of future financial gain. Most Beret artists couldn’t hope to show in a River North gallery, though many wouldn’t want to anyway. Commercial galleries are forced to play it safe in a depressed market, sticking with only tested sellers and keeping an eye on the bottom line so they don’t lose their leases.
Schwartz says that “a lot of the art I show is very successful, gauging from how people react to it. Obviously not everything I show is the greatest art in the world. There’s a sense of humor and elements of social criticism in the work, but it’s not like I have a nihilistic vision. I think I’ve become the “mad scientist’ gallery. There’s an obsessive quality to a lot of the art I show–people trying to create a Frankenstein’s monster.”
Obaji Nyambi, an artist who rents studio space in the back of Beret’s loft, has a different theory about why the gallery has attracted critical attention: “I think Ned’s gotten more reviews than a lot of better-cleaned, better-swept galleries because the space reminds reviewers of themselves. When you walk in, you always feel right at home.”
Ask the Gallery Personnel Some Questions. Should people buy art because they like it, or because art critics rave about it? If art does not look nice why should anyone want to buy it? Why should people care what anyone else thinks about art, isn’t the most important factor how much one likes or hates a particular work of art? . . . Aren’t there a lot more important things in life than art? Do you wish more people would buy art? –from Schwartz’s The Free Pocket Guide for Visiting Art Galleries & Artists’ Studios
Beret International occupies about 2,000 square feet, easily accommodating the two largest sculptures in Mike Slattery’s “Recent Hobbies” exhibit: Electrical Conveyor (a 30-foot-long motorized belt conveying models of electrical towers) and Vagabond (an actual-size house trailer with photos of nature scenes inside). The gallery may not be spit-and-polish, but it’s not a dump either, though like most Wicker Park spaces it has an aged, funky feel. Previous occupants included Bedrock Gallery in the mid-1980s and, later, art dealer Ricky Renier. Beret is open on weekend afternoons or by appointment. Schwartz can usually be found there on his days off–Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturday afternoons–sitting behind a metal desk at the top of the stairs.
Schwartz doesn’t like talking about what he does for a living. He tells people he’s a social worker and lets it go at that. But he’s a counselor for the Illinois Department of Corrections’ community services program, a job he’s had for three years. Based at the West Side Community Correctional Center at Lake and Western, Schwartz supervises prisoners in work-release and home-monitoring programs, and he also does employment and substance-abuse counseling. You may have seen him standing along expressway ramps, keeping an eye on work crews spearing litter and doing light landscaping. He says his job helps “facilitate the orientation of residents back into society.”
The center isn’t marked, and visitors aren’t allowed inside without permission from Springfield. The nondescript brick building, a former factory, sits hard against the elevated tracks. Every morning at 7 AM Schwartz gets buzzed in at a back entrance off Campbell Street. If you’re allowed inside, one of two guards just inside the main monitoring station will pat you down, searching for drugs, weapons, and cameras. Someone will accompany you at all times. The facility is home to about 200 residents; 80 percent are male, and two-thirds are here for drug offenses. The average stay is 18 months.
Mr. Schwartz–everyone is addressed formally here–works a shift that lasts until 3 PM, and he performs a variety of rotating duties. On a recent Monday he pulls “ED,” or electronic-detention duty. He sits in a glass-walled office and keeps track of the 170 people participating in a home-monitoring program. Home detainees wear bracelets hooked into telephone jacks; if they leave a specified area without clearance to do so, a company in Texas will notify Schwartz or someone else at the center. He’ll call the person’s home to see what gives, and inform the detainee’s parole officer. Paperwork is then initiated, which may lead to an arrest warrant. Schwartz says that sometimes the phones are ringing off the hook and the fax is humming, but today has been slow. Only one possible violation: a woman has left her home, but she may be attending a court hearing. Her parole officer isn’t working today, so Schwartz has to find the temporary “response” agent. While he’s on the phone, an ED agent enters the office, and Schwartz opens a locker for the agent’s handgun.
“One of the reasons why I pursued the job was because it’s so out of line with what I do,” Schwartz says. “Though having a gallery takes a lot of discipline and planning, so much of it is free-form too. My job is the opposite of that. Working full-time definitely interferes with running a gallery, but having diversity in one’s life can generally be good. The art world is so abstract and theoretical, and doing something more concrete and straightforward is not necessarily a bad thing.”
If Schwartz didn’t have a full-time job with a steady income, there’s a good chance that Beret would’ve folded years ago. Without Schwartz’s paychecks–and credit cards–the gallery may not even have gotten off the ground. Yet, considering that Schwartz continually loses money, why does he stay in business?
