Set up a festival providing free gallery space, giving hundreds of artists a chance to see each other’s work and letting the public view it unjuried and uncensored. Throw in some music, dance, plays, and performance art and you’ve got an aesthetic utopia. At least that’s what the organizers of Around the Coyote, the arts festival being held in Wicker Park this weekend, would say if you asked them. But a noticeable grumbling is rising from the ranks. The same artists the festival is supposedly helping to promote are leveling charges of commercialism and exploitation. Is their work just a come-on for liquor sales? Or are these artists just singing the same old tune we hear every time the underground is discovered by the mainstream?

In 1989 a Frenchman named Jim Happy-Delpech came to Chicago to visit some friends. While he was here, some local artists, their work ignored by the better-known galleries and certain well-endowed art institutions, shared their frustrations with him. Happy-Delpech sensed that the Chicago art scene was ready for something new, and he was ready to step in. (Back in Paris, he had been one of the first to open a gallery near the Bastille, a district that now boasts more than 50.)

Happy-Delpech closed his gallery and returned to Chicago a year later. In 1990, thanks to his exertions, Wicker Park saw its first Around the Coyote, the weekend arts festival that invites everyone in the visual and performing arts to display their wares in gallery spaces.

Chicago, of course, is home to many art festivals. But Around the Coyote, or ATC as organizers refer to it, knows no bounds. The confrontational, the passionate, the political, and the polemical are all welcome.

Happy-Delpech used a formula that had worked for him in Paris: eager artists plus his own entrepreneurial skills, which attracted a volunteer work force and donated spaces for artists. His wit and ceaseless energy didn’t hurt either, generating enough publicity to attract worldwide attention.

Over the past few years, the festival’s popularity has skyrocketed. This weekend some 600 artists–including contingents from Japan and Great Britain–will participate, bringing an anticipated 20,000 people to Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Ukrainian Village over a four-day period.

Fifty-five buildings will be filled with paintings, sculptures, photography, experimental films, computer art, animation presentations, and poetry readings. Twenty-five theatrical presentations, including plays in Spanish and Polish, are scheduled to take place in five different buildings. All the events are free.

The greatest concentration of artists, some 150 of them, will be based in three large buildings, the cornerstones of the artistic community in Wicker Park: the Flat Iron Building, the Paulina Arts Center, and the Ludwig Drum Factory building.

Other work is housed in raw spaces the artists have had to prepare for the show. Many have had to mop floors, paint walls, and hang up tarps in order to display their work or perform. Neighborhood cafes and jazz clubs will also lend wall space and dining areas for performances.

To help visitors find their way through this jungle of creativity, there’s a printed directory as well as paw prints painted on the sidewalk to indicate which buildings are participating. This increased attention to detail may help offset the possibility of stragglers wandering into private apartments and work spaces, as happened last year. With the recession and the closure of many galleries throughout the city, especially in the formerly strong River North gallery district, some artists believe ATC has the perfect way to fill in the gap, to show both neophytes and discovered professionals. But ATC is experiencing some growing pains.

Other artists feel their work is becoming less important as the festival’s popularity increases. They believe ATC’s future needs to be wrested from a bureaucracy more concerned with boosting local businesses than with bringing in collectors and other art buyers. They fear the entertainment and overwhelming crowds will send the wrong message to serious buyers and collectors who may perceive the festival as a showcase for beginners and not serious artists.

One Wicker Park artist who prefers to remain anonymous says that ATC is just a lot of hype, that the artists are carried away “by the excitement and atmosphere,” but that there’s no evidence that any important dealers show up: “Artists expect a curator to come through and make them famous. Yes, a lot of people will come through, but who those people are is questionable.”

Happy-Delpech, on the other hand, says “Many artists will look for exposure, many will find galleries to exhibit in. We try to give them contacts. Those artists that complain can afford to complain, they have shows at the Art Institute or other galleries. Some don’t want to be mixed with other artists. We have very good, good, and sort of good artists; we don’t judge. Older artists forget that younger artists need them.

“We have done more work this year to attract collectors,” he continues. “We’ve contacted corporations, and some people from the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Institute are on our advisory board. They made suggestions to us, like which collectors to target.”

Fitz Gerald, an experimental filmmaker and director of events for ATC, says “The artists will always come first–it’s written in our bylaws. I think those that are complaining feel above it. I don’t feel above it.”

There is a lot to be said for ATC from the standpoint of the artist. Unlike other Chicago art fairs, ATC doesn’t regulate the size, subject, or category of its participants’ work. Nor is the selection of artists juried. And artists pay only a $10 entry fee instead of the hundreds of dollars some fairs charge for a booth. Also, unlike galleries, which usually take a 50 percent cut of any sale, ATC lets the artists keep all of the proceeds of any sales they make during the festival.

(ATC’s expenses, mostly printing and advertising, are covered by donations. This year, thanks to grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Playboy Foundation, the city of Chicago, and Cole Taylor Bank, the festival was able to operate in the black for the first time.)

But there’s no question that artists aren’t the only ones profiting from the festival. Local businesses and developers, many strong supporters of the event, are also capitalizing on it. But, says Wes Andrews, who owns the Flat Iron Building and the Tower Building, both at the intersection of Damen, North, and Milwaukee avenues, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact Andrews insists that his artist tenants participate in the festival whether they’re inclined to or not. “I sent them a letter before Coyote, telling them to participate. If they don’t want to participate, they should come and talk to me,” Andrews says.

