By Elliot J. Reichert
The hum of heavy machinery and the roar of trucks are familiar sounds in the West Loop. For decades, the many expansive brick-and-iron structures here were home to the butchers and fishmongers that fed the Midwest. These days, there are more cement trucks and cranes than anything else. What was once a bustling meatpacking and manufacturing district has become a playground for the young and trendy who live and dine in the hollowed-out shells of American urban industry.
Lately, I’ve had dwindling reasons to visit the West Loop. After the Taxi Cab galleries—Western Exhibitions, Document, Volume and Paris London Hong Kong—moved out of their eponymous space and into a custom-remodeled facility in Ukrainian Village, the number of commercial galleries in the neighborhood shrunk by half. Now that Rhona Hoffman has departed to take a storefront at that complex at 1709 West Chicago, only Kavi Gupta, Andrew Rafacz, Carrie Secrist and McCormick remain. Aspect/Ratio left the lofts that once housed Threewalls sometime last year. They are now in Ukrainian Village too, making that neighborhood the burgeoning hub of Chicago’s commercial gallery scene, counting too that Corbett vs. Dempsey has long been in the neighborhood and the young Efrain Lopez gallery is just down the street. The move marks a strange turn for the arts, which have tended to gentrify outward toward cheaper, industrial spaces further flung from the city core. Of course, that’s how the West Loop happened in the first place, after galleries fled from rising rents in River North.
This month, one of the last West Loop holdouts will vacate the neighborhood. The Chicago Artists Coalition will open a new chapter in its forty-four-year history with a move to a new space in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor. The move calls for a look back on the long history of the organization and its role in supporting Chicago artists over the decades, a story that parallels the city’s artistic growth over those same years. How does a nonprofit arts organization survive in Chicago for nearly half a century? By constantly adapting to the changing needs of artists and the cultural conditions of the city.
When the Chicago Artists Coalition was founded in 1974, the arts were in dire straits locally: There was no Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Chicago did not have a cultural plan, and public art was limited to nineteenth-century monuments that reflected the white supremacist narratives of a bygone era of manifest destiny. In fact, the Chicago Artists Coalition had a major role in lobbying for the creation of DCASE, which was established two years after the CAC as the “Chicago Council of Fine Arts.” The CAC’s lobbying for the “Percent for Art Ordinance” achieved a legislative victory in 1978, requiring that 1.33 percent of the budget for construction or major renovation of a city-owned or city-financed structure be spent on commissioned art. In the spirit of the seventies, much of the early activities of the CAC involved marching on Springfield and letter-writing campaigns. These artists-cum-activists organized around issues like affordable healthcare, diversity and inclusion, and censorship in the arts—issues that, for better or for worse, resonate today.
Among the CAC’s earliest accomplishments was the creation of a long-running newsletter. What began as a forum for the organization’s internal affairs grew to include exhibition listings, job postings, art news and reviews, and long-form essays on cultural and political topics. Combing through its archives, the paper reads like a living history of Chicago’s cultural evolution. In the seventies, the members were concerned with opportunities to show work and make a living as artists. They organized around healthcare, eventually establishing a plan for members to attain affordable group coverage. Robert Dilworth, then a young graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, published “The Black Visual Artist in Chicago,” a semi-autobiographical manifesto on the changing fortunes of African-American artists. In a prescient foretaste of Theaster Gates and Kerry James Marshall, Dilworth wrote: “We must keep in mind that it is not the black image itself that is wrong but the position within the Chicago art hierarchy of this group of artists that makes the black image unacceptable.”
In the eighties, the newsletter featured criticism of Ronald Reagan and statements on the burgeoning Chicago Cultural Plan by Michael Dorf, the one-time director of projects and planning at the Department of Cultural Affairs. Another essay on multiculturalism considered how the AIDS crisis transformed a generation of artists into activists and predicts that “the question of who holds the power in the art world will become crucial.” The political slant of the organization was not without its detractors—a published letter from one Frank Mannarino states “For you, ‘all art is political,’ and I suppose all politics, art. I disagree. For me, insofar as it is political, it cannot be art. By mixing politics with art, you do justice to neither.” As late as 2009, the newsletter lists over a dozen essential services to members, including the aforementioned healthcare, an online job database, a credit union and an emergency fund.