He thinks a bit before answering, as he usually does. For someone who runs a gallery known for spontaneity, he’s not a demonstrative person. Soft-spoken, composed, measured, Schwartz is the type of person who’s more comfortable asking questions than answering them. He’d rather let the art do the talking.
“Commercial success and critical success, ultimately, are two different things,” he says. “A lot of people in the art world tend to forget that. 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, since there weren’t many quality opportunities for artists to exhibit outside of the not-for-profits and a select few commercial galleries in Chicago. It’s always been important that people in the art community see the work. I’ve provided some good exposure for artists recently out of school, and I’ve helped certain people’s careers, helped them to get known here.”
Schwartz cites some artists he showed early on who’ve since become recognizable names in the Chicago art scene–Jno Cook, Luke Dohner, Dzine, Paul Kass, Mike Lash, Michael Piazza, Alison Ruttan, and Sonny Venice (a pseudonym for Hamza Walker). While some artists who’ve shown at Beret have gone on to exhibit at other galleries, Schwartz has cultivated his own stable of local (and some out-of-town) talent. Of course, most of these artists are in the same boat as Schwartz–few will see a dime from their work. In fact, Schwartz often solicits donations from artists to help cover exhibition costs, something he hopes is only a “transient issue.” He says he never asks more than a few hundred dollars.
Ruttan admits that she had reservations about being represented by Beret or any of the other Uncomfortable Spaces. “Four years ago, people didn’t know how they would turn out. Part of me was a little hesitant–is this going to work? But now I feel it’s a good place to be in, because they’re bringing people in from major museums. I think that as they’re getting more visible, there are more chances of greater things happening. They’re getting a reputation where you can go see fresh work, and collectors interested in that are starting to make their way over there.”
Schwartz doesn’t expect to get rich from art dealing, but he’s convinced that Beret–and Uncomfortable Spaces in general–is on the cusp of better financial times. He says that a lot of collectors like what they see and they like the price, yet, at this point, most are still not willing to commit to purchases because they’re waiting for the artist’s stock to rise through a proven track record–wider and more consistent exposure in prestigious commercial and institutional venues. Art patrons tend to be wealthy–and, Schwartz says, wealth begets conservatism. He says the newly affluent are more likely to buy a home-entertainment center than a work of art.
If museums exhibited new and innovative art, Schwartz says, selling it wouldn’t be such a challenge. He complains that art institutions no longer set the pace. Curators once had the funds to purchase and exhibit art that they felt was significant, but now they rarely show work that hasn’t risen through the ranks of the blue-chip galleries. Today the majority of museum acquisitions are gifts from wealthy collectors rather than purchases made by curators; money’s too tight. But Schwartz predicts “now that collectors are becoming more comfortable with us, they’ll be seen in here more and more, and actively collecting from us.”
Warren Weisberg, president of Consolidated Chemical Works in Chicago, may represent this new breed of collector. For years he’s been collecting work by Beret artists Mike Slattery, Marc Alan Jacobs, and Michael Merchant, as well as work by other Uncomfortable Spaces artists. “They’re certainly lower-key in their selling pressure,” he says. “But they’re committed and excited about the artists they have, and they all have pretty good eyes.
“Collectors are supposed to collect new and interesting things. My philosophy is that if you think it’s going to be an investment, then don’t buy art.”
Ask the Artist Some Questions. How long have you been an artist? Where did you go to art school? Do you really make money from this stuff? How do you make money? Do you have a real job? . . . How do you promote yourself? Do you like not having any responsibilities? –The Free Pocket Guide for Visiting Art Galleries & Artists’ Studios
Schwartz was born in Chicago in 1959 and raised in Hyde Park. His father graduated from the University of Chicago and went on to manage a company that rebuilt auto parts; he’s now a business consultant. Schwartz’s mother was a psychologist; she’s now a freelance writer who’s published articles in the New York Times and Psychology Today. When his parents divorced in the early 1970s, Schwartz moved with his mother to Brooklyn Heights. He attended Saint Ann’s School, a progressive, arts-oriented institution that he calls “Saint Ann’s Episcopal School for Jewish Kids With Divorced Parents. There were no grades. A lot of well-known artists’ and politicians’ kids went there. Spike Lee was there before me.”
