It can't compete with New York's amenities and galleries. But it's trying to offer something else altogether - a true middle class art market.
Chicago is losing its artists, to New York City and Los Angeles and San Francisco. This is admitted, from various members--with varying statures--of the art community, either begrudgingly or with ease, but in the end, is always admitted.
"It's difficult for me to generalize this, because people move for different reasons," explains Jason Foumberg, contributing art editor at Newcity (where I've freelanced in the past) and Chicago magazine's art critic. "The art market here is smaller, so people tend to follow the money if they want to have an art career."
Many art collectors who live in Chicago do the bulk of their buying from New York galleries and from art fairs in Miami. New York's better established peripheral infrastructure attracts artists too. "Take a look at the various types of jobs that artists tend to take: adjunct lecturer at an art school, preparator at a gallery. We have plenty of art schools in Chicago, but the politics and unions tend to make the hiring process very difficult. Preparator jobs, not enough galleries to sustain full-time employment."
Recent BFA and MFA grads also seek work as studio assistants, something else which New York City can provide in greater abundance.
But though the weaknesses of Chicago's art scene are obvious, there are strengths too. Its comparatively cheap rents and abundant factory and warehouse spaces make it an ideal place for a studio, while the lower cost of living frees up money for artistic pursuits. And Chicago's art community is particularly accommodating to experimentation.
"The scene is very collaborative," says Chuck Thurrow, former chairman of the board of the Hyde Park Art Center, one of the city's most public proponent of the visual arts. "You can be experimental. No one is looking over everyone's shoulders."
Meg Duguid agrees. Broadly categorized as a performance artist, Duguid obtained her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and has lived and worked in various locations across the U.S., including New York City. Duguid is a firm believer in Chicago as a place for an artist to flesh out his or her work. "You have a better opportunity of building a richer portfolio," Duguid explains. And there are an abundance of small scale, DIY apartment galleries which allow artists a freedom that may be hard to come by in Gotham.
The trick, she and others say, is creating a unique set of patrons and collectors interested in the bold ideas Chicago artists have to offer. The Hyde Park Art Center is trying to do just that with a program called Not Just Another Pretty Face.
"[Mihaly] Csikszentmihalyi, the great expert on creativity, was living two doors away from the Hyde Park Art Center," Thurrow says. "We'd have lunch regularly, and talk about what I should be doing to foster creativity in Chicago. He very much believed that … the community supporting visual arts had to be a broader, middle class community. It couldn't be just a bunch of super rich guys. So Not Just Another Pretty Face came out of a combination of artists saying 'You need collectors' and this guy saying that unless the arts reach the middle class, they are a failure."
By acting as go-betweens for artists and potential patrons, Not Just Another Pretty Face can streamline and demystify the world of art collection, offering a perfect jumping in point for those who want to live with art. With a sliding payment scale, the idea of commissioning a piece from an artist was made accessible to those who had only thought the art world to be the playground of plutocrats and business czars. Furthermore, artists are paid for their efforts, something which would seem a given in anything but the creative career fields.
"Our mission, as stated, is to stimulate and sustain the visual arts in Chicago," HPAC executive director Kate Lorenz said. "Our goal is to make this a very artist friendly place."
Another way to achieve that is to provide assistance to artists on the verge of becoming established. To this end, the Center and the University of Chicago's Graham School of Continuing Education put together a visual arts certificate program, a 12-month course that provides business acumen and practical, art related knowledge that may have been found wanting in the artist's BFA and MFA programs.
Mike Nourse, HPAC's director of education, believes that Chicago is already turning the tide. Local artists like Theaster Gates and Tony Fitzpatrick have the clout to draw others to the city, he says.
To Nourse, Chicago only must realize its already abundant potential to become a locus point for visual arts. "All the parts are right here," he said. "It's not far away. It is just a matter of some of these dots being connected."
As the internet allows artists from anywhere to show their works to massive audiences, Duguid believes that the "geopolitical inclusion" that is occurring in the art world will only allow Chicago to become that much more of an attractive destination, as well as defuse the geographic biases that serve to divide. "We're just all artists who happen to live in different cities," she said.
Duguid's advice for those wishing to see Chicago hold on to its aesthetic lifeblood is simple and firm: "Stop asking yourself why you're not New York City, and focus on being Chicago."
Top image: People examine "Luminous Field" a sound and video show projected at Cloud Gate, also known as "The Bean" in Millennium Park in Chicago. (Jim Young/Reuters)