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Pilsen's Ailing Arts District

As 4Art leaves for Bridgeport, yet another storefront in "Podville" goes dark.



Six years ago, when Robin Monique Rios opened the 4Art Inc gallery in a large, glassy, two-story space at 1932 S. Halsted in east Pilsen, her landlord welcomed her as exactly the right kind of tenant for the neighborhood he'd newly dubbed the Chicago Arts District. John Podmajersky III—whose family had lived in east Pilsen since 1914, and whose parents began buying property and creating an artists' community there a half century ago—was looking for what he called "artist-entrepreneurs" to replace the street-level studios along Halsted from about 16th to Canalport with galleries and art-related businesses. "We want our storefronts to be vital commercial spaces in the context of an art community," he told me then. 4Art, a start-up offering framing, art classes, and graphic design along with the work of about 20 mostly local artists, was a perfect fit.

This week Rios is closing her space in preparation for a move to Bridgeport, eager to escape the ghost town that the Chicago Arts District has become even as the sprawling University Village development has taken shape just a few blocks away. Most of the storefronts between 18th and 20th on Halsted now stand empty; on the east side of the 1800 block, one after another of the live-work spaces—beautiful bi-levels opening to the street in front and to Podville's famous hidden gardens in the back—are vacant. Even in this economy, it's hard to imagine why. Maybe Podmajersky can explain, but he didn't return calls for this story.

At 4Art, the huge windows that flooded the gallery with light are broken and boarded up. The damage, apparently a random act of vandalism, occurred about a month ago, Rios says. It'll be fixed when her insurance company processes the claim, but in the meantime it's a pretty good symbol for the current vibe in the neighborhood. According to Rios, the Chicago Arts District seemed to be progressing until about two years ago. "We were doing well, a lot of the storefronts and studios were full." Then, almost imperceptibly, things took a turn, and "now its gone completely downhill. Everybody's leaving. There's no more community here."

A "digital painter" and sculptor, Rios started 4Art with a small-business loan and a partner, painter-photographer Jerod Schmidt. He bailed after two years, and she's run it on her own since, earning enough to pay off debts and bills but not enough to pay herself a real salary. A Chicago native, Rios was fresh out of college with a BFA and a "can-do" spirit when the gallery opened in 2003. But by last winter, she was ready to give it up. "I had decided I would close," she says, when "somebody from the Zhou brothers"—artist-entrepreneurs with an art building at 1029 W. 35th in Bridgeport—"called me and said they thought that I'd do well there. They rolled the red carpet out for me." She'll have a one-day closing show at the current location August 14, then celebrate the opening of her 1,800-square-foot space (1,000 square feet smaller than on Halsted) at the Zhou B Art Center on September 18.

What went wrong? Rios says Podmajersky management "never bothered" her, but, "I felt like there wasn't enough support. . . . They weren't keeping the artists." Podville's been a "revolving door," Rios says. "People would come, stay a year, and then leave." She says she and Schmidt started the Chicago Arts District's tradition of Second Friday open studios to bring people into the area. "I don't know what will happen once we leave," she says, but "I can't continue to push a wagon by myself."

The list of 4Art's former neighbors includes Dubhe Carreño, who's reopening her eponymous gallery September 11 at 118 N. Peoria in the West Loop, where the Peter Miller and Rhona Hoffman galleries are also tenants. Carreño—who ran her ceramics-centric business from 1841 S. Halsted for four years, closing in June 2008—says that in the old location there was a constant turnover among resident artists and a puzzling persistence of empty spaces despite what she thought were reasonable rents. While the Second Friday events had "energy," they were more of a party than a source of clients for her. Meanwhile, she notes, her former space is still empty more than a year after she left it.

Jhonmar Castillo, who moved his Moka Gallery from 1825 S. Halsted to 2112 W. Belmont two and a half years ago, says he battled with Podmajersky III over things like asbestos floor tiles and electricity that was so wonky that "if you turned on the microwave, the lights went out." It's too bad, he says. "It was a beautiful concept his dad had."

Married painter-illustrators Bridget Bolger and Scott Multer moved into the former Moka space in March. It doubles as their studio and as South Halsted Gallery (current show: a Bolger retrospective), with hours by appointment and whenever they happen to be there. Right now, Bolger concedes, there's very little foot traffic. But with University Village and two new restaurants—Nightwood and Simone's—nearby, she says the area's poised to pick up. "I'd love to see other artists come down and join us."

Did the Database Do It?

Laura Harper, who joined the Chicago Artists Coalition last year as executive director, has resigned after a mere eight months. (She didn't return calls.) July 31 was her last day. Board member Barbara Hirschfeld, founding director of the Cuneo Museum in Vernon Hills, has stepped in until "things are put in order" and a replacement can be hired.

The CAC has been suffering from database glitches that hit the crisis point when members found themselves unable to apply for the annual fall show—which has now been postponed to an unspecified date in the spring—through the Web site. Hirschfeld says Harper was probably dealing with "a lot of people who were very upset."

The database was built three years ago by Oliver Bosche, husband of then-executive director Olga Stefan. Now, board chair Susan Aurinko says, they've decided the best option is to scrap it and start again from scratch. The July-August issue of the CAC's newsletter carried a note from Harper asking for donations toward the $8,500 needed to cover "the first half of this project."

The CAC left its Loop office in May and is now ensconced at 1550 N. Damen in Wicker Park, where the organization rents studios to members at $2 per square foot and runs the Coalition Gallery, a co-op that opened August 7. The gallery—a storefront space on the Pierce Street side of the building—will feature the same 21 CAC members for the entire first year, though the work on display will change periodically. Hirschfeld says the participants were juried in and are paying $45 per month plus their labor.

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