As a teenager, Schwartz immersed himself in Manhattan’s rich cultural scene, spending time at museums, galleries, and Broadway shows. The SoHo area had started to take off, and two of his favorite artists–Gordon Matta-Clark and Vito Acconci–were showing a lot at the time. Schwartz says he was still “too young to be involved in the radicalness of the art world. But I learned to look at more than just the artwork and was drawn into other issues.
“A lot of times you only deal with what’s on the wall, and not what’s in the institution. I started asking questions–of myself and of the artists I knew–about the poor-quality work I saw. I’d ask, why is this show up? Why is this work here? From that I started learning about the nature of art institutions, that there were such things as bad curators and that there were other pressures that made curators show things–boards, benefactors, trustees. I learned that audiences spend far too much time debating the merit of the artworks being exhibited and don’t spend enough time questioning the integrity of the institutions that show them.”
In 1978 Schwartz enrolled as a liberal arts major at Carleton College, but he experienced culture shock once he landed in Minnesota. “It wasn’t until I got to college that I encountered people who were racist,” he says. “It was also the first time I met a Republican.” By the time he transferred to the University of Michigan in 1981 as a social studies major, he was taking as many art electives as social science courses. One of his teachers was the famed Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who helped shape Schwartz’s approach to art. “That was a valuable experience as far as learning about perspective, how we perceive things,” he says. “It was important in helping to understand what an artist is communicating.”
Upon graduating in 1983, Schwartz couldn’t decide if he wanted to pursue an advanced degree in social work, sculpture, or art therapy. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be an artist and end up waiting tables–it seemed like a ticket to complete depression,” he says. “Before going to grad school I felt it was important to know what I wanted as a career, rather than invest money and time into getting a master’s and then decide not to use it. I felt I needed actual work experience and could always go to grad school later.”
In 1984 Schwartz became a paid intern at the University of Chicago’s Orthogenic School, a center for the treatment of emotionally disturbed children and adolescents. He was a residential counselor in charge of a group of eight boys and young men with afflictions ranging from “autism to paranoid schizophrenia to everything in between.” It was there that he met his future wife Michelle Haddox, another counselor (though they wouldn’t marry until 1994). Schwartz quit the job in 1986 to pursue a full-time career in the arts. “I always had the sense that doing social work and artwork could be compatible, but I realized that was wrong,” he says. “There wouldn’t be enough time for both. Social work was hard work, with long hours and little pay. To support an art career, it seems like you need a short-hour, high-paying job.”
In 1986 Schwartz moved to Wicker Park. He got a job at a River North frame shop and freelanced as an art installer for galleries. He also worked on his own art. One early piece was called Pay Pay Pay, a sculpture with text that says “to view this art you have to pay for it.” It included three slots for viewers to deposit money: $3 for every time they looked at the piece, $1 for each time they spoke about it, and 25 cents for every time they thought about it. Another early Schwartz work was Sick, an acrylic painting with actual foodstuffs from a Wendy’s salad bar.
“Wicker Park was a good community,” he says. “It had a good location and cheap rent. The majority of the city’s artists lived here at the time. For somebody with initiative, you’d find out about opportunities here.”
Just as the art market began to decline in the late 1980s, Schwartz started gaining a reputation as an independent curator. Working with artists and arts organizations, he organized large themed exhibits at various venues around town. In 1988 Schwartz and Diane Grams (who later became director of the Peace Museum) chaired the Committee for Artists’ Rights, a short-lived group formed after several aldermen forcibly removed David Nelson’s painting of Harold Washington in women’s lingerie from a student exhibit at the School of the Art Institute. In 1989 the school became the center of another controversy, this time over student artist Dread Scott Tyler’s What Is the Proper Way to Display the American Flag? In December 1989 Schwartz organized “The Flag Show” at the Mary Lou Lannon Gallery on the near west wide. Weeks before the exhibit was scheduled to open, however, he decided to submit slides of the artwork to the American Civil Liberties Union. “We needed to know if we could do this legally,” Schwartz says, referring to the city’s flag desecration law. The ACLU sent a letter to the city’s corporation council, seeking assurances that none of the artists would be prosecuted. The city filed a lawsuit, and the ACLU filed a countersuit, winning an injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing its flag-protection statute.
From 1987 to ’91, Schwartz worked with members of the Bucktown Fine Arts association, organizers of the Bucktown Arts Fest, to orchestrate a series of large group shows. Though the shows weren’t technically curated–any interested artist could participate–they nevertheless bore the stamp of Schwartz’s wry aesthetic. Some of these exhibits, playfully ironic takes on the self-important fine-arts industry, even received serious critical attention. “The value of doing the big group shows was that they dethroned the curator,” Schwartz says. “They just defined a parameter and let artists deal with it.”
