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Downsized; More Shrinking Art Space

Gallery 312 is taking a hiatus while it looks for a new, smaller space and figures out how to do a few important things--like make money.




In 1997, when Paul Brenner was exhibitions director there, Randolph Street Gallery announced a three-month hiatus, made a brief comeback, and then died. Now Gallery 312, where Brenner's been director for six years, is announcing a three-month hiatus while it evacuates its May Street home. Randolph Street had a financial problem; so does Gallery 312. Randolph Street had an identity problem; Gallery 312 will have to be "restructured." But Brenner, who followed his partner to Washington State this May and now commutes to Chicago ten days a month, says not to get hung up on the deja vu. Gallery 312 will reopen February 4 in a yet-to-be-determined location, he insists--at least for another year. That's how long its founders, real estate developers Lewis and Anne Neri Kostiner, have promised to subsidize the rent.

The Kostiners, who met when Anne took Lewis's photography class at Columbia College, have been buying old warehouse buildings in the West Loop and turning them into apartments since the 1980s. They bought the building at 312 N. May in the early 90s. It had been vacant for 15 years and had a cavernous boiler room in the basement that they decided to turn into a gallery. After a hard-scrabble Taylor Street childhood Anne Kostiner was doing well financially and wanted to do something to help needy kids. For the gallery's first few years, while she was its director, the proceeds from sales of work by established artists like Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, and Richard Nickel were donated to causes such as Children's Memorial Hospital and Christopher House. In '96 the Kostiners founded the PEACH Club, an arts program for at-risk kids. The PEACH Club and Gallery 312 became sister organizations, operating as a single nonprofit entity.

Brenner was hired in '98, and took the gallery in a different direction. It became an artist-run incubator, like Randolph Street, with programming determined by a committee of about 20 curators and midcareer artists. They mounted noncommercial shows that included installations by Ellen Rothenberg, Laurie Palmer, and Esther Parada, a "Summer Show" of emerging artists, and an annual exhibit by the PEACH Club kids. The Kostiners donated the rent, but it was up to Brenner to meet operating expenses of about $100,000, which covered salaries for himself and a part-time assistant and programming, maintenance, and utility costs for the 7,000-square-foot facility. The gallery had often been used as a rental venue for events and exhibits, and fees, mostly for weddings, covered about half the budget. But recently the rental income took a dive, dropping to $25,000 in the fiscal year that closed at the end of August, from $47,000 the year before. Brenner attributes this to the country's overall economic downturn.

Brenner says he and the Kostiners, who'd sold the rest of the building in 2000, agreed that it was time to downsize. A search is on for a 2,000-square-foot space in the same area, to be run by part-time and volunteer staff. Out of the rent-free nest, and cut loose from the PEACH Club, 312 will have to get its own nonprofit designation and board of directors and learn to do some serious fund-raising. "That'll be a challenge," Brenner says. "Our supporters are younger and midcareer artists; they give $10, not $1,000." A moving sale will be held at the gallery October 23 and 24, and a ten-year anniversary and farewell-to-the-space Halloween bash is set for October 30.

More Shrinking Art Space

"The trends are not encouraging," says a study of arts coverage released last week by Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program. "Reporting the Arts II," a 170-page follow-up to the NAJP's 1998 study of mainstream media, concludes that journalistic resources devoted to the arts are "generally flat or in retreat." Like the first study, this one's a snapshot--mostly a review of 17 local and 3 national papers during a single month (October 2003).

In the wake of 9/11 and a national economic nosedive, the study found, newspapers are giving less space to the arts, and a larger portion of that space is often devoted to listings.

Newspapers have been shrinking, and column inches for the arts dropped proportionately, with the bulk of cuts coming from movie and television coverage. At most papers, a larger percentage of stories were written by freelancers or syndicated authors than in the previous study. While arts and sports are both seen as "growth industries," only sports was able to command an increase in space, because, in the words of Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Douglas Clifton, who was interviewed for the study, readers will "either buy or not buy a newspaper based on their satisfaction with sports coverage." And expanded arts listings reflect a change in the way newspapers view their role--less as filtering agents and tastemakers, and more as providers of information. Critics are more likely to be called upon to double as arts news reporters.

The Tribune and the Sun-Times rank first and third respectively among the papers studied for the number of inches devoted to arts-and-culture articles. (The Sun-Times improved its standing in this area, moving up from seventh place in the previous study.) They were the only non-national papers to file 200 or more separate reviews each in the month studied, and the Sun-Times published more music articles than any other metropolitan paper studied. The Tribune was the only paper to increase space for the arts. Following a national trend, both papers boosted arts coverage in special weekend sections at the expense of the daily arts sections.

The study's most intriguing contention is that Americans get most of their art where they get their religion: "Although American journalists don't typically cover arts activity in religious settings, recent surveys have shown that this is the most common way Americans connect with the arts." But in a book full of graphs and pie charts, this nugget is left unexamined.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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