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A Great Place to Be From

New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl says Chicago's a "receptor city."

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New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, in town last week to lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art, didn't waste any time putting us rubes in our place. "Chicago's a great place to be from," he said. "It's a place that has always sent talented artists and creative types out—a net exporter of talent." Schjeldahl, who considers himself a New Yorker but admits to being a refugee from small-town Minnesota (rube central, for what it's worth), describes our little burg as a kind of bin by the lake. "It's a great place to be, if you have a particular reason," he said, "and a great place to visit. But I would call it one of the great receptor cities of the world."

In the Schjeldahlian universe, Chicago is "a place where you can get a perspective on the rest of the world"—sort of like a beach in the Bahamas, and about as influential. New York, on the other hand, is one of very few "transmitter" cities. The transmitters, he said, are New York and LA, London and Berlin. Paris, where he headed as a college dropout in the 60s? "Not," he said. "You go to Paris to be happy, which, as any creative person knows, is beside the point." Chicago, as an art scene, is "receptor driven, collector driven," Schjeldahl said. As if to prove both points, he added that he'd recently attended an 80th birthday party for Chicago collector Lou Manilow—at the Pegasus Room at Rockefeller Center.

Schjeldahl was supposed to be talking about the history of art over the last 40 years but confessed that he couldn't get far from the starting gate, the momentous years of 1967-'68. The MCA's founding in '67 was part of a huge shift in how contemporary art figured in American culture, he said. It marked the end of modernism and the avant-garde as they'd been understood to that point, and of private galleries as the nerve centers of contemporary art. The founding of places like the MCA brought institutionalism, professionalism, and academicism to something that had been "wild and woolly," while the prestige of specific art objects, like paintings, took a dive. Since then, the institutions have been more "consequential" than any of the art shown in them, and have, in fact, generated that art, giving artists an alternative to the commercial scene (which, in the late 60s, was "in such bad odor") and spawning the likes of conceptualism and installation art. Art was created for the spaces available to show it; the public existed to be educated.

In recent years that institutional structure has been countered by "great heaps of money" in the commercial sector, which has gone off on its own track, giving rise to international art fairs that rival the institutional biennials. "Money's desire is always simple: give me things to buy," Schjeldahl observed. Ergo the decline of installation art and the return of paintings and sculptures. But there's insanity in the market now, he added. The price of art, in the end, is only a reflection of the general psyche. "When [people] feel bad the market collapses. When they feel good the market soars." There's been "a wobble in the auctions" lately, he continued—the incredible prices of recent years "can't go on."

Schjeldahl, who calls himself an "accidental" critic, is also a published poet. He advised art students not to whine, but shared his problem at the New Yorker: "They have more critics than they have pages." He also noted that the major product coming out of art schools now is artists' statements, that art history is slide study, and that there are just two options for American artists—a career of selling or a career of setting up video installations in museums. He opined that Jeff Koons at his best is as good as there's been in the last 20 years, that Damien Hirst is cynical and smart, and that dealer Leo Castelli was a good and honest man. A week earlier, at Archeworks, designer Bruce Mau called for an end to the tyranny of visual fashion, but Schjeldahl said fashion is a necessity: "Without it," he observed, "everybody would need to know everything about everything all the time." Here, in a receptor city, that could be especially tough.

Meanwhile in New York

And what of our little receptor-city theater companies, struggling for recognition in the Big Bad Apple? Writers' Theatre, which opened its five-week off-Broadway run of Crime and Punishment to enthusiastic reviews just days before Broadway's stagehands went on strike, is breaking box office records for the 99-seat house it's playing, part of the theater complex 59E59. Executive director Kate Lipuma says the demand created by the strike can't have hurt, but it's hard to judge the impact—their shows were already near capacity before the strike was called.

The Hypocrites' production of The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide also opened at 59E59 (in a 45-seat house) just before the strike. Executive director Heather Clark says they can't be sure about the strike's impact either, but they saw a "definite spike in sales" after a positive review in the New York Times November 16. Their show closes December 2.

On the downside, on the night of its scheduled press opening last week, Steppenwolf's August: Osage County, at the 1,400-seat Imperial Theatre, was still on ice. Cast members, who had to sign in at the theater each night to collect their Equity strike pay, were hanging in over the Thanksgiving holiday. Steppenwolf completed 13 preview performances before the walkout, and executive director David Hawkanson says 10,000 people had gone through the house, generating "great buzz." Now the challenge is to keep the interest up. "There's no question this will happen," Hawkanson says. "It's just a matter of when and what the cost will be when it's finished." Steppenwolf has announced a three-week extension that will keep the play in New York through March 9.

Steppenwolf lead Deanna Dunagan, whose previous New York experience was a single performance as an understudy in 1979, says there were rumors of a strike "from the day we walked into the theater." Dunagan says she doesn't think anyone in the show really wanted to come to Broadway, "but we wanted the play to be seen in New York, and we didn't want other people to do it." Now there's talk of taking it to London.

Miscellany

Matt O'Brien, founder and former head of the Irish Repertory Theatre of Chicago, is taking over as executive director and producer at Arlington Heights' Metropolis Performing Arts Centre. Now a city-subsidized nonprofit, Metropolis includes a professional theater season, music and dance programming, and a school. Last year it logged 400 performances and attendance of 75,000 on a budget of $2.5 million.... Former Chicagoan and Late Nite Catechism cocreator and star Maripat Donovan—still in court with cocreator Vicki Quade over the use of the Sister character—is in town for a two-performance one-night stand this Saturday, December 1, at the Center for Performing Arts at Governors State University. The show is her latest creation, Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold.v

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