The 18-year-old Chicago
alternative space Randolph Street Gallery
(RSG) has suspended all public operations for a period of
three months beginning Jan. 1, 1997. During this time, the
RSG board of directors will look to past and future
supporters, allies, advocates as well as peer organizations
both local and national, for advice and input as to the role
of the organization." This hiatus will help to
"further a process of restructuring and re-focusing that
has already begun," the board states.
Though RSG claims that it
is "not closing" and promises that "a few RSG
sponsored activities will take place," it is highly
unusual for any arts organization to shut down in mid-season.
The gallery is obviously in serious trouble.
RSG was founded in 1979 as
a venue for avant-garde art. In 1984, Peter Taub became
executive director and led RSG through its glory years. Taub
presented numerous exhibitions on sociopolitical themes like
race, gender, and housing. He made RSG a leading venue for
performance art. He was an excellent grant writer who raised
large sums from the National Endowment for the Arts, the
Illinois Arts Council, and private foundations.
The RSGs current woes
are due in part to a general drop in arts funding. Scared off
by the Mapplethorpe/Serrano scandals of the late 80s,
corporations and foundations began to emphasize
noncontroversial exhibitions. With the across-the-board cuts
in social services, charitable funding increasingly went to
non-art causes such as medical research and education.
At the same time, larger
Chicago art institutions started to compete with RSG. The
School of the Art Institute of Chicago began to present art
shows with a sociopolitical slant, and the Museum of
Contemporary Art (MCA) created a special space for
performance art in its new building. The final blow came a
year ago, when RSG director Taub left to head up the MCA's
performance art program.
What will RSG do? Nobody
knows, but it must find a new reason for being. Its very
success has been its undoing. Larger organizations, with more
fundraising and publicity muscle, have assumed its functions.
A second leading Chicago
alternative space, N.A.M.E. Gallery,
is also in financial trouble and will probably close before
the end of 1997--maybe much sooner. This nonprofit artist-run
space was founded in 1973 by six young graduates of the
School of the Art Institute who found themselves, and the art
they admired, shut out of Chicago's commercial galleries. For
about a decade, N.A.M.E. had distinguished exhibitions and
events. Many artists who showed first at N.A.M.E.--Donald
Sultan is one of them--went on to national prominence.
N.A.M.E. began to slip in
the mid-80s due to poor leadership. Supported largely by
taxpayer funds, it soldiered on for years but lost direction.
Currently it occupies 4,000 square feet in a warehouse south
of Chicago's Loop. When ArtNet telephoned N.A.M.E. in mid-January
during business hours, there was no response, only a recorded
announcement for a group show that had just closed. ArtNet's
were not returned.
problem is money. Bills have not been paid for months and
nobody knows what the gallery's debts are because statements
from creditors were discarded as soon as they came in.
Meanwhile, N.A.M.E. can be sure of one thing---government
grants will be much smaller this year if they materialize at
Chicago will be a duller
place if Randolph Street Gallery and N.A.M.E. Gallery close.
But we must ask whether they weren't kept alive long beyond
their time by the nation's taxpayers.
VICTOR CASSIDY is an
art journalist based in Chicago.