November 20, 2012

Chicago's Midway Art Fair: A model for fostering art communities?


Still in its honeymoon phase, Chicago’s Midway Art Fair (MDW) – a collaborative effort between Public Media Institute (PMI), Document, Roots & Culture, and threewalls – showcases alternative spaces and independent artist-run collaborations. Earlier this month,  Mana Contemporary, hosted MDW in their converted warehouse space, with nearly 75 organizations participating, including 20 publications and a handful of performances. Much of the painting spoke in a highly uniform formal language, with resounding exceptions of Teresa Albor’s performative “100 Paintings in 24 Hours,” which is exactly what it states, as well as Anna Kunz’s “HONK IF YOU LOVE PAINTING,” a public art piece on view at Terrain last winter.

Fun with art. In the background, a few of many Morgan Sims on view at MDW.

Albor at work. In terms of mission of the fair, the most promising ventures were ACRE (Artists' Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) and Terrain, a public exhibition space. ACRE ran a highly-curated booth, but the set-up was inviting and informative. Volunteers were eager to converse with fairgoers while serving coffee and food, and wall text explained the various projects on display. Terrain’s booth was less formal than some of the others, with tables made from OSB and 2 x 4 planks holding relics from and documentation of a variety of past installations. In both instances, the spaces participated as exhibitors with an intent to inform fairgoers, not just show work.

Installation view,  ACRE. 

Nicholas Wylie, co-Director of ACRE, talks about the residency and curatorial programs.


HONK! After the fair, I was able to spend some time at Terrain to chat with Sabina Ott, founder of the project. She was hosting the opening for “Ben Roethlisberger Trade Rumors,” an installation by Ben Fain. An art professor at  Columbia College Chicago, Ott has a vested interest in providing a space for artists – emerging, midcareer, and otherwise – who might not have much exposure. All installations take place in the front yard of her private home, sometimes spilling onto the porch, facilitating interaction between an artists' work and the general public. Located  across the street from an elementary school, Ott says the children and parents both enjoy the project. Back in Detroit after my weekend trip to Chicago, a fellow student mentioned they were unsure of what purpose projects like Terrain really serve.

Many students, artists, and educators remain skeptical of the benefits of running an alternative space. As a graduate student set to enter the job market next spring, I think a lot about what I’ll be doing in six months. Projects like ACRE and Terrain are, in so many ways, the future for emerging artists, and I’m reminded of an excerpt from Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells:
The dehierarchising rhetoric of artists whose projects seek to facilitate creativity ends up sounding identical to government cultural policy geared towards the twin mantras of social inclusion and creative cities. Yet artistic practice has an element of critical negation and an ability to sustain contradiction that cannot be reconciled with the quantifiable imperatives of positivist economics. Artists and works of art can operate in a space of antagonism or negation vis-à-vis society, a tension that the ideological discourse of creativity reduces to a unified context and instrumentalizes for more efficacious profiteering.
MDW reminds me of what might be possible in other cities with no major arts community, let alone identity, to speak of. Ten years ago Chicago was struggling and, with the help of organizations like PMI and threewalls, is in the process of becoming an art hub of its own. Despite the fact that the event is classified as an “art fair,” selling work is not its central purpose, and most complaints about this seem to be an issue of semantics. Maybe organizers should drop “fair” from the event name altogether. Even with all the work left to be done – many fairgoers commented on unpainted walls, braided wires hanging from ceilings of most booths, and work shown that seemed homogenous – part of the burden is on the Chicago art scene itself in terms of what work will be shown.

Thus MDW is, in my opinion, off to a compelling start. A huge strength of cities like Chicago and Detroit is that they have the capacity to develop rich artistic identitie, fostering alternative spaces that provide a home for niche communities that allowing artists to take control of their practices – it's the "dehierarchising" that Bishop describes. Events like MDW serve an important purpose for artists who aim to remain, in some capacity, independent from greater art markets in NYC and LA. Learning from and working with each other to create alternative spaces is difficult in places like Chicago and Detroit, especially with few networking opportunities outside of academia. In its current iteration, MDW is a successful jumping off point for Chicago artists to make connections and continue developing a solid community. In the past, Detroit has looked after Chicago for ideas – for instance, a Community-Supported Art (CSA) program was founded in the city last year, a project begun at threewalls. With any luck, events like MDW will soon emerge in Detroit to support the burgeoning alternative arts community.

Note: Images by Ethan Tate and Molly Brandt.

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2 comments:

I was in Chicago last spring and while waiting at a train station I saw promotions for the Art Fair. I love the indi artists are able to promote there stuff through this. Wow some of that Morgan Sims artist paintblows you away. Wish I could have seen it in real life.

Well, you can't compare Chicago or Detroit to NYC.NYC is the art world Mecca of the US. BUT it is naive to imply that the art scene in Chicago, and in other major cities, has not made a mark on art in the US. New Yorkers seem to enjoy treating every other major city as if they are backward. I'm not sure why it has to be an 'us vs. them' type of conversation.

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