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two chicago galleries
and why they closed

by Victor M. Cassidy

Art is a business. When art galleries go down, there are business reasons for it -- competition, shrinking markets, loss of focus. So it is with two Chicago art world fixtures -- the Phyllis Kind Gallery, which closes this month after 31 years; and the nonprofit Randolph Street Gallery (1979-1998), already gone.

Enter the Imagists
Soon after she opened in 1967, Phyllis Kind began to represent some brash young painters -- Karl Wirsum, Roger Brown, Jim Nutt, Barbara Rossi and others -- who became known as the Chicago Imagists. Ed Paschke, perhaps the most famous Imagist, entered her fold a bit later.

Kind had excellent shows and -- in her heyday here -- sold so much art that she could pay her stars a monthly stipend. After putting the Imagists across in Chicago, she opened her Manhattan gallery (which will survive its parent). The work of Kind's other artists is characterized by its intense, often funky imagery and a quality of outsider-ness. A few Kind artists are completely untrained.

Both in Chicago and New York, Phyllis Kind helped to create the market for naïve and outsider art. But we have so much of this work nowadays that her artists no longer seem distinctive. Among the Chicago Imagists, only Paschke and Wirsum have continued to challenge themselves.

When Kind opened her New York gallery, she moved there and gradually lost interest in Chicago. At first she flew back home for openings, but even that stopped. Neglected by its owner and pressed by competitors, the Chicago operation slipped. When it fell behind in payments to artists, they jumped ship. In 1997 alone, Kind lost Richard Hull, Robert Lostutter, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke and Paul Sierra. Paschke reports that his new dealer does a better job of selling his work.

Chronic Identity Crisis
Several years ago, a man who had served on the Randolph Street Gallery's exhibitions committee in its early days told me that "we'd drink a bottle of whiskey, turn on the slide projector and choose the shows." That explains a lot.

The Randolph Street Gallery was founded as an alternative space to present new art. But it never quite decided what it wanted to do and had wildly uneven exhibitions. Peter Taub, who became director in 1984 and led the gallery for ten years, raised major sums from the National Endowment from the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council and private foundations. Working with a cumbersome group of governing committees, Taub transformed the Randolph Street Gallery into a venue for performance, experimental film and art exhibitions on sociopolitical themes.

The performance and film programs at the Randolph Street Gallery were widely respected, but their audience never grew. According to Jeff Abell, a Chicago performance artist, the scene "remains curiously consistent over the years. The 'regulars' (many now in their 40s) have been attending experimental film screenings and performance-art events for 20 years; supplementing them is a big crowd of constantly changing people who always seem to be about 23 years old."

Having helped to popularize performance art, Randolph Street competed for its audience with larger institutions -- the Museum of Contemporary Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, for example -- which could spread their operating costs over many activities. While the gallery fought this losing battle, public funding for nonprofit spaces dried up.

Meanwhile, both artists and collectors tended to take a dim view of Randolph Street exhibitions. Mostly these were drab, haphazard groupings of fashionably political work made by nonentity artists. During its final crisis, the gallery tried to sell memberships and solicit individual contributions, but Chicago had lost interest.

The Phyllis Kind Gallery is a great loss to Chicago. The Imagist movement, which was so vital for so long, becomes art history now. But the Randolph Street Gallery was problematic from the start and never fulfilled its promise. The taxpayer kept it going long past its time.

VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.