“Ned was pursuing galleries, but I don’t remember them showing any interest in his work,” says Obaji Nyambi. “I think that was an impetus for him to start organizing these independently curated exhibits. They showcased people who otherwise wouldn’t be shown in galleries, just to give them the exposure they weren’t getting–including himself. Usually when you talked to Ned about an exhibit idea over a drink, it sounded absurd. Then when you talked to him again, the whole idea started to make sense. Then, before you know it, he’d start organizing.”
In the fall of 1990, Schwartz and Nyambi hatched “The Woolworth Show” at the Holstein Park Fieldhouse. The exhibit was open to all comers, with only one condition: all the materials had to be purchased from the five-and-dime. “It was a goofy parody in response to “The Chicago and Vicinity Show,”‘ says Schwartz, explaining that he found the annual exhibit to be “so senseless and undefined. Even if you have a vicinity show, it’s still going to be reflective of the orientation and vision of the people selecting the work, and not a relevant statement about the quality of work in Chicago. It should’ve been called “Jurors X,Y, and Z’s Chicago Show.’ I mean, it’s regionalism–who cares?”
The next year Schwartz and artist James Warden curated “The Foreign Policy Show,” which accepted pieces from all 120 artists who submitted work. The exhibit’s guidelines asked artists to “help elucidate the international political quagmire . . . to discern moral and effective strategies for dealing with world affairs.”
“After we decided to do the show, Iraq invaded Kuwait,” Schwartz says. “We went ahead and started producing–it was a six-month process. We got a space in the Flat Iron Building. As Middle Eastern tensions mounted and the war went on, interest in the show increased. The show opened on the day the Iraq war ended. The timing of the whole thing was coincidental.”
The New Art Examiner said the “highly entertaining and democratic event” created “an atmosphere of spectacle and inclusion remembered long after the show’s thematic high horse.”
Schwartz soon decided to find a permanent venue for his wildcat exhibits. Loft space in Wicker Park had become pricey, so he scoured the neighborhood’s fringes. “I’d gotten to know a lot of artists through putting together all kinds of shows and working with committees, and I thought it’d be nice to focus on individual artists and issues,” he says. “Not having a secure primary space was an issue because you can’t plan what you can do.”
Beret International Gallery was born in May 1991. Schwartz was the gallery’s director, Warden the assistant director. Its off-the-beaten-track location–on the third floor of an industrial building at the corner of Webster and Elston–fit their offbeat agenda. The name itself was a wink-and-a-nod moniker: the type of artists exhibited would never wear such self-consciously arty headgear (well, maybe as an in-joke), and they’d probably never take the global art market by storm (but you never know).
Showing mixed-media installations and assemblages, sculptures made with nontraditional materials, kinetic constructions, and some drawings and paintings, Beret quickly became noteworthy not only for the artwork but also for the way Schwartz ran the place on a shoestring. Though he staged solo exhibits as well as shows featuring two or three artists, he offset his costs by leasing part of the space as artists’ studios and by periodically renting out the main gallery for guest-curated exhibits. For a while he even rented out two of the gallery’s back rooms to artists who would mount their own independently curated shows (the most notable of these temporary spaces was Mike’s Museum, run by artist Mike Lash). Schwartz admits the arrangement may have confused some people.
“I once said in a review that Ned runs a gallery like a performance art piece–a series of collaborative installations,” says critic Michael Bulka. “It used to be that he would arrange a show based on a conversation with the artist rather than look at slides and a resume. If he trusted the person’s concept, then he’d go with it. Some of the stuff didn’t make any sense when you saw it, but then some stuff did. He wasn’t afraid to embarrass himself or fall flat on his face. Some galleries couldn’t deal with pie in the face as well as Ned could. He could say, “Yeah, well, sometimes I screw up.”‘
In particular, Bulka recalls “The Worst Show,” which inaugurated Beret’s Wicker Park space in September 1994. Mounted by Schwartz and artist Ron Grenko, the exhibit promised to display the worst pieces of art by 70 local artists. The organizers’ statement asserted, “If successful, it should set the criteria for collectable crapola.” It included a lot of paintings. “I talked to some real painters who were really offended by it,” says Bulka. “They were incensed by the whole idea of just doing that, and saw it as an affront to them, and to art.”
Bulka says much of Schwartz’s old spontaneity may be gone (“It used to be harder to pin him down”) but the gallery has become more professional and is a better bet for seeing quality work (“I think Ned is getting more consistent”).
