Art Letter


Chicago Life #3
Last September I started a website to promote art in Chicago and to give art enthusiasts a forum in which to express themselves; www.artletter.com. Like so many times in my life, as I throw a lot of ideas at the wall and climb up on those that stick, I end up in places I never thought I'd be. I love the process. I begin something without a vast plan, people respond and my course is altered.

Here I am again. I rather figured the forum on the artletter.com would get contributions from art collectors, administrators and artists.  As far as I can tell (people can log in and contribute anonymously) almost all the contributions have been from artists.  I know from comments made to me personally and from emails that a much broader spectrum of art fans read than contribute.

There are quite a number of subplots that have developed, from artists getting together to talk in person to those who use the site to plot their evening's activity.

What impresses me most is that we are rapidly moving in the direction of creating a new art museum that will exist to serve, nurture and embrace the broad spectrum of artistic talent that exists in Chicago.

I didn't generate this idea. It came from two of Chicago's most significant artists, Wesley Kimler and Tony Fitzpatrick.  They are smart, successful and clearly care a lot about the community in which they live and work. Many artists chose an insular existence, guard whatever recognition they garner, create in a vacuum, venture out rarely and though they contribute aesthetically, do not make a tangible difference where they live. Not so with Tony and Wesley. As much time as they dedicate to their art they take time to participate, knowing, among other things, that raising the level for all raises it for them too.

And then there's the sad story of Ed Paschke's death; sad because he died and sad because he was an artist with a thoroughly international reputation who lived in Chicago his whole life and in dying it became obvious that the local museums, the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art, considered him nothing more than a local artist. We all loved Ed because he always had time for us, whoever we were. He made us feel like we mattered.  He was a wonderful man.

My good friend Tony Fitzpatrick - a Chicago artist if there ever was one - contributed some ideas for this article.  He wrote:

When the news crews went out searching for a Paschke painting to film -- neither the Art Institute nor the MCA had one hanging. This underlined the fact of the mission of both of those institutions; and that mission is not to showcase art that is made in Chicago.

There is a rich history here and it seems that nobody is really paying much attention to it. Chicago is a necessary city-- it anchors the Midwest and the Great Plains states and its aesthetic is markedly different than that of either coast. Chicago as an art community has always gone its own way-- paying attention to neither trend or fashion-- this city's aesthetic is stubbornly it's own. This is a big city comprised of individuals; and a great many of the artists who have lived here, chose this city specifically because of its indifference to fashion or trends or 'movements.' In the late 60's and early 70's when New York was still chewing on Pop art idioms; Chicago was blazing a trail gleaned from 'low art' figuration and a comic-book vernacular that came to be known as 'Imagism'. There was nothing like it anywhere else in American art. It was our own. And for about 100 years before this -- we did it our own way.

We need a museum here that deals with what's here, that addresses not only the past, but the present and the future as well, that embraces our history and nurtures our future, that appreciates the artists who have paved the way and still contribute that opens doors for the next generation of artists, that gives our many fine art schools' students a reason to stay after graduation and that taps into the breadth of non-visual art, music and theater that we are so damned proud of.

Too many of our city's self-appointed, self-impressed art community leaders are narrow-minded apologists who can't see the rich turf between their toes, but instead think its greener elsewhere.

These people can't see because they don't look.  How is it that some of Chicago's "best" collectors have never set foot in a Chicago gallery yet sit on the board of a museum pretending to be relevant?

It is time for change. It is inexorable.  It is coming to a town you love - even if you won't admit it.

The demise of the Chicago Art Fairs is not irrelevant. It was good for a decade.  And then it collapsed under its own stagnating weight.   It could have grown and it didn't.  It didn't nurture its own and newer, better versions arose somewhere else to fill the void. But like Chicago after The Great Fire when what arose was better than what was, it is time for a vibrant, full-fledged, multi-disciplinary, noncommercial museum that is about the artists, the musicians, the people and not the money, the glory, the benefactors and their interest in self-aggrandizement.

I got input from Wesley Kimler too - a powerful and brave painter whose spins ideas faster than a spewing Gatlin gun. 

We need to reenergize. We need to metamorphize the lesson of the fairs into the idea of a truly contemporary museum - an attempt at infrastructure -with not only a physical presence but a base in cyberspace as well, that the museum will try as no museum has previously done, to be truly interdisciplinary in its approach, fostering the infrastructure that is all that is really lacking for Chicago to be a leading metropolis on the international stage for all of the arts. We want a cyberspace devoted to theatre, music, and visual arts - more of a museum/cybermagazine promoting what is curated and what is noteworthy.  We want to mix the arts and stir it up!

For example, I have spent an evening in Wesley's gritty studio, sitting on the dirty floor with multi-pierced art students, BMW pilots and the former president of the board of one of those museums I was chastising, listening to Nick Tremilus and Billy Corgan play music less than 10 feet in front of me.  It was Corgan who said "this is a new song. I finished it on the way over here."

Isn't this what the art experience should be about?

Chicago is a city of possibility.  It rewards those who make the effort. Half a century ago Nelson Algren wrote about how this is a city you can love and you can hate, but don't expect it to love you back.  It is a real city with little or no pretense. It is more American than most. It has texture and it has depth and it has great art, music, theater, poetry and gristle and soon it's not going to be such a secret.

A century ago Daniel Burnham threw down the gauntlet.  It is time again to pick it up. It is time to alter the landscape, time for the art that is shown to be an extension of those who make it, time for the community to have a voice, time for art to be relevant, and time to look at the influences of, and upon, art today. It is time for a museum to acknowledge and examine its roots, to know, show, grow and make history, to play well with its neighbors and to celebrate the diversity and talent that is, has been, and will be Chicago.


Paul Klein wants your ideas. This isn't about him.  It's about people - all people, and artists, and musicians and poets and actors.  It's about art in all its glorious forms. Your input is invited. So is your participation.  You can write Paul Klein (paul@artletter.com) and he will see that your ideas are heard.