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Anonymous Museum

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Prior to the opening of the Anonymous Museum, the board of directors decided to remove all of the art they had set out because they wanted visitors on opening night to visualize all the possibilities of the 8,000-square-foot loft. So last Friday the museum debuted looking unoccupied, ripe for open minds.

There was a table of beer and champagne in one corner, so there could be no doubt this was a bona fide art event in River North. The only other object was a sprawling display: an elegant red cloth draped over shapes resembling tumbled ruins, with cow hooves, mackerel, pomegranates, and an octopus royally laid out on top of it. The role of this one-night stand was to showcase brochures announcing the new museum's mission. It was gone the next day, replaced by art that might not be eternal but at least wouldn't rot.

On opening night no one wore name tags, so no one other than their friends could tell if the directors were in attendance. None of the art will carry name tags either. The directors' names do appear on an NEA grant application, channeled through the alternative N.A.M.E. Gallery. The proposal puts the terms "museum" and "board" in quotation marks, and promises to "be temporary and present anonymous and uncurated works.√ČThus, our museum is the antithesis of what such institutions usually are." Furthermore, the museum "will itself be an ongoing, collaborative work of art."

"It's a critique of the whole art-world process," says one director. "But everyone involved knows it's doomed to fail."

Another director calls it "a critique of the intimidation of the spectator by the institution. You know, like you really don't know enough to experience the art without the museum teaching you."

"Ordinarily you would compare what you're seeing to other work by the artist," says yet another director. "You would evaluate its importance in monetary terms: Who bought it? How much did it go for? Here you have to evaluate the artwork solely on your own." Of course that might not happen. "There's the possibility that artwork cannot be appreciated without these other details. It may be so idealistic that we're fooling ourselves."

The directors held many meetings before opening the museum's doors. Even its name occasioned passionate debate. "Most of the people involved are pretty well known in the local art world," explained one director. "We don't want to lend our names to the project." The board even vetoed an outsider's proposal to photograph it in a nicely anonymous fashion because the resulting portrait might resemble one director's own artistic output.

The point, says another director, is "just trying to get rid of as many rules as possible and seeing what happens." Yet another says, "Part of what's so intriguing about this is how nebulous it is." And another says, "I want to try to make it as incohesive as possible. I'd be disappointed if anyone thought it was what they expected."

What should visitors expect at this anomalous space? "First they're probably going to get confused and look for the labels," speculates one director. Another offers, "All kinds of reference points will leap around the space." Yet another says, "I would hope the viewer would be completely confused about who did what. Today I previewed a few pieces. I had no idea who did them. It was refreshing. So far so good."

A contract for prospective "participants" lists ten "rules and conditions," with three more left blank. Number ten stipulates, "Donations should not resemble the artwork to which you normally sign your name." One director reports, "Separating the artist's persona from the artwork was really difficult and exhilarating." Another claims, "There's a real liberation to creating something anonymous."

The board has a fear about the aura of names, about how they shape careers and markets. "It always raises eyebrows when someone comes up with a radically different body of work," declares one director. Another says, "From a purely careerist point of view, there are things I'd like to do in my artwork I couldn't do because it would confuse my audience." Still another says, "A big part of the appeal for older artists is stepping outside their names, overcoming that anxiety. For younger artists, anonymity relieves the pressure of being good." And another contends, "Some artworks are machinery designed to trap admiration and take it back to the artist."

Some directors have had telling encounters with anonymous art. One says, "Walking down the street in Seattle one time, I saw a guy hooked up to scuba apparatus, tangled up in tape wrapped around a tree. He was writhing on the sidewalk. I stood agog and watched, like everyone else, and walked away after a few minutes. It would have been disappointing if he had put up a sign with his name and given the performance a title. And there wasn't even a photographer there documenting it. It seems there's a generosity to unsigned things."

Another observes, "Everything I do as an artist is always put in the context of what I've done before. Once I made the mistake of writing about my own art. And from then on a lot of people just depended on that instead of making up their own minds." Yet another claims, "In my own work I deal with those expectations by always changing. I react toward myself. There are certain issues I press, and those are not tied to appearances."

But the theorizing is over. The doors to the Anonymous Museum (which is just across from Ditka's and down the street from Ed Debevic's) are now open for business--so to speak, since nothing will be for sale. "We've created this monster and hope it runs on its own," says one director. "The gene pool is established, and now we have just to let it go."

The first day after the museum opened, the staff in the sparsely appointed office has the TV turned on. It sits on the floor. A football game is on, the only color in the entire place.

The inaugural exhibit has a blank-slate aspect. Just inside the doorway is a small table draped in royal purple with seven stacks of white paper in different sizes. "Go ahead," read the instructions on another installation, involving a white 1/14-scale radio-controlled toy car. The remote control is tethered by a white nylon rope to a white pedestal.

Despite the museum's aversion to labels, there's plenty to read. A rosette of identical glossy beer posters gushes the advertising non sequitur of the hour, "It's it, and that's that." Affixed to one wall is a quotation: "An art that complicates, dissembles, or effaces the stigmata of the Author only lures us into a deeper fascination with this obscure subject of desire." And one giant white label reads, "What most people would do."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets.

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