Beret’s exhibits would continue to attract notice–if just for their titles alone: “The Sentimental Show,” “The Queer Art Show,” “The Photo Booth Art Show,” “The Some People Who Want to Show Their Art Here Show.” In the spring of 1993 three international art fairs competed for attention in Chicago. Schwartz put on a show titled “Car Radios and Other Great Stuff Stolen From Past Art Expos.” The exhibit didn’t really contain stuff stolen from art expos, but it did include Schwartz’s private collection of silverware swiped from museum cafeterias around the country.
“Basically, my theme shows have been a parody of the art world,” says Schwartz. “A lot of the alternative venues have curated shows like “The Polluted Land and Corrupt Social Environment Show.’ With these socially progressive themes, it can seem like curators and artists are more intent on being social scientists. But artwork doesn’t exist to fit these exhibition parameters, so curators often resort to curating their favorite artists. Environmental issues are better dealt with by environmentalists.”
Uncomfortable Spaces was formed in 1991, in the midst of the art market slide that followed the 1980s boom. Some of the more adventurous local galleries–Robbin Lockett, Dart, CompassRose–had either shut their doors or would soon be closed. Donald Young moved to Seattle. Feature moved to New York. Uncomfortable Spaces was in part a survival strategy, allowing the four galleries–all located in out-of-the-way places–to share resources. But they also wanted to make a statement.
“We weren’t happy with the scene as it was, so we decided to make our own,” says Joel Leib of Ten in One Gallery. “Commercial spaces weren’t showing work we liked, and the alternative spaces were getting more institutionalized. We wanted to show work we felt deserving of exhibition and not getting a lot of attention in Chicago. But if we hadn’t gotten together to form the group, I don’t think any of us would be around today–I mean the galleries.”
Schwartz says that he, Leib, Kelley, and Murray initially met to discuss the possibility of producing a guide to alternative art spaces. (Some not-for-profits and cooperatives had also been invited, but chose not to attend.) “We had a hard time getting critics to come in and look at our galleries because they were still looking at all the same shit,” says Schwartz. “We wanted a vehicle to separate and promote ourselves, to create an identity and increase our presence. Our goals were to improve the art community first, attract critics and curators second, and then collectors.”
Schwartz says that Beret and the other Uncomfortable Spaces never intended to become not-for-profit galleries primarily because of the time and energy it takes to run such an operation. “I feel the energy is better placed in putting shows together,” he says. “If you create a board, you can lose directorship of the gallery. With the autonomy of us as directors, we get away from curating by committee. We can have control over what we’re expressing.”
The four galleries also opted not to become members of the West Side Gallery District, then a fledgling association of more than a dozen art galleries located mostly in Bucktown and Wicker Park. The Uncomfortable Spaces didn’t constitute a district, but an affinity. “We spent a lot of time agonizing over the name,” recalls Schwartz. “We wanted to stay away from “alternative’ because it carried too much baggage. So many other galleries opening up in the neighborhood considered themselves “alternative’ but were really only emulating what they’d seen in River North on a low budget and were trying to ride the wave of being “alternative.’ We wanted a name that all of these emulative galleries wouldn’t want to be associated with.”
The name Bad Hygiene was bandied about, but Uncomfortable Spaces won out. “It had a lot of meaning because the spaces were physically uncomfortable to hang out in, with no air conditioning and little heating,” Schwartz says. “They were also uncomfortable financial times. And though the name reflected the uncomfortability people had in going to galleries, people would often tell us they felt more comfortable seeing art at our galleries than at other spaces.”
The alliance early on devised a number of novel cost-cutting and fund-raising strategies. For the first two years they produced a quarterly, 25,000-copy pamphlet (“galleries worth looking for”) announcing upcoming exhibits and events. (The flyers have been discontinued, but the galleries continue to mail announcements together in one envelope.) To raise money for a booth at Art 1993 Chicago, the four galleries held a typically tongue-in-cheek promotional event, the “Random Access Show.” Artists were invited to purchase raffle tickets for $20 each (“DON’T send slides! DON’T send resumes!”), and 34 were chosen at random to exhibit work. Grand prize was a solo show at MWMWM; the largest exhibit featured the work of 25 artists at Beret.
Schwartz says that freelance critic Susan Snodgrass and the Tribune’s former galleries columnist David McCracken were early supporters of Uncomfortable Spaces, “creating a strong awareness of what we were doing.”
