By Jeff Huebner
When he shops for art, Lewis Manilow and his wife, Susan, travel to New York to visit galleries in Chelsea and SoHo. Sometimes they fly to Los Angeles, where they check out two different gallery complexes. Back home in Chicago, you may find them browsing in the relatively new "West Loop Gate" district, anchored by such galleries as Rhona Hoffman, Donald Young, and Vedanta.
But River North--long considered the city's premiere commercial gallery district--isn't usually on their itinerary. "It isn't working for me," says Manilow, a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art. His Old Town home is a veritable art museum itself, with a living room dominated by three wall-size Anselm Kiefer paintings. "When Feigen was there, I always went to River North. There's one or two galleries, but it's not that important. I used to go almost every week--I don't do that anymore. You can blame me, you can blame change, or maybe it's just life. But I want to make it so that people find it immensely appealing and attractive to show up at Roosevelt Road."
If all goes according to plan, by next fall Manilow will open a multipurpose visual arts center at Roosevelt and Wabash, laying the foundation for what he hopes will be another gallery district. He says the center will house both new and established dealers, temporary exhibition areas, nonprofit organizations, and "collectors' spaces"--he hopes it will help focus the city's rapidly fragmenting gallery community. Manilow believes his project will attract arts-related development to the booming South Loop area and reinvigorate the Chicago art scene as a whole. "I do believe one thing," he says. "The rising tide lifts all ships. River North, River West, the West Loop are going to be helped too. I really believe that. A more exciting scene will be wonderful for everybody."
The number of art galleries in River North hasn't changed much in the last five years. But Manilow maintains that quality is the real issue. Some feel that River North never recovered from the art market slide that followed the 1980s boom--by the early 90s many of its more adventurous galleries had either shut their doors (Robbin Lockett, Dart) or moved out of town (Donald Young, Feature). In the last couple years important galleries have left (Feigen, Rhona Hoffman) or closed (Phyllis Kind). When Donald Young decided to return to Chicago last year, he bypassed River North in favor of the West Loop.
Escalating rents threaten to push out more galleries. Later this fall Fassbender and Jan Cicero will move from River North into a West Loop Gate building being developed by Vedanta's Kavi Gupta and Bucktown dealer Thomas McCormick. But Frank Paluch, president of the Chicago Art Dealers Association, doesn't believe new gallery districts will threaten the viability of River North.
"In the short term, I don't see it having an impact," says Paluch, director of Perimeter Gallery, which has been in River North for 17 years. "The economy is good and a lot of people want to stay here--there's still not a space available in the neighborhood."
Others contend that River North's time has simply passed. "River North is still considered a legitimate art district, but that's kind of a sham," says one gallery owner who's considering a move into Manilow's complex. "It's not a viable model for what's good in contemporary art right now."
Most new galleries don't even consider moving to River North. The Chicago Project Room, which occupies a loft space on Milwaukee Avenue in increasingly boutiquey Wicker Park, has made its reputation by showing the work of young conceptual artists. Manilow has asked owners Dan Hug and Michael Hall to relocate their gallery in his new compound. "We'd welcome the move," says Hug. "It's more centrally located--all the important curators, the important art people who come to town, go downtown. This would make us more accessible. It also helps to have a big scene. It's a scattered scene, but there can be stuff in the West Loop and South Loop."
Manilow, a spry 72, talks like a man obsessed--which, in fact, he is. "What should happen--what'll make me happy--is if we stimulate more dealers, more collectors, more artists. We get more and better coverage in the newspapers. More artists will stay here and have a dealer connection. There's going to be a lot more options, a lot more people wanting to show their work. More artists will come here because it's a bigger scene instead of everyone going to New York and LA, which is what happens now. And the museums will do better because they'll broaden the excitement of the art scene. More people will want to be part of it--I mean, this whole thing stimulates everything, and that's what I really want to do. I think we can be a significant contributor."
Rumors about Manilow's plans have been circulating since last year, when it first became known that the veteran arts leader had his sights set on the old Continental Trailways Bus terminal at 1157 S. Wabash. The shuttered two-story structure, built in the 1920s and clad in terra-cotta, is now owned by the city. Manilow remained tight-lipped about his prospects for purchasing the 20,000-square-foot property--he'd signed a confidentiality agreement with the city--and on what specifically he planned to do there. Yet all along, local arts insiders saw the transaction as practically a done deal. A former attorney and real estate developer, Manilow straddles the art and political spheres.
