Chicago Doesn't Need More Famous Artists

(Full disclosure: I have been teaching at DePaul University since 2009. I have no association with its museum or its art department.)

The most notable Chicago art opening this fall isn't at the MCA, the Art Institute, or any of the most cutting-edge West Loop galleries. It's the opening of the new, just under $8 million DePaul University Museum building, consisting of five airy galleries on two floors -- and with a location literally next door to the Fullerton red/brown purple L stop, so that one of the windows on the second floor looks out on the platform, and screens in that space will be rigged to draw in CTA passengers and interact with commuters.

The old DePaul Museum was housed in the university library complex, with two gallery spaces broken up by a hallway, and was all but impossible to find; the new museum now couldn't be more visible to the public, who came in droves the day the show opened. The museum is free and open to the public, as are the various symposia, tours, artist talks, and film festival associated with the show -- details on the museum's website. Interactivity with the public is clearly going to be a hallmark. Part of what makes this opening so interesting is how daring it is in a certain way, opening its hospitality to anyone wandering in off the L, like a museum with presumably an order of magnitude more security. (I spent a few minutes while snacking on my crudite during the opening morbidly calculating how long it would take someone to grab a work of art from the downstairs gallery, bolt, and get on the next train.)

The museum also sincerely attempts to answer the question of what the role of a university museum is in a city like Chicago, which has a rich, varied, and extremely accessible teaching museum ecology. DePaul's president articulates the ethos of the university museum as "encourag[ing] the explorations of ideas in visual form and encourag[ing] new ways of thinking... what a university is all about." It will be interesting to note how popular the exhibits are now that the site is so visible, as DePaul has been doing quietly innovative shows for years.

But even more noteworthy is the format of the opening exhibit for the new space. Chicago Needs More Famous Artists was the working title of the DePaul Museum's ambitiously curated fall exhibition -- riffing off of Don Baum's 1969 exhibition at the MCA entitled Don Baum Says Chicago Needs Famous Artists. The show, ultimately titled Re: Chicago, ends up being something of a who's who list of Chicago artists, a group show focused on the art scene in Chicago for the past century, with most of the usual suspects present, a few surprising additions, and a few surprising big names left out. It's thoughtfully and evenly curated, and it would be a nice exhibit about Chicago artists that I could imagine being shown at any teaching museum in the city. The 40 or so artists range from icons like Henry Darger and Kerry James Marshall to lesser-known artists, especially women who have been overlooked by art history; and the representative works from each artist are just as varied and substantive. Other reviewers have noted the balance of work and mediums.

But Re: Chicago is also -- and here's where the role of the university museum comes back in in a huge way -- a who's who of everyone else in the Chicago art world; the show is curated in a crowdsourced format, where leading figures in the Chicago art scene, from alt-weekly art editors to Art Institute scholars, tastemaking art bloggers to collectors, each chose one artist to be part of the show, under the rubric of a famous Chicago artist or one who should be famous. This focus on both the Chicago artists and everyone else in the scene does a far deeper and richer job of detailing the contours of the art world here; for example, you see just how strong a presence a movement like Imagism has been and continues to be, interpreted through various generations of thinkers here. And you start to get a sense of coherence of the kinds of art the different strata of art-world workers here are drawn to, and, like a great university course, you can actually tease out the beginnings of a phenomenology of Chicago art from the primary documents of selections and explanations on wall labels.

It's not that Chicago needs more famous artists. We have a lot of them, and they often leave for New York when they get successful on a national/international scale (and there are a number of artists who fit this description in the show). Too much energy and worry here is poured into asking how to get them to stay, in my opinion -- the draw of New York will always pull away ambitious art students. Instead, what Chicago needs is more of a famous and overarching art world, where people thinking and writing about and advocating for art are known as various schools and philosophies outside the circles in which they interact. University museums can and to an extent do curate the kind of shows and events that focus on the wider ecosystem of the Chicago art scene, beyond their own institution's icons, which will add depth and definition to the often ambiguous sense of the scene here, one that too often defines itself in contrast to other worlds (representation instead of NYC abstraction, for an easy example). In the meantime, the DePaul Art Museum does a great job of picking a range of heavy-hitting thinkers who can't be ignored if the Chicago art scene is going to come to terms with itself.

"Re: Chicago" runs through March 4, 2012 at 935 W. Fullerton Ave, just east of the Fullerton L stop.