That year, a lot changed for the Chicago Artists Coalition. Carolina Jayaram was appointed executive director and commenced a much-needed overhaul of an organization that had, in the words of one source, become a club for “Sunday painters” who were not serious about art. Hiring Cortney Lederer as her director of exhibitions, Jayaram went forward with redeveloping the CAC’s program and public image. As Lederer described it, “the IRS was knocking on the door and there were no working computers” at the time of her hire in 2011. Against strong resistance, Jayaram shut down the newsletter and consolidated the organization’s services to rescue it from financial ruin. Soon after, she negotiated a lease in the West Loop on the first floor of the former Flatfile Gallery. Its director Susan Aurinko, who remains on the CAC board of directors, offered the space as an opportunity for the organization to grow and change course. Jayaram and Lederer seized the chance, going into the basement of the new space shortly after the move and taping out studio spaces on the concrete floor. As the traditional co-op gallery continued to run upstairs, Lederer developed BOLT, the studio residency that continues to be one of the organization’s touchstones. Without access to grants, the CAC felt forced to charge artists for their participation, a decision that riled many. Jayaram insisted that, funding or not, artists needed to put a financial stake in their studio spaces in order to cultivate their agency in the program.
Lederer worked closely with the early cohorts to design a residency around artists’ needs. The studios were open-plan to save space and foster community. The first-floor gallery was divided into a smaller gallery for solo shows and a larger space for group shows. Eventually, the co-op gallery became HATCH, a yearlong curatorial mentoring program during which four resident curators work with twenty-four guest artists. Once a month, the programs host potlucks to discuss pressing issues or provide critiques. Professional development workshops grew from these conversations, a program that is now under FIELD/WORK, which is open to the public and which current residents attend for free. All three of these core initiatives remain in place, a longevity that Lederer attributes to their being fundamentally artist-centric. And, although Lederer departed from the Chicago Artists Coalition in 2014 to pursue independent arts consulting, she continues to refer to the CAC team as “we,” a testament to the strength of the relationships fostered within the organization.
Under Jayaram’s leadership, the CAC hosted its first annual fundraiser, called “Starving Artist”—later changed to the more tasteful title “Work In Progress.” It negotiated the acquisition of the Chicago Artists Resource website from the city of Chicago, a site that hosts job listings in the arts as well as exhibition announcements, professional development resources, and a “spacefinder” page for artists seeking studios and other creative facilities. In some ways, the CAR takeover recouped some of what the CAC had let go by ending the newsletter. In 2012, the Andy Warhol Foundation gave the CAC its first major grant, buoying the BOLT Residency at a crucial moment in its early years. After Jayaram left to head up the Chicago-based United States Artists in 2014, Caroline Older came from the Chicago Humanities Festival to lead the organization.
Older considered the very real possibility of a move as soon as she took the helm. Thanks in no small part to the success of the artistic community in the neighborhood, warehouses were being converted into loft apartments and meatpacking facilities into high-end restaurants. This was four years ago, and the West Loop still looked like the commercial-industrial zone it once was. Aurinko and her partner, who still lived above the exhibition spaces in their private apartment, were preparing to sell the property. As Older began to look for new spaces outside of the West Loop, the CAC extended its lease twice to accommodate the complex process of moving an arts nonprofit.
Older makes the move sound simple, but it was everything but. Nonprofits are not like private corporations—they run on low reserves and rely on constant donations and grants to keep going. If something as monumental as a move needs to happen, it takes years of feasibility studies, a capital campaign and sign-offs from the board of directors all along the way. Fortunately, Older had Jeffrey Shapack, a West Loop real estate developer, on the board of the CAC. Together with a broker and Teresa Silva, their director of exhibitions and residencies, they looked at forty properties in three neighborhoods over three grueling days. They also got help from the MacArthur Arts and Culture Loan Fund, a unique support structure that provides smaller arts organizations with short-term loans to mend cash flow shortages. The borrowers undergo days of training to prepare for the loan application, and MacArthur steps in as the guarantor. The CAC is using the loan to pay for operations while their reserves pay for the move and buildout. It’s a delicately choreographed dance, but it is not Older’s first. In her tenure as the director of development at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, Older completed a capital campaign and a move to a new building. She also battled it out with budget-slashing politicians when she was executive director of Michigan’s Grand Rapids Arts Council during the 2008 recession. “Life is not linear, but stay true to your passions,” Older advises. In many ways, it seems her experiences have prepared her precisely for this moment.