“By 1992 there had been a radical shift in River North in terms of the economic impact of the recession,” says Snodgrass. “There seemed to be a loss of a number of significant galleries showing edgy, younger artists. I began to venture out of River North in search of newer, more interesting art. I became aware of Uncomfortable Spaces. You see a lot of new galleries coming along, and you’re not sure if they’ll make it. But I began to visit their galleries and began looking at the shows. There was something interesting happening there that wasn’t happening in the commercial galleries in River North. Alongside the artwork being shown, they were creating a new model, a radical shift in how galleries were being run.
“I now make them a part of my regular routine. I see them as a complementary part of the entire milieu, showing interesting work that gives a sense of the scene in a national and international focus. For me, they have become as viable and important to the scene as any other major venue–institutional spaces and galleries–in the city.”
But not everyone is as enthusiastic. Wesley Kimler, a painter who had a solo exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art last fall, has mixed feelings, at best. “The Uncomfortable Spaces are a really, really, really important thing, and they’re the best thing that’s happened in the gallery world here in a long time,” he says. “Tough is one of the galleries where the art is intelligent and uncomfortable. But it would be nice to see the other spaces show more challenging work. My problem is that it’s incredibly decorative, comfortable art. It’s easy. It comes out of the art school factory, the mill. This is a gross generalization–not all of it is like that–but as a rule the work seems trendy. It’s refreshing to see a young artist who doesn’t follow trends and is working through his own style–and that’s as hard to find at the Uncomfortable Spaces as it is in River North. What’s the difference?
“A lot of neoconceptualist work here has an easy read, an easy look. It has a smartness, and it’s visually not really interesting. Once you’re past the one-liner, what’s left? So much art being shown today is a one-liner. What’s left when you finish the sentence? It’s a way to make art in this town: give it a difficult premise and an easy read. As conceptualism becomes a worldwide trend, it’s becoming more and more homogenous. You’ll see the same thing in upstart galleries in Houston and Los Angeles as here. It’s canned rebellion.
“But I think enough of these guys to have an opinion. I think they’re vital–they just need to broaden their vision and consider what they’re showing further. Wouldn’t it be wild to walk into one of these spaces and see a big tough painterly painting? It’d be a radical thought for one of these galleries.
“Here’s the deal in this town: God forbid if you have dissenting opinions. If you’re not a cheerleader, it’s considered impolite, reason for shunning.”
Schwartz and Leib became friends in 1990, soon after Leib established Ten in One Gallery near Ashland and Ohio; prior to that, Ten in One had been a short-lived cooperative on West Grand.
“Ned was quiet when you first met him, but when you started talking to him he had good opinions,” recalls Leib. “As we formed the group, we got to know each other a lot better. I saw something in Ned I felt an affinity with. He had a passionate belief in what he was doing. It didn’t make dollars and cents, but it was real, and real important, to him. His interests were so strong, and I felt that he’d be someone I could work with over the long term–he’d be there, plugging away like me.”
Schwartz and Leib both relocated their galleries to Wicker Park in the fall of 1994, a move that has allowed the two to keep in constant touch before, during, and after gallery hours. (They also live within a few blocks of each other–Leib in Ukrainian Village, Schwartz in Wicker Park.) Working in their galleries on weekend afternoons, they chat on the phone three or four times a day–exchanging gossip, informing the other if a critic has just visited and might be on the way over to the neighboring gallery. Leib and Schwartz always send browsers, collectors, and curators to the other Uncomfortable Spaces. Two curators for the 1997 Whitney Biennial visited all three galleries one day last month.
After work, Schwartz and Leib can sometimes be found plotting strategy, and “commiserating,” as Leib says, over a beer or two at the Rainbo Club. “We have these long, rambling conversations about how fucked-up everything is and how we can make it better–not just with us, but with the art scene in general,” says Leib.
“In River North, it’s every man for himself as far as the gallery business goes. They’re all scared and competitive and want to make money. There are risks that galleries won’t take because they have to spend a lot of money on rent, they have to spend a lot of money on staff. It makes them reluctant to take chances on unproven work. There are literally only a handful of commercial galleries here–Rhona Hoffman, Feigen–that take any risks whatsoever. If just a few more people had some vision and were willing to stick their necks out and show some interesting work, Chicago could be a major art place. We wouldn’t have so many artists spinning their wheels, or some galleries just scraping by.
