Logan Square's Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival is billed as the "most diverse & vibrant" of Chicago's art fests. A pet project of 35th Ward alderman Rey Colón, it'll run July 23-25 this year and cover a 1.5-mile stretch of Milwaukee from Kimball to California, turning more than 20 empty storefronts into ad hoc galleries showcasing the work of about 200 visual artists. Three official stages will offer live music, with a free trolley cruising from one end of the strip to the other. Organized by a new nonprofit assertively named I AM Logan Square (short for Independent Artists & Merchants of Logan Square), this fest looks to be better organized than 2009's, which stretched over three miles with considerable dead space along the way.
But Victor Montañez says it won't deliver the diversity it promises—at least not on its three official music stages.
Montañez, a Logan Square artist who's curating visual arts for the north half of the strip, claims that music reflecting the ethnicity of neighborhood residents—especially Latinos, who, as of the 2000 census, made up about 65 percent of Logan Square's population—has been given short shrift and that there's been an overall insensitivity to the local zeitgeist. The reason? Montañez thinks it may have to do with the fact that I AM Logan Square is run out of a public relations office in Lincolnwood.
I AM Logan Square was set up by Colón and launched last winter. Montañez himself is a board member, but "unfortunately," he says, "the board has never met." Colón named publicist Amy Falk of Falk Associates as executive director. She says she made a two-year commitment to manage the organization, her services through December 2011 to be paid for by Mark Fishman, president of Logan Square property management firm M. Fishman and Company, as a "gift to the community."
Montañez argues that the predominance of indie rock is turning the festival into a "Pitchfork wannabe." He points to the Saturday main-stage lineup of eight bands, none of them Latino. Among the acts are the Black Bear Combo, the Blue Ribbon Glee Club, and the 1900s.
Geary Yonker—a Logan Square resident (and former Reader advertising account executive) who programmed this year's main stage as a volunteer—disagrees. "We tried to make sure everybody in the community was represented," he maintains, noting that an Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa band, the Opposite Sides, headlines the main stage on Friday and Grammy-nominated Angel Melendez & the 911 Mambo Orchestra headlines on Sunday—"and there's only three days to the festival." Yonker adds that the fest was "very grassroots last year," when it was run out of the alderman's office. "But for it to endure, it had to be better organized. Some people had a problem with the changes that were made."
The alleged Pitchforkification of the music is Montañez's main complaint, but not his only one. He's also upset that the official program doesn't list the names of exhibiting artists or of the many musical acts that'll be playing in storefronts. (Montañez himself will present art and music at 2634 N. Milwaukee.) Yonker and Falk say there wasn't enough room for all that info in their eight-page program.
Montañez also considers it a shame that the main-stage area at the formerly free fest will now be fenced off, with a $5 donation requested for entry. (The event lost $24,000 last year.) And he really dislikes the way the fest map and program divide the approximately three dozen exhibition spaces into two groupings, south and north. "Art should bring people together," Montañez says. The arrangement looks to him like a "divisive strategy" to create a Wicker Park-esque hipster scene in one area while concentrating people of color in the other. The list of curators and artists showing in the north section is heavier on Hispanic names.
Falk maintains that the division is just a means of dealing with the geographic gap between two sets of spaces. But Montañez concedes that there's some history between him and Tracy Kostenbader, his curatorial counterpart for the south. Last year they organized the art for the fest together, under the auspices of Chicago ARTillery, a collective they cofounded. Meant to be a model of collaboration and equality, Montañez says, the collective fell apart in a disagreement over leadership and policy. Kostenbader says she's focusing exclusively on her own area this year.
The Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival is an outgrowth of the Palmer Square Arts Festival, held under Colón's auspices from 2003 to '07. The MAAF began on a small scale in 2008, put together by a group of local arts organizations. Last year Colón ran a larger version that was a popular success despite the red ink, which the alderman says he covered with his own credit card. This time around Colón let it be known that he needed to hand it off. Ergo, I AM Logan Square, which, Colón hopes, will eventually serve as a year-round, "one-stop" PR office for the neighborhood.
"I recently commissioned the formation of a neighborhood council to provide comprehensive public relations for local activities and promoting the community in a positive light," Colón wrote in a February 15 post on the Studio Chicago blog (studiochicago.blogspot.com). "'I AM Logan Square' will advance economic development opportunities while maintaining a diverse coalition of artists, business leaders, chambers of commerce and community organizations."
Montañez chaired the fest's artist recruitment committee both last year and this, and says it's always a struggle. "People want a West Loop type of art festival," he says. "They want to promote art that's not really organic to the community. I'm trying to bring in artists who have ties to the community. Logan Square is Puerto Rican, it's Mexican, it's Polish, it's German, and we're rich and poor here. It's not Wicker Park. Last year it was done by committees of community people. It was a struggle then, too, but it was people we see all year round, and we learned to meet someplace in the middle. This year we got I AM Logan Square—which is a stupid name because there's no such thing, it's we are Logan Square—and Amy Falk, who has no roots in the community.
"I believe there's a responsibility to represent what the community is," Montañez adds, noting that last year he put music in the storefronts to compensate for what he saw as a lack of diversity on the stages. The official 2009 schedule, he says, "was very hipsterish, very folky-country-rock, very white. I try to do lineups where people see the similarity: a punk band with a rock en español band. It's a way of bridging the cultures. But if we don't think strategically how to do that, what we're actually doing is promoting division. Rey is one of our most progressive aldermen, but it's all relative. I've been around since Harold Washington, and this is not progressive politics. This is colonialist politics. He appointed Amy Falk as gatekeeper and ultimately the buck stops with him. We're still very far from representing the community on the stages."
"Victor's concerns are my concerns," Colón replies. "As a Latino, I get very frustrated with people being insensitive to us. Some of the music I like didn't make the cut, but I think the representation is actually better this year than last."
Colón says the fest is the catalyst for his plan to use art as an economic development tool for Milwaukee Avenue. But "taking people with different interests and agendas and getting them to work on one thing is really a difficult task. It's hard to get everyone to get along. I didn't realize there was politics within the art community."