The new space—in an area that one board member calls “Fulton Market West”—is 6,700 square feet in a building with many more units to spare in case the CAC wants to expand later. Technically, that means the organization is scaling down from its current footprint, but Older justifies the smaller size by pointing to the custom buildout, which offers more efficient use and a dedicated space for educational programs. And, for the first time, the CAC will have ADA-accessible galleries. In a light industrial-zoned area full of warehouses, the Kinzie Industrial Corridor “reminds me of what the West Loop must have been like when the CAC first came here,” says Older. She points out that there was no Morgan stop when the CAC opened in the West Loop and that, in 2020, the Damen Green Line stop will open two blocks from the new space. “We know that the arts often lead the way in developing a neighborhood and making it more interesting. What made the West Loop exciting to people was having arts organizations here.”
Older describes the transition as seamless and notes that no artists will be displaced. Current studio residents were already scheduled to move out at the end of June. The final exhibitions in the West Loop facility will close on June 23, and the first exhibitions in the new space will open only six days later. The CAC has always maintained a grueling exhibition schedule, but that, too, will thankfully change. As the group moves to eliminate all artist fees, they will also reduce the number of residents and extend the length of each show. This amendment, according to Older, is about longevity and getting “the right people, the people the artist needs in front of their work, to see the show.” As a critic who rarely covers these exhibitions precisely for how quickly they come down, this is reassuring news. The CAC often exhibits work by some of Chicago’s most promising emerging artists, and they more than others need the press coverage. Most importantly, knowing that they will no longer have to pay to be residents is, as Lederer puts it, “a dream come true.”
Speaking with her in her basement studio at the current Carpenter street space, painter and current BOLT resident Jean Alexander Frater tells me she’s no stranger to being kicked out of the neighborhood. Her previous studio had been at the same building on Peoria that formerly housed Threewalls and Aspect/Ratio, a complex that is now all condos. “The building sold and the application for CAC came up. It was perfect. I had always wanted to apply to the BOLT, but having a studio already, I felt conflicted, especially because you had to pay for it,” says Frater. The artist will move out of her studio when the building changes hands, but her solo exhibition will be the first to mount in the new space. “I am holding onto this neighborhood,” she says. “It’s the end of an era for many.”
For her show, Frater had originally conceived of making architecturally-sensitive, site-specific paintings responding to the conditions of having a studio alongside the gallery that would eventually show her work. Once the move was finalized, Frater took a different direction, painting massive canvases, cutting them into strips, and weaving them over stretchers into large, sagging compositions. Painting in a basement with little natural light has been a major challenge, and she’s grateful that future residents will enjoy natural light in the new space. Despite the lighting, she speaks effusively about having a studio here. “It’s not a residency where you go to this bucolic place to contemplate and get away from life—it is totally embedded in life. You have to work, you have to fit in studio visits, an exhibition, your work, your life. It’s super valuable in every practical sense.” Of her cohort, she has even higher praise, saying “Everyone here is serious but really fun and warm.”
Leaving the Chicago Artists Coalition after hours of interviews and archive-digging, I stood on the Morgan El platform looking westward toward my incoming train. Somewhere in the distance was the Kinzie Industrial Corridor and the new home of the CAC. Scanning down, I noticed banners on the streetlights below that read: “Since 1918: West Central Association Chamber of Commerce.” They looked new, and I had certainly never noticed them in all my years visiting the West Loop. Thinking back, I tried to remember what this neighborhood looked like when I first visited it, but I could no longer picture it. The forces of change are inevitable, but the forms they take are not. If the arts truly lead the way in America’s post-industrial economy, they deserve all the credit—and support—that they need.
The Chicago Artists Coalition “Work In Progress” benefit gala will take place on June 7 at 2130 West Fulton Market. “The Annual,” CAC’s yearly fundraising exhibition, will take place in the fall.
Elliot J. Reichert is a Chicago-based curator, critic, and editor. He is a currently a Hatch Projects Curatorial Resident at the Chicago Artist Coalition and Art Editor of Newcity. Formerly, he was Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. His writing has been published in The Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Newcity.