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Flatfile Flatlines

The economy's toll on the arts is no longer theoretical.

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The effects of our bad-news economy are starting to kick in, and it's not just the deadwood that's falling. This week, one of the largest and liveliest art spaces in the West Loop, Flatfile Galleries, announced that its current shows will be its last. It closes March 27.

Owner Susan Aurinko, who's got a roster of 55 artists, says she realized in early January that she wouldn't be able to keep going, but didn't want to disappoint the artists she'd booked for the year. She thought that if she stayed open through the summer she'd be able to squeeze in all the shows she'd scheduled. But by mid-February, with the gallery's debt rising to levels she feared she'd "never get out from under," she decided to pull the plug sooner rather than later. Aurinko says she'll do a show for any artist she scheduled who still wants it, but it'll be a smaller one, held at the nearby Mars Gallery, run by her friend Barbara Gazdik. She also says anyone the gallery owes money to will be paid.

Aurinko opened Flatfile in 2000, in rented quarters at 119 N. Peoria, as a launching pad for emerging photographers. It was a serve-yourself setup: she installed lots of the wide, low file cabinets for which the gallery is named, filled each drawer with a portfolio of work by one of her artists, and encouraged visitors to browse at their own speed through hundreds of pictures, like so many customers at Nordstrom Rack. That worked, and in 2002 Aurinko moved Flatfile to a larger space across the street, adding established photographers like Barbara Crane and Lucien Clergue to her roster. Two years later she expanded again, adding contemporary art in all media to the mix, and moved Flatfile into its current five-gallery, two-story, 8,000-square-foot home, in a building she and her husband had rehabbed at 217 N. Carpenter. There her innovative programming and events—including Wafaa Bilal's 2007 installation, Domestic Tension, where anyone on the Internet could shoot him with a paintball gun—attracted international press coverage.

As her own landlord, Aurinko had the option of not paying rent in tough times. But even so, she says, "it's very expensive to cover costs. Utilities, advertising, shipping, insurance, two full-time staff—it got to be a downward spiral of money being sucked into the vortex," especially for a gallery that lacked a deep collector base.

In retrospect, Aurinko says, she can see that there's been a gradual change in the way people shop for art. In Flatfile's early years, most of the work sold at the openings. "At the end of the night, there'd be a bunch of red dots on the wall." Then there was a shift, and only a few things would sell right away. People would come back once or twice, bringing others to look before buying. And then "they were coming back four or five times, bringing the neighbor, the husband, the decorator," Aurinko says. "Now, no one's making what I call chewing-gum-at-the-checkout-counter decisions. No one's saying, 'Oh my God, I love it! I have to have it!'"

In the last few months the downward spiral accelerated. Business from developers and banks evaporated, and buyers who were considering major purchases put them on hold. Those holds could be permanent, Aurinko suspects. In the meantime, in addition to curating shows at Mars and other galleries, and working on her own photography, she'll continue the gig she landed last fall as curator of the Illinois Institute of Technology's Art@IIT series. Next up is "Emergence," a show of work by Audrius Plioplys that opens tonight, March 5, at IIT's Galvin Library.

While Aurinko was still holding out hope back in December, a smaller West Loop gallery, four-year-old Rowland Contemporary, was shutting down—just ahead of a positive review from Art in America for gallery artist Tom Denlinger. Owner Mark Rowland says he couldn't meet expenses in the current economic climate. And last week About Face Theatre put off the final show of its current season till next fall and launched a drive "to save the organization by raising $300,000."

Artistic director Bonnie Metzgar says the company has slashed ticket prices by 50 percent to counter a sales drop-off that began in the fall and cut its annual budget from just under $1 million to $700,000. Along with the decline in earned income, the GLBTQ-focused theater—which has no endowment and about $100,000 in debt—is faced with shrinking contributions from corporate, foundation, and individual donors.

Things turned critical last week, when, Metzgar says, About Face got caught in a cash flow crunch. With four full-time and four part-time employees, as well as a unique program for gay youth, she says, "I have no idea, two weeks from now, where the money [for payroll] is coming from. We're on the phone with our supporters and going viral, trying to engage new funders."

Unzip and Scoot Over

Obama wouldn't be giving his times-are-tough-but-we'll-(eventually)-cure-cancer speech to Congress until that evening, but on Tuesday afternoon last week arts leaders gathered for the annual meeting of the Illinois Arts Alliance at Steppenwolf got an equivalent pep talk from former Theatre Communications Group head Ben Cameron. Now in the business of doling out dollars at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (whose endowment was down about $600 million last year), Cameron was as wired as ever. But even he says we're likely to see a wave of consolidation in the arts and that for most survival will require wrenching change—including a new mind-set that replaces competition with cooperation. According to Cameron, comrades in the arts, the metaphor is "two to a sleeping bag."

Who'll MissNewspapers? The Arts, for One

Since there were about 400 other Chicago reporters in the audience at the recent journalism town hall meeting—hosted by Ken Davis in the historic "smoke-filled room" of the former Bismarck Hotel, now the Allegro—I wasn't planning to cover it. But the demise of print journalism, if it occurs, will have a definite impact on arts groups. Most of them have a love/hate relationship with the papers, but they've already felt the effects of shrinking coverage and they don't like it. The reach, influence, and exposure that newspapers have provided won't be easily replaced on the fragmented Internet.

Remember those testosterone jockeys from before the dot-com bubble popped, who touted a "new economy" where old rules didn't apply? They were there, riding boldly into online journalism. Bitter freelancers were there, too, soured by years of wretched exploitation while newspapers were raking in profits of 20 percent and more. Panelist John Callaway primed the discussion with the maybe-not-so hypothetical assumption that both Chicago dailies will be gone a year from now, and closed it by saying he hopes he's wrong about that. (The saddest moment came at the end, when Red Eye was held up as the paper of the future.) I think print journalism will survive—in weeklies and monthlies, more magazine than newspaper—but we'll never again have it in the glorious, slick-to-gritty profusion of the late 20th century.

What's more, it's probably not just print journalism but text itself that's going away. Text on a screen is an anachronism—a code operating at symbolic remove, on equipment capable of delivering something much closer to the real thing. When it's gone, we'll be a mostly oral society again, driven by the immediacy of sound and image. I hope I'm wrong about that.v

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