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Missing: An Authentic Chicago Museum

Chicago as an art community has always gone its own way--paying attention to neither trend nor fashion.


Since starting a Web site to promote art in Chicago and give art enthusiasts a forum in which to express themselves, quite a number of subplots have developed. Artists use artletter.com to talk about the Chicago scene, make plans to get together in person and to plot their evening activities. What impresses me most about the discussions, however, 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, who are smart and successful and clearly care a lot about the community in which they live and work. Many artists choose 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 also take time to participate, knowing, among other things, that raising the level for all raises it for them too.

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. His death made it obvious that the local museums, the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art, merely considered him a local artist. We all loved Ed because he always had time for us, whoever we were, and made us feel like we mattered.

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 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 nor fashion. This is a city composed of individuals, with an aesthetic stubbornly its own. A great many of the artists who have lived here chose this city specifically because of its indifference to fashion, trends and 'movements.' In the late '60s and early '70s, 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 this was the way we'd always done it.

We need a museum 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 of which we are so damned proud.

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, instead thinking it's 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, but then it collapsed under its own stagnating weight. It didn't nurture its own, so newer, better versions arose somewhere else to fill the void. Like Chicago after the Great Fire, when what arose was better than what had been, now is the time for a vibrant, full-fledged, multi-disciplinary, noncommercial museum that is about the artists, the musicians and the people--not the money, the glory, the benefactors or the interest in self-aggrandizement.

I also received input from Wesley Kimler--a powerful and brave painter who spins ideas faster than a spewing Gatlin gun. We need to reenergize. We need to metamorphose 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. This museum will try, as no museum has previously done, to be truly interdisciplinary in its approach, fostering the infrastructure that Chicago lacks to become the leading metropolis for all of the arts. We want to mix the arts and stir it up.

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 just chastising, looking at Wesley's not- yet-dry paintings and listening to Nick Tremulus and Billy Corgan play music less than 10 feet in front of us. Corgan said, "This is a new song. I finished it on the way over here."

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

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 has texture and depth--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 invites your input. You can reach him at paul@artletter.com.

Published: April 01, 2005
Issue: Spring 2005