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Prairie Smoke
by Victor M. Cassidy
  Mr. Miller Kicks against the Pricks
Every May, art galleries from all over the world come to Navy Pier for the five-day orgy of commerce known as Art Chicago. Chicago dealers want to be in the fair, but there's not enough room for all of them. Some end up on a waiting list and dangle for weeks before the bad news comes.

This happened in April to Peter Miller, a dealer who had been in Art Chicago before. He took his case to the press, which ran a sympathetic story along with a photograph of Miller looking indignant.

Since Miller is known for his biliousness, few tears were shed for him. But we began to wonder whether Chicago dealers really need Art Chicago. Since they're in town anyway, why spend thousands for a booth, insurance, mover, temporary help and the like? Why not stay open longer hours and wait for buyers to appear?

That wouldn't be very smart, says Roy Boyd, who's had a booth at every single expo since the show began 20 years ago. "Most Chicago collectors know two or three galleries and do all their buying there," he explains. "When they come to the pier, they visit those dealers, look around and make discoveries. It's really good to be in the show, because you build your local reputation and trade.

"I bring one or two pieces by each of my artists to the Pier," Boyd continues. "If people show interest, I invite them to my gallery. I always sell more at the gallery than at the booth."

Paul Klein of Klein Art Works sells twice as much at his gallery as at his booth, but says that they are separate worlds. "I don't see the same people in both places," he states. "Many collectors call me in April, say they're coming in for the show and make an appointment."

Klein does many resales and Art Chicago helps him strengthen relationships he's built up with other dealers. "Mostly I renew connections at the Pier," he states. "Now and then I make a new one." According to Boyd, "You only build connections at the fair if you go after them."

Four hundred dealers applied for 210 spaces at Art Chicago 1999. "Since the Fair began, we've had an international committee to decide who gets in," says Ilana Vardy, show director. "The committee picks a first tier of dealers who are assured a place. Then it chooses a waiting list and ranks everyone on it. As dealers cancel, we draw from the waiting list, making some decisions as late as April.

"Forty-four new dealers participated in Art Chicago this year," she continues. "But we're an international art fair, so we simply cannot accommodate every Chicago dealer who wants in. Every year, it becomes a little more competitive for them."

Both Klein and Boyd think young dealers should risk disappointment and apply for a booth. "Show management does an exemplary job," Klein states, "I cannot imagine anyone doing better." Says Boyd: "If I quit going, my artists would hate me and I'd never know what I had missed."

MCP Comes Back
On March 7, 1999, a workman using a blowtorch inadvertently started a fire at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography. By the time the blaze was out, staff offices had suffered major damage, several works in a temporary exhibition were harmed, and soot got into the vault where the museum stores its permanent collection of 6,000 prints.

"We had a disaster plan in place that we followed very closely," says a museum spokeswoman. "That helped us minimize the losses and come back fast. Still, we were very lucky."

The Museum found temporary staff offices, got a show up in time for its scheduled April 15 opening, and moved its collections off site. Then it renovated its main gallery and rebuilt the offices.

That was the easy part. "We're only beginning to work with the conservators," a staff member states. "Every single photograph must be examined for damage and conserved as the artists want. There are only five qualified conservators in town. Since each can only work on a few pieces at a time, it will take years before all the damage is completely repaired."

Taking Discomfort to the Next Level
When Joel Lieb, a Chicago painter, opened his Ten in One Gallery in a storefront about ten years ago, he showed art in the front half of the space and put his studio at the back. Since he intended to return to painting very soon, he left his brushes standing in liquid. After a year, they were completely ruined.

"Four of us, all artists, opened galleries at about the same time to react against no-risk shows," says Lieb. "We didn't expect to sell or make money." The four dealers -- Lieb, Richard Kelly (Tough Gallery), Ned Schwartz (Beret International) and Chris Murray (MWMWM Gallery) -- became known as the Uncomfortable Spaces. Critics liked their shows of funky, non-commercial work by young artists and soon the Uncomfortable Spaces had a booth at Art Chicago as well as at hotel fairs in New York and Europe.

About five years ago, MWMWM departed for the East Coast, and is now located in Brooklyn. Tough Gallery, which made a strong reputation for its shows of installation art, closed last winter, a victim of burnout. Still open, Beret International is a "labor of love," says Schwartz, whose landlord just jacked up the rent.

Lieb, the survivor, moves to 508 West 26th Street in Manhattan this summer. He's making a little money now, he says, and has decided to be a full-time art dealer. "The marketplace for art in Chicago is overwhelmingly driven by Chicago collectors," he states. "New York has a larger collector base -- people come there from all over. I've done all I can do in Chicago. Moving to New York will take this gallery to the next level."

Rowe-Shields Rows On
Michele Rowe-Shields, executive director of the Evanston Art Center, has resigned to become executive director of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Evanston Art Center, located in the prosperous suburb that adjoins Chicago's northern border, is the oldest, largest and probably the best community art center in Illinois. During her eight years as its director, Rowe-Shields has increased the operating budget by 50 percent, doubled membership to 1,600 and greatly strengthened the center's art curriculum.

Most of all, Rowe-Shields has organized and curated more than 80 exhibitions by established and emerging artists from Chicago and the Midwest. Month after month, she has consistently put on better shows than many venues with grander pretensions and much larger budgets. We salute and thank her. She will be a very tough act to follow.

Hot Flashes
The best show we've seen this month is "Walking (Ink) Meditation Part II: Streams and Rivers," an installation with a book by Leslie Eliet at Fassbender Gallery. This Asian-styled book -- many sheets side by side all connected together and hung around the walls of two smallish gallery spaces -- is intended for installation in a Zen Buddhist temple, the artist says. Executed in ink, water, collage, color Xerox and etching on paper, it comprises abstract imagery that refers to the four seasons.

Another winner is "Longings in the Night," color photographs by Patty Carroll at Carol Ehlers Gallery. After a long hiatus during which she photographed Elvis Presley impersonators -- and even published a deck of Elvis impersonator cards -- Carroll has returned to making nighttime photographs of nightclubs, shops and motels in Florida, Las Vegas, Japan and other places. It's nice to have her back! The new work is very well conceived and executed.

The late John Colt (1925-1999), a Wisconsin artist, has a memorial exhibition of his work at Perimeter Gallery. This group of watercolors is the best work we have seen from Colt, whom we have been following for years. He is a great artist and will be missed.

Anyone who admires Graciela Iturbide, the Mexican photographer, should see "Images of the Spirit," a traveling retrospective at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. All of Iturbide's best-known images are here, along with many we've never seen before.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY is Artnet Magazine's Chicago correspondent.