In 1967 he cofounded the MCA with Joseph Shapiro and other local collectors. Several years ago he helped the museum negotiate its move to Chicago Avenue, and today he sits on the 20th-century-art board of the Art Institute of Chicago. He takes an active interest in the artists whose work he collects, and he's been instrumental in furthering the careers of many. In the late 1950s, Manilow's purchases boosted the standing of such artists as Leon Golub and H.C. Westermann. A decade later he helped advance the work of sculptor Mark di Suvero. Closer to home, in the mid-80s he acted as an angel to the struggling Randolph Street Gallery. He says he's always looking for "new, fresh, tough things," and in recent years he and his wife have acquired work by such area artists as Jeanne Dunning, Judy Ledgerwood, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Kerry James Marshall, Dan Peterman, and Kay Rosen.
Manilow's also a high-powered fund-raiser for the Democratic Party--President Clinton dropped by his house earlier this year. And with his financial support of Mayor Daley's central theater district project--a vision that Manilow says he has pursued for two decades (just last week he donated $1 million to the Goodman Theatre, which is building a new home at Dearborn and Randolph)--his political capital is said to be running high.
"Sure I have clout," he says when pressed. "I got a lot of friends in this town." But he's quick to point out that his South Loop arts building will be "the first time I've done business with the city. If I was in the business of doing business with the city, it'd still be a good project," he says. "My relationship to the mayor is not business. I don't have a corporation."
But now he's part of one, a limited liability corporation set up expressly for a new $59 million development called Gallery Park Place. On August 10, at the request of the Daley administration, the city's Community Development Commission approved a plan that would include a 39-story brick condominium tower on the South Michigan Avenue site of the vacant Avenue Motel, as well as Manilow's arts complex in the adjacent bus station on Wabash and a nine-story parking garage. Manilow says he's working on his part of the project separately, but one of the principals in the condo development is Allison Davis, a member of the Chicago Plan Commission. The land and buildings would be sold to the developers for $5.5 million, with no city subsidies. The plan still needs City Council approval, which, according to Manilow, seems a sure bet within the next several months. Remodeling on the arts building would begin early next year.
Not everyone is happy with Gallery Park Place. Seven developers had bid on the site; among the four finalists was a group that had proposed erecting a multiuse complex that would have included the National Jazz Museum. Jazz Unites, a nonprofit presenter of musical events, had been working for several years to get the jazz museum built in the South Loop. But when a prospective site on the northeast corner of Michigan and Roosevelt fell through a year ago, the city urged the group to submit a proposal for the parcel across the street.
"It was a tremendous disappointment," says Geraldine de Haas, president of Jazz Unites. "We were really upset. If this city is looking at moving into a new millennium, another art gallery is not the way to go, in my opinion. If you're trying to attract the world community, the most innovative art form you can find moving into the 21st century is America's original art form, which is jazz."
Why did the city go with Manilow's project?
"The jazz museum had one problem--they had to raise $30 million," Manilow says. "Let's assume that you think the jazz museum is an equally good alternative to a visual arts building. I'm coming in and saying, 'I'll do it.' I have a reputation, I have the financial resources, I know this business. I think if you're sitting on the city side you're going to say, 'Yeah, Manilow--we're probably sure he'll do it.' You're going to say, 'Well, they're both good projects, and I'd love to see the jazz museum, but this one looks like a go, and a go immediately.' You don't know if three years from now the other will have anything."
De Haas says she's sure her group will have its museum by that time. Recently it's received $250,000 from the state and $100,000 from Rose Shure of the Shure Brothers microphone company.
Days after the jazz museum lost out to Gallery Park Place, planning commissioner Christopher Hill informed de Haas that the city was still committed to finding her group a location in the central district. There's been some talk about taking over a vacant parcel at the southeast corner of Michigan and Roosevelt, perhaps with the city leasing the property to Jazz Unites for a dollar a year.
When I last talked to de Haas, on September 7, she'd just returned from a meeting with officials from the Planning Department. "It was extremely positive," she says. "The city is working with us, and we are still moving forward. Chicago will have a major jazz museum."