“But we thrive on giving artists their due, and we have a mutual belief in ourselves and the artists we exhibit. It’s important that artists are allowed to have a space to present their work. The way we work together is unique–it’s a situation that doesn’t exist in other cities. Other gallery owners in New York, Los Angeles, Europe have told us what a smart idea it is. It’s a support system that has served us well. We each work on our own, but work together. We can lean on each other, bounce ideas off each other. There’s strength in numbers. If Ned makes a sale, it’s good for everyone because we’re all a part of the same thing.
“Do you think other galleries would do the same in River North?”
How to Handle a Visit to an Artist’s Studio. One of the great pleasures of knowing an artist is visiting their studio. Whenever you meet someone who claims to be an artist ask them to tell you about the art they do. Always respond by telling them that their art sounds fascinating, and from the description, something you would be really interested in seeing. –The Free Pocket Guide for Visiting Art Galleries & Artists’ Studios
While Schwartz says that “running a gallery has pretty much pulled the plug on art making,” he’s nevertheless found time to pursue projects that might best be called “art pranks.” In the last few years he’s published and distributed fictitious coupons and brochures that have often been mistaken for the real thing. One such stunt nearly got him arrested.
During Wicker Park’s Around the Coyote arts festival in 1992, Schwartz passed out 2,000 small, official-looking white cards designed by David Alexander that offered future West Town residents 30 percent off their property taxes if they made a home purchase between January 1, 1993, and December 31, 1996. The card stated that the discount was made possible through “The Chicago Cook County Greater Redevelopment Fund (a subsidiary block grant administrated from the Federal Department for Enhancement of Property for Citizen Ownership) (FDEPCO).”
Schwartz says the bogus tax-abatement certificate angered and confused people; potential home owners, real estate dealers, and city officials thought it was some unscrupulous Realtor running a scam. “I made a program to encourage people to buy real estate during and after the festival,” Schwartz later told P-Form, the local performance art magazine. “Since everybody thinks the Coyote is some real estate conspiracy thing, I decided to go ahead and make it one.”
Schwartz and Alexander cranked out a new coupon in late October, during the presidential elections. Schwartz distributed about 3,000 coupons promising “one extra ballot allowing you to vote twice (for free).” The catch was that voters had to present the coupon to a local election judge on November 3, 1992, with a valid Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover card. “Your extra vote is being awarded because your valid credit card demonstrates exemplary citizenship,” the coupon explained. “We value your responsible participation in the American process.” The “Vote Twice” coupon was made possible through “FBA (Financing for a Better America).”
Schwartz also bought advertising space in the October 30 issue of the Reader so he could run a reproduction of the coupon. The Reader insisted that his phone number be included in the ad, so he used the number of his answering machine. He recorded a message that said, “If you’re calling about the coupon, it’s not a joke. You can use it to vote twice.” When he answered the phone he told people the coupon was real–some got the joke; some got nasty.
Schwartz says he suspects that some of the callers were with the Board of Election Commissioners because days after the ad was published, he received a summons to go before a grand jury. Stunned, Schwartz called a First Amendment lawyer who told him that the charges were serious and that he’d better get a criminal lawyer if he wanted to fight a presumed rap for vote fraud. “All along I thought the voting commission would find it the most funny, because they should know better than anyone else that you can’t vote twice,” Schwartz told P-Form.
When Schwartz went to court, his lawyer conferred with prosecutors, who agreed to simply issue a cease and desist order to stop Schwartz from distributing the coupons; they also wanted him to change the message on his answering machine. If he didn’t comply with the order, a warrant would be issued for his arrest. Schwartz’s lawyer said he could win the case, but he’d have to devote a few years to fighting it in the court system and Schwartz could spend close to $100,000 in legal fees. The ACLU told Schwartz that he was within his legal rights to publish the satirical coupon and didn’t have to sign the order. Unfortunately for Schwartz, ACLU lawyers were busy; otherwise, they might have represented him pro bono in the possibly precedent-setting case. So Schwartz decided to avoid the hassle and agreed to comply with the order.
“A lot of people may have associated the coupon work with an attention-getting, gimmicky, trouble-making publicity hound,” Schwartz says. “But I had spent several years as an artist learning about First Amendment issues, and clearly there was never any illegal intent. Though given the opportunity, I opted not to make it a big media event because I didn’t want to sidetrack the art projects’ issues. People often say that all exposure is good exposure. But if that were the case, then the best arena for one’s artwork would be television. The superficial coverage that television provides is the worst medium for artwork.”
