Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.
Frank Lloyd Wright
It's the place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man's endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making it the city of all cities most like Man himself-- loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth.
I am a fisherman of social absurdity, if you will... My focus is to politicize disenfranchisement, to make it neut, to reinvent what's beneath us, to remind us where we all come from.
To speak of Chicago is to speak of a web of contradictions, it is to speak of America, as a nation, its ideology, its incongruous conditions for life and its realities. It is to speak of ambition and failure, of great wealth and poverty - the mafia! Of division along racial and economic lines - North and South; it is to speak of immigration and emigration; it is to think of nature (after all, it's called The Green Metropolis!) as much as it is to think of the built environment, architecture being one of its leading purviews - Mies van Der Rohe's iconic steel structures bookend a modern tradition that seeps through the pours of the city - from its densely clustered central node of the Loop and Streeterville, through to its suburbs. Yet for all of its visceral visuals, Chicago is perhaps unusual among many American cities for its social and civic consciousness.
Before I landed in the city in late autumn of 2015 to take up a curatorial post at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, I had only been to the city twice. Most of my experiences of it were contrived and constructed renderings pieced together through news headlines and popular culture motifs. Chicago was the home of improvised music; the South Side, the Capital of the Mid West; the murder capital of the world; the home of Hillary Clinton, Michelle and Barack Obama; the city of Big Shoulders - the great American city! When I first arrived to the city pre September 11 2001, the now oft retorted American paranoid phrase of 'If you see something, say something!' felt all the more palpable and un-ironic - this was a city divided by fear, or so I understood it to be at the time.
My grand welcome to the city took place in September 2015 at the inauguration of the Stony Island Arts Bank -a project of the Rebuild Foundation - artist Theaster Gates's umbrella organisation for his artistic projects, which often involve urban shifts to his native South Side, which has historically and systematically been violently segregated, bar the enclave of Hyde Park where the University of Chicago rests (and where Gates also happens to be a Professor in Visual Arts and the founder of a cross-disciplinary centre called Arts + Public Life). I arrived to the Arts Bank amidst droves of Chicago celebrities - critics (who I had not known of at the time), senior artists (such as Michael Rakowitz), curators (such as Anne Pasternak, Thelma Golden and Okwui Enwezor), arts patrons (such as Marilyn and Larry Fields, Cari Sacks and Liz Lefkofsky) and politicians, such as Penny Pritzker, Obama's current Secretary of Commerce, whom I spent the evening dining with.
At dinner, I was informed that my role as a curator in Chicago was 'much more than about hanging pretty pictures on a wall' by a fellow reveller, and that I had to 'change civil society; gets kids off the streets; put an end to gun violence'. Lofty as those goals may have sounded - I nodded my head smiling, while I clenched my sweaty napkin wondering if I had gotten too deep into a world far from my very own. Yet, with time, I have come to embrace this sense of civic pride, and to understand its genesis in the city's DNA - its urban fabric. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, Chicago became known for its implementation of the Burnham Plan, a proposal that would open up the entire city to the waterfront - the Great Lake Michigan, and protect park land for public use and enjoyment. What you have one of the largest accessible public beach in North America, a strip of beautiful earth that snakes around the edges of the city from the suburbs of Wilmette, Winnetka and Highland Park, where many an art patron lives, down to the artistic and queer neighbourhoods of Roger's Park and Edgewater (where this author lives), through to downtown and into the South Side of the city.
To be anchored by an open expanse of water creates a context for community amidst the metropolitan jungle - where skyscrapers of condos continue to erupt in light of the growing expense of the metropoles of New York and Los Angeles. Often dubbed the Third Coast, Chicago on the surface of things seems like it could and certainly should be an artist's dream. It has some of the most important arts schools and research universities in the country - the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Illinois (UIC) at Chicago, the University of Chicago, and Columbia College to name only the biggest players. It is expansive like Los Angeles in terms of breadth of space, but it has the amenities of New York City and an advanced public transport system. It is affordable to rent studio space and accommodation; it is cheaper in many neighbourhoods from European artistic counterpoints such as Lisbon or Berlin. It is a city with a commercial gallery scene - albeit a modest one perhaps for the scale of its population - that represents some of the great artists of our time, i.e. Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Shane Campbell Gallery, Corbett Vs. Dempsey, Kavi Gupta and Monique Melouche represent the crème de la crème of Chicago artists from Jessica Stockholder to Judy Ledgerwood, Michael Rakowitz, Leon Golub, William J O Brien, Cheryl Pope, and Deana Lawson alongside figures such as, Sol LeWitt, Albert Oehlen, and Johanna Billing.
Then there are the smaller galleries who have more recently emerged, Patron Gallery who represent the work of the playful sculptor Alex Chitty, Document gallery, who represent Elijah Burgher, the shamanistic Chicago artist whose work appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Outside of the commercial gallery scene is an informal network of artist-run spaces only open on occasion, and sometimes only on weekends; these range from the performance focused Defibrillator gallery to the multi-disciplinary gallery Heaven, to the incredible Iceberg Projects - the brain child of leading HIV researcher and physician Dan Berger - one of the city's most eccentric and iconic collectors, who has built a vast collection of works by African American and Queer-leaning artists.
I have yet to even scratch the surface of the variety of spaces in the city whose influence has shaped the ecology of the city's artistic community: there is Renaissance Society and the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago - which happens to be the second largest encyclopaedic museum in the USA after the Met, Gallery 400 at UIC, the Hyde Park Art Center (a community organization with wildly international ambitions) and more. Chicago is a pulsing and vibrant context - it also has an art fair, Expo Chicago, once known as Art Chicago that boasts an extensive not for profit programme, and then there are the artists - a whole swathe of figures waiting for further investigation and exposure: Zachary Cahill John Neff, Paul Heyer, Tony Lewis, Amanda Williams and Andrew Yang, to name but a few.
Yet for all of this: Chicago remains a city in the news for its violence - for its anxiety. Could it be a city that occasionally suffers from an inferiority complex? Or rather, is it a site that has historically been misunderstood? As the months go by, my predecessor, the curator Dieter Roelstraete returns to the city to hang the largest retrospective of the Chicago-based African American artist Kerry James Marshall, an exhibition that sees how the artist has historically sought to course correct the history of painting since the Renaissance, inserting Black figures methodically into the academic history of painting. Scenes of hope and hopelessness, and interior, blissful domestic life are portrayed. As the weeks go by, I see visitors, many of whom African Americans, sobbing at the site of these large un-stretched canvasses. I turn to my friend, Hannah Feldman, a professor from Northwestern University, who has been my saviour and moral compass in the city since my arrival, she turns to me and resolutely says: We all need to see ourselves be loved!
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