Manilow says his original plan might have been described as purely selfish--he went looking for a building because he needed a place to put his stuff. But he also wanted the public to be able to view his collection.
In the 1970s Manilow bought a building at 754-56 N. Milwaukee. He stored artwork that wasn't on loan to museums and wouldn't fit in his apartment in an office on the third floor. The building had more space than he needed, so in 1982 he allowed Randolph Street Gallery to move into the first floor. "I gave it to them free for a couple years, then charged them modest rent after that," he says. In 1991 Manilow and his wife hired architects Max Gordon and John Vinci to design a house in Old Town, partly to accomodate their growing collection. "We don't buy to store," Manilow says. "We buy to hang. So if we can't hang something, we don't buy it. That was our rule."
But soon the Manilows' house began to seem too cramped; even their basement was full. And they recently broke their rule when they acquired two large pieces--a silhouette by Kara Walker and an installation by Liz Craft--that they didn't have room to display. In 1993 Manilow sold part of the Milwaukee Avenue building to Randolph Street Gallery, turned the rest into condos, and moved his office into his home. He realized he needed another space.
"But what would be the point of having a space alone?" he asks. "People wouldn't come to it--they'd have to find it. I wanted it in a building where there were other art galleries. It would benefit them because it would help bring traffic. And I would benefit because they could look after it to some extent, so I wouldn't always have to have somebody there." He says he was looking for "some kind of deal that would be mutually beneficial."
While on gallery rounds last year, Manilow says, he heard a common response from art dealers. "Every one of them said the same thing to me: 'Lew, if you find a space, I'll go from here and join you.' Because for various reasons dealers--most of the ones I talked to--were interested in moving. The rents got too high, or the kind of overall ambience of River North had changed--it's become more decorative, more shopping."
To be sure, River North has galleries that show strong work by local and international artists, but the new economics are inescapable: as rents and taxes rise, dealers must cast a wider net, diversifying their artists and collectors to keep their heads above water. Some become more calculatingly commercial, promoting steady sellers at the expense of emerging talent. One of the upshots of an increasingly global art market is that hometown collectors may not wait until a local dealer carries a particular artist; as a result, galleries like Zolla/Lieberman--a River North pioneer, starting in 1976--have stayed in business by cultivating out-of-town artists and collectors.
Despite the continuing loss of artists to either coast, Manilow remains bullish on Chicago. "We lost Joe Scanlan, Hirsch Perlman. We lost Feigen Gallery. Donald Young Gallery came back from Seattle--that's good. We still got Tony Tasset, Dan Peterman, Jeanne Dunning, and Judy Ledgerwood. We got terrific artists. They just need more outlets.
"I think one of the things lacking in Chicago is a lot of young--well, they don't have to be young--dealers who will show young, modestly priced artists who are cutting-edge, avant-garde, whatever the term is people like."
With an eye toward creating his own scene, Manilow went to look at the bus building last winter on the recommendation of a friend. "I took my architect John Vinci down there. We got a key for the Trailways and went through it. It was wonderful--I loved it." Next door was the vacant Avenue Motel, which the city was in the process of seizing in court.
Manilow liked the idea of being part of a big development in the South Loop. "That's a wonderful neighborhood that's really emerging superbly," he says. "Mind you, the city wanted Trailways saved and the Avenue Motel torn down, which means you can build a high-rise condo with a great view. There's a market for that stuff down there now--it's becoming a neighborhood. So I said, 'I'm game'--I've got a tail wagging this dog. I come up with this idea of an arts building, which is very appealing to the city." Manilow says he "came together" with Allison Davis as a principal bidder on the entire parcel, from Michigan to Wabash.
Referring to his relationship with the high-rise investors, Manilow says, "We're going to be together but separate in the development. My responsibility is to develop the bus building. They will develop the condo building on the corner. It'll be two separate things--this is my thing, that is theirs. And 'they' includes other investors."
The South Loop became an attractive target for redevelopment in 1994, when the city established the Near South tax increment financing district. Now the area--bounded by Congress, State, 21st Street, and Lake Shore Drive--is abloom with suburban-style residences, condo complexes, and luxury lofts, some approaching a million bucks a unit. The area around Wabash and Roosevelt, however, continues to exude a tough, somewhat seedy aura.
