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trouble in chicago

by Victor Cassidy


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.

N.A.M.E.'s immediate 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 all.

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.