“Why? Because if you’re an artist, your ultimate goal is for people to see your art. There will be 20,000 people looking at your art, and there will be dealers. This is a chance to increase your representation. Artists are entrepreneurs, they’re not hallowed or special people.”

Though participation in ATC is not written into his leases, Andrews admits that it’s not uncommon for him to remind tenants that if they don’t they may have difficulty when it comes time to renew. “I don’t think that’s threatening or intimidating, it’s real life,” he says. “You have to be a serious artist to be in my building, you can’t be a dilettante. I don’t judge, I’m not a curator, but I let artists know what to expect when they come in.

“Yes, I’m a capitalist, but not for the short term,” Andrews goes on. “I’m interested in the long-term value of the community beyond my death. I want a balanced community. . . . The Flat Iron is structured so one-third is dedicated to artists, one-third is dedicated to nonprofit entities, and one-third is dedicated to the market, specifically retail. I see this equation continuing.”

Andrews got involved in the festival in its early stages. “Ten years ago, this area was known for prostitution,” he says. “Now the international art fair that used to be at Navy Pier and is now at McCormick Place has lost some appeal. When you talk to artists about the art scene, that’s the last place they go. Now they come to Coyote. I think Coyote is the most exciting art event in the country. The festival helps make Chicago part of the most powerful art movement in the nation.”

Though enthused by the increasing popularity of ATC, Andrews acknowledges it could become a victim of its own success and cautions organizers against committing what he calls “art greed,” admitting he has committed the sin himself by taking art in place of rent. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it jeopardizes the relationship between tenant and landlord,” he says. “A painting grows in value. It’s their blood, it hurts them to see it go for rent.”

Art greed may be what led to problems between artist Raul Ortiz Bonilla and ATC. Bonilla, a resident of the Flat Iron Building, was asked by organizers to donate a painting for an auction held at 1800 N. Clybourn to raise funds for this year’s festival. Bonilla would get to keep a percentage of the sale; his asking price was $600 and organizers promised the auction would raise at least that much.

When Bonilla arrived at the auction, he discovered his painting had fetched a paltry $150, bought by his landlord Andrews. The bidding started low in order to get the auction going, he was told.

Eventually, Bonilla struck a deal with Andrews, receiving a month’s free rent to help make up the difference from the original asking price.

“I was really upset for a long time, it took too long to get paid,” Bonilla says. “But I think [the organizers] want to smooth over what happened. In the end I got close to what I wanted.”

One reason Bonilla agreed to be in the festival again this year is that he hopes by his example to increase the amount of Latino participation. Last year, he says, out of 400 participating artists, only 7 were Latino.

But there is certainly a contingent of artists who have never participated in ATC or any other art festival. “There is nothing morally deplorable in what Coyote is doing,” says Brian Sikes of Wicker Park. “If people are getting something out of it, more power to them.” But Sikes believes that “artists sign their own eviction notices if they participate in these fests. Gentrification is the important sociopolitical issue for me,” he says. “What happened with the Ludwig Drum Factory building is a classic example.”

(In 1989 developers won a zoning change from the city and converted the old drum factory from industrial space into condominiums. In response to an antigentrification movement in the community the city ruled last year that further rezoning from industrial to residential would not be allowed in the area.)

Sikes also has professional reasons for not participating in art festivals. “I could never see what was to gain from it. There would be no sales. I never thought I could make my living off of my work so I always made sure I had my financial bases covered through other work.” (Sikes teaches at the Art Institute.)

“The kind of work I do is quite large, often 8 feet by 14 feet. The drawings I do on paper take me four to five months to complete. Just to frame it would cost me $750, and we’re not even talking about the cost of the work. I’ve not done any studies, but I think there is a certain price range you’re not going to have success with [at art fairs].”

Before moving to Wicker Park ten years ago, Sikes was a student at the Art Institute and lived in Pilsen. He didn’t participate in that community’s art fair either, though the 22-year-old Pilsen Open House has managed to remain unspoiled by live performance, film, or other media that some might think could degrade it as an art festival.

Another Wicker Park artist, Bertha Husband, participated in ATC last year but didn’t make any sales. She refused to participate this year, though she says her reasons don’t have anything to do with commerce. “I have no objection to exhibiting in a gallery, but I don’t like people wandering through my studio. Last year, people wandered through all weekend, but there was no real dialogue. It’s an intrusion I can do without.”

Laura Weathered will not participate again for similar reasons. She believes ATC has created a carnival atmosphere in which artists are just a sideshow. “The first year, artists were mostly discovering each other, there was a lot of artistic sharing,” she says. “One woman came in with her daughter and both she and the child asked me all kinds of questions. It was the most revealing conversations I had about my work.

“Last year, there was not a comfortable relationship with 2,500 bodies walking through. People came in and ground their cigarette butts in my carpet. There were a lot of questions about me and my life-style, not about me as an artist.

“One retail designer said she liked what I was doing with my windows and wondered if I could make the same thing 100 times. . . . About 60 percent of the questions were about decorating and how much I pay for rent, not about my art,” she says. “I did great in sales, I sold four paintings. But I was aggravated by those types of questions. I felt very vulnerable. I felt like a monkey in a zoo.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.