That will change soon. The city shut down the Saint James SRO several months ago, and it will soon be demolished (along with the empty Meystel's Fashion Warehouse) to make way for a Jewel. Another SRO, the Roosevelt Budget Hotel--directly across the street from Manilow's future arts complex--closed its doors in early September.
"They'd been fighting and fighting the city, but there were too many code violations," says the hotel's maintenance man, the only employee who wasn't laid off. He says city officials told him the building and the adjacent Cleopatra Lounge will both be torn down to make way for a park. "That's what Daley wants," he says. "And what Daley wants, Daley gets."
Like the Saint James, the Roosevelt had been inhabited almost exclusively by African-American men. The city's Department of Human Services helped relocate residents from both buildings--though a few men maintain a daily vigil outside the Amoco car wash at the southeast corner of Wabash and Roosevelt, offering to dry cars, panhandling, and hawking StreetWise (the paper's office is a block south on Michigan).
The area saw the beginnings of an arts scene about a decade ago. It was centered at 1255 S. Wabash, the former South Loop Arts Building, whose tenants included Tony Fitzpatrick's World Tattoo Gallery, N.A.M.E., Izzo's Artery, the New Art Examiner, and numerous artists' studios. The remaining tenants were all tossed out earlier this year, as the building was converted into a self-storage facility. Holding down the fort is the Chicago Public Art Group, which was able to relocate to a corner storefront.
Convinced that this was the right place and the right time, Manilow found he had only two weeks to put together a proposal. He says his application included "letters from eight or nine galleries that were interested." Manilow's mum on their identities, but this past spring he and Vinci gave tours of the building to a group of gallery owners that included Carl Hammer, Rhona Hoffman, Thomas McCormick, and the Chicago Project Room's Dan Hug and Michael Hall. He had also approached Ten in One Gallery, but by then director Joel Leib was set on relocating to New York.
Hammer and Hoffman are definite maybes, though each hints that a lot could happen in a year. "It's a possibility," says Hoffman, "but it's premature to be definitive." Though she relocated her gallery from River North to the West Loop in 1995, Hoffman says she wouldn't be averse to moving again because she's running out of room. She thinks the gallery scene is "so far-flung" that "more consolidated areas would be really good." Hammer, a longtime presence in River North, says he's "keeping my options open." In January, he'll move his gallery a block up the street to 740 N. Wells. "It could be long-term, it could be temporary," he says.
Hug and Hall both claim the Chicago Project Room's Wicker Park address has proved "problematic."
"Our local image has been hurt by us being in this area," says Hug. "People associate us with artists in the Flat Iron Building, or with artist-run galleries. We're not 'alternative.' And with Joel [Leib] gone, we feel more isolated here."
Hall says the appeal of Manilow's building is "partly location. But it's also about being associated with quality and doing shows with other galleries we feel are of quality. We don't have a lot in common with Carl Hammer and Rhona Hoffman, but they're quality galleries. It'd be great if somebody visiting Hammer wandered over to us and saw a video."
Thomas McCormick moved his art business from Kansas City to Bucktown in 1992. Most of his time here has been spent working out of his home, but recently he staged a show of artwork from 1949 at Thomas Blackman's TBA Exhibition Space in River North. "I really didn't have a problem with location," he says. "I've always believed that if you strut your stuff right, people will come to you no matter where you are."
Nevertheless, he needed more space, and early last year he and Blackman began to shop for a building to develop together. McCormick thought it would be nice to invest, and he wanted to move sooner rather than later. But when they came up empty-handed, McCormick toured Manilow's building. "I was completely open-minded," he says. "If everything had been suitable for my needs, I wouldn't have been opposed to being a tenant. But I thought the spaces were too small--they were boutique-size."
Vinci says the building has "a certain amount of flexibility." In addition to the terminal building's main waiting area, he says "one or two" of the storefront spaces could be enlarged from 1,500 to 4,000 square feet. Rhona Hoffman says she currently occupies "probably 3,000 square feet, including storage."