Schwartz’s brush with the law didn’t deter him from distributing The Free Pocket Guide for Visiting Art Galleries & Artists’ Studios during 1993’s Around the Coyote festival. Schwartz claims that many art-world tourists took the pamphlet seriously–it was cunningly conceived and appeared to be legit. Created by the “Association of Professional Gallery Owners, Artists, Art Critics, Collectors & Curators,” the foldout brochure coached art lovers on how to converse with gallery personnel and artists.
“I did it because people have a degree of uncomfortability going to galleries and art studios,” Schwartz says. “Some of it’s humor-based, but a lot of it is repetitions of things that people have actually said to me.”
Situation: Entering an Art Gallery. Let the gallery personnel make the first move. Wait until they say hello before saying hello to them. However, if you have been to the gallery before, or know artists who exhibit at the gallery, you should try saying hello to the gallery staff before they say hello to you. Explain that you know artists who are in the exhibition or who have shown at the gallery before. . . . Never say anything negative about the art being exhibited! Even if you hate the art being shown, say, “I love this. This work is wonderful, absolutely incredible. Congratulations on another excellent exhibition!” –The Free Pocket Guide for Visiting Art Galleries & Artists’ Studios
It’s another weekend at Beret International, and Schwartz is coddling his six-month-old son Adam, who can’t decide if he wants to sleep in the crib, sit in the walker, or bounce on dad’s lap with a bottle. Meanwhile, visitors parade through the gallery, looking at and chuckling over Mike Slattery’s work. Besides the electrical conveyor and the house trailer, there are a miniature La-Z-Boy (with a fishing scene pattern), a folding log chair, and a home-entertainment console with a small replica of the console in a glass bottle.
Schwartz talks to everyone. Some of them are artists he already knows; others are people he hasn’t met before. “Do you live in the neighborhood?” he asks. “How did you hear about the show? Are you from Chicago? Are you an artist?”
One woman, it turns out, went to Carleton College some years before Schwartz. Another brings in some of her photos of chickens and roosters–not to pitch for an exhibit, but just to show Schwartz. The director of the DePaul University Art Gallery discusses exhibiting some Beret artists in an upcoming show.
Slattery drops by before leaving town to get married in Las Vegas. The Wisconsin native says he’s pleased that the giant fishing lure Schwartz sold at the art fair ended up at the office of a sporting goods chain: “It seemed like an appropriate context for it.” Slattery says that selling his lures–he’s made several over the years–is his last concern. “But it seems like every time I sell one, I’m flat broke.”
A college art class comes into the gallery; their progress up the wooden stairs has been deafening. “I try to expose students to young and emerging artists, so I’m taking them to Uncomfortable Spaces,” says artist and Barat College instructor Barbara Wiesen, who’s the sister of Tough Gallery artist Charles Wiesen. “It’s easy to direct students to River North, but commercial galleries aren’t something they can relate to or learn from.”
Schwartz turns off the Bulls game on the radio, sets the now napping Adam in the crib, and gives the class a tour of the gallery. As with most Beret shows, Slattery’s sculptures are easier to intuitively “get” than to articulate, but Schwartz does his best. He talks about how the work is a critique of a culture that manufactures products that imitate nature–and how the production process often destroys the very things it seeks to imitate.
Not surprisingly, the afternoon ends without a sale. But it doesn’t matter. Schwartz feels good. It’s been a successful day: a lot of people have visited. Schwartz says he’s “created a relevant dialogue,” touched some lives, made an impact–educated and engaged, amused and provoked. Isn’t that, after all, what art is all about?
“Obviously, I have a sense that things will work out, based on the integrity of the work,” he says. “If sales do pick up, making a profit is very realistic. Rationally, it should work. It’s like playing poker–any business is a risk. At first you don’t know the game, the odds, the players. It’s a learning process. But after you recognize the value of your cards and the people around your table, things become a lot more predictable–something like a jackpot seems close at hand. But if you fold all your cards too soon, you’ll just count your losses and walk away.
“I believe in what I’m doing. You have to pursue your love. It’s all about pursuing your inner drive. If you don’t do that, you’re not living. In spite of all the challenges, a lot of positive things keep me encouraged to find ways to keep Beret International going. I’m not ready to shut down. It’s like I often tell art students: You have to really enjoy being an artist, or a gallery owner, because if you don’t you might as well get a job where you’re paid not to have a good time.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs of “Air Disaster,” by Michael Merchant; “Readings from the Book,” by Jno Cook; Ned Schwartz; Mike Slattery’s “Vagabond” and “Lazy Boy”; Beret International Gallery; etc. – by Nathan Mandell.