Not long after his tour, McCormick partnered with Kavi Gupta, director of Vedanta Gallery, to develop a 16,000-square-foot building adjacent to Vedanta's V-1 space at 110 N. Peoria in the burgeoning West Loop district. (It's also close to Donald Young's new gallery at 933 W. Washington.) By the end of November, says Gupta, the building will house four contemporary art galleries, each occupying cavernous, 4,000-square-foot spaces. Vedanta's V-1 will stay put, but its V-2 space, now at 119 N. Peoria, will move into the new building, as will McCormick, Fassbender, and Jan Cicero. Fassbender and Cicero have been River North stalwarts, though Cicero has set up temporary quarters at 712 N. Carpenter.
"I really like the area," says Gupta, who moved there in 1994, taking over Lannon Gallery's old space. "I saw the potential for more galleries to come out here, to develop a nice little area with everybody right next to each other. We're really trying to make something happen in the Chicago art scene. You'll see some new excitement with both areas--the South Loop and West Loop. It'll be good for the city and good for the art scene."
McCormick agrees, applauding Manilow's effort though he decided against taking part in it. "Scarce people have vision in this city," he says. "Lew's a big planner. I hope it turns out to be something great. But I wish his dream had been in the West Loop."
With Gallery Park Place set to get the green light, some sources claim Manilow is having trouble finding tenants. Yet the plan is still a work in progress, and one can only speculate what will eventually happen there. A dealer told me, "I think one of the problems with the project was that there weren't enough quality contemporary galleries in Chicago."
Over the summer, Manilow conferred with Gupta, who's taken a keen interest in the project, and a broader plan emerged: a contemporary arts center comprising a full range of visual-arts-related enterprises.
Manilow says some dealers, "primarily contemporary but maybe not," will occupy the "bigger spaces" on the first floor. There will also be spaces to accommodate "spillover and special shows" staged by area museums and university galleries, such as those at Columbia College and the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Downtown is becoming a big campus," he says. "There are half a dozen colleges downtown, and dormitories." He says he might even try luring galleries from New York and LA to open outposts here. Offices for new or established nonprofit organizations would be located in the basement or elsewhere in the building. There may also be a performance space.
Besides including an area to display work from his own collection, Manilow wants to construct other "collectors' spaces" on the roof, perhaps in penthouses. He imagines two or three of them. "They'd be open on designated hours," he says. "We always have a bunch of things out on loan in various places. And I should--I enjoy it. I like to have people see our art. But I'd have to make some judgments: What do I want to show people? What would I enjoy? What would they enjoy? I'll have somebody there, of course, a guard with knowledge to watch it."
He also imagines a restaurant and a weekend shuttle bus running to other arts districts and to the museums along Michigan Avenue. Gupta says, "We're trying to tie in that building with what's going on in the West Loop and making them top areas."
But the centerpiece of Manilow's vision--and what he's most passionate about--has always been setting aside space for "arts incubators," or start-up galleries. He wants these to fill the entire second floor. "I want to have this building be attractive and appealing and conveniently located so young people can say, 'I want to be a dealer.' For a modest investment and a modest rent they can be in business and they can be assured that every day when they open their doors there'll be a few people showing up. I want to encourage people to say, 'Hey, I can go into business. I can show some stuff.' I want people to be able to open up in this space and show some good things--Chicago artists, other artists, a lively, younger, more cutting-edge scene, which this city can use.
"If I can fill half that building with those incubators, I'd be happy. And I think that would do a lot for Chicago."
So once Manilow builds it, will the collectors come?
The metropolitan area has a sizable community of serious collectors and patrons who over the decades have helped shape the city's cultural life with the acquisition of artwork. They have built institutions and endowed museums with gifts. They have helped to keep galleries--and artists--afloat. The city also has a fairly good number of savvy mid-career collectors, though perhaps not as many as in New York or Los Angeles.
Art museums and galleries have long been concerned with cultivating the next generation of patrons and collectors--there are ulterior motives behind the Museum of Contemporary Art's First Friday bashes, the Chicago Art Dealers Association's Absolut Vision Chicago openings, and annual benefits like the Hyde Park Art Center's "Just Good Art" auction. Such events not only help people get interested in the contemporary art scene--they're also designed to ensure future patronage, to induce people to acquire and perhaps later donate or loan artwork. Down the road some of these collectors may end up sitting on the board of a cultural institution.
After all, the vitality of an art scene depends on the health of the art market. And that's where Manilow's plan comes in. "Is there a market here?" he asks rhetorically. "Chicago's a big city, a cultural, financial, medical center. The Chicago region is bigger than half the countries in Europe! There's people out there.
"You have to be able to do two things in the art world: One, you have to appeal to them so at least they'll come and take a look. And two, good dealers can make collectors. Collecting is sometimes a little frightening. People are uncomfortable walking into galleries; people are nervous about things like that." He recalls the first time he bought art; it was in the 1950s. "I went around practically sweating over a $300 investment. But it was such an emotional experience. So I want to make it easier and comfortable to go to lots of galleries and collectors' spaces. And then you want to give dealers the chance to shoot their best shot."
Manilow frequently compares the ongoing dispersal and consolidation of the city's gallery scene with what's been happening in Manhattan. For two decades, SoHo was the center of New York's contemporary art scene. But as that neighborhood began to gentrify in the 1990s--attracting chic boutiques, upscale chains, and tourists--rents doubled and then tripled, and many dealers began looking elsewhere. According to Manilow, about half of SoHo's galleries have defected to Chelsea, which just several years ago was a desolate landscape of garages, warehouses, and factories. Today the area is home to some 80 commercial galleries, making it a vital new art district.
Manilow often visits Chelsea--he can take in a lot of art in a day or two. The same goes for Los Angeles: there's Bergamot Station, a Santa Monica complex consisting of 30 galleries and a museum, and a five-gallery building on Wilshire Boulevard. "These galleries, when they were alone, I might've gone to them once in a while," he says. "Now whenever I'm in LA, I go to 6150 Wilshire Boulevard. They're all together. Why wouldn't I go every time I'm there--five good galleries together?"
The proximity of galleries in the South Loop will boost sales, Manilow says. "If galleries are all by themselves, they wouldn't get the same traffic--who'd know they're there? Think of how much easier it would've been if Joel [Leib of Ten in One] could've been in a place like this, where people came to him. Automatically, he wouldn't have had to nurture a clientele. Then he could have spent his time on selling and not just on getting people to show up."
Manilow looks at his building and the nearby subway and el lines. The entrance to Grant Park's museum campus is a block to the east. A steady trickle of pedestrians now walks past the shuttered structure during the week, and that trickle becomes a stream on weekends. It's only a matter of time, he says. The neighborhood has a ready-made clientele: people wanting to decorate their new lofts, condos, and offices.
"I think it'll help development, and that's what the city thinks," says Manilow. "They like the idea of having this building here because it brings some exciting kind of life. What I personally want, as a great Chicago booster, is not only to fill the galleries with art and art-related things, but that other galleries would find it feasible and economically appealing to move into some of the mediocre buildings around the corner. All they'd have to do is hang a flag out of the window. If we really attract the traffic, it's very easy to walk down half a block and go to another couple of galleries. We can really make this a whole center, if the pricing turns out to be right. So it makes sense for me to be in the area."
Manilow's father, Nathan Manilow, was one of the original developers of suburban Park Forest, where the family kept a farm. After Nathan Manilow died, the farmland was sold to Governors State University, whose campus was completed in 1976. Lewis Manilow, who developed nearby Park Forest South, donated a parcel of land to the university with the stipulation that the money from its sale be used for artistic purposes in memory of his father. With Manilow's fervent support, what began as an exhibit on loan of outdoor artworks became the permanent Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, a prairie museum with monumental pieces by such artists as Mark di Suvero, John Henry, Richard Hunt, Mary Miss, Bruce Nauman, and Martin Puryear. New sculptures appear from time to time.
Now with the central theater district taking shape and his new arts building set to open, Manilow can reflect on his cultural legacy.
"I'm lucky," he says. "I've been lucky in health. We got children and grandchildren. Financially I've done well. So I look around in life and say, 'What would I most enjoy doing?' This is what I enjoy doing. I really do. I love the theater, and I have some skills in long-term thinking and figuring out a goal that I think is really worthwhile--for me and for the city.
"But I don't intend to lose money in this deal," he says. "I'm not in the real estate business. I wouldn't do it if it was a real estate deal. I don't do real estate deals anymore. I'm not going to be the developer--I'm letting someone else be the developer. That's a full-time business, being a real estate developer. But I can do this: I can put this in the position to make it happen. That kind of thing I'm good at. I can envision and put the pieces together."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.