Angling for an Uprising | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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Angling for an Uprising

Olga Stefan appears to have brought Chicago Artists Coalition back from the brink, but one faction already wants her out.

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Artist and preservation warrior Barton Faist, famous locally for his battle to save Tree Studios, stood up last week at a Chicago Artists Coalition board meeting to champion a new cause. "I was asked to come tonight to discuss the possibility of reviewing Olga," he announced to the ten board members and two staffers (including executive director Olga Stefan) seated around the conference table at CAC's new offices. But as soon as Faist launched into a description of his encounters with Stefan during her first 15 months on the job, outgoing chair Lynn Merel cut him off. "I'm not sure this is appropriate," Merel said. "We're only doing the election of board members tonight." Advised that his issue would "get a better hearing if it's an agenda item," Faist took his seat, squelched until the board meets in late December, when he'll try again to get Stefan unseated.

Since her arrival in August 2005, Stefan, a former Around the Coyote head, has aggressively taken control of the foundering CAC ship. She says she was honored to step into the shoes of founding director Arlene Rakoncay, who'd been there 27 years, she says, "but I wasn't prepared for what I would find." CAC, with an average member age of 58, was understaffed, technologically challenged, and had racked up a $24,000 operating deficit. Stefan began cutting costs--moving the office to smaller quarters, changing printers for the monthly newsletter, taking over bookkeeping duties herself--and hired her husband, Oliver Bosche, to build a new Web site. That move raised some eyebrows, but she says the redesign was needed to bring in younger members and generate income. Plus, Bosche gave them a great deal. "For $7,500 we got a Web site that does just about everything CAR does," she says, referring to the city's Chicago Artists Resource site, built at a cost of $200,000 and initially seen by many as a threat to CAC. Stefan says the coalition is now operating in the black, collecting income from its online galleries (up from about 60 artists to 269) and annual dues (membership has increased by 250 to 2,300). The job bank, previously contained in a three-ring binder, can now be accessed online, and workshops have tripled from about 10 per year to about 30.

Still, Stefan says, "it's been a hard year for me. People are trying to sabotage things I'm doing from behind the scenes." She chalks that up to change, which is "always hard for some people." But others say the problem is her management style, which differs sharply from Rakoncay's nurturing approach--a critical factor for a membership organization. With the exception of one part-timer, CAC's small staff has completely turned over since Stefan came on board. Longtime bookkeeper Georgia Makris and former membership director Margaret Gross left soon after she arrived; Katie Copenhaver, who'd edited the newsletter for six years, quit in March. All three cite the difficulty of working with Stefan. Robert Kameczura, a CAC founder and former board member, says he's concerned about the future of the organization: "I'm chair of the fair practices committee, and the number one thing I get today is calls about our director, who seems to be immune to the rights of the artists on our staff." But new board chair Susan Aurinko, who ran on a platform of support for the current administration, says Stefan's "doing really great things" for the organization, which needed to move forward or perish. Aurinko says the complainers are "a few people with loud voices who just don't want change." Bedside manner aside, Stefan is "dynamic, smart, resourceful, and fearless--great qualities for an executive director."

Stefan says she can't please everyone. "Twenty-three hundred people: I can't expect all of them are going to like me. What I've been most hurt by is the maliciousness. I haven't heard concrete reasons for it." She says she's received menacing phone calls from someone who sounds exactly like Faist, asking "When are you going to leave?" According to Faist, he called once to ask if Stefan was still there, no menace intended. Having rejoined the coalition just last week--he says he's been a member off and on since the 70s--Faist claims he's merely the advance guard for a membership

roiling in discontent. But if the rank and file is aroused, you wouldn't

know it from the election: the vote was open by mail and fax to all 2,300 members; the new board swept in on a total of 34 ballots.

Pissing Match?

Joseph Jefferson Committee chair Susan Haimes says her group is waiting to see how charges of copyright violation and unlawful use against the Chicago producers of Urinetown are resolved before deciding if they need to do something about the Jeff Award given to choreographer Brian Loeffler earlier this month. Members of the creative team for the show's Broadway production claim that while the Chicago production (at the Mercury Theater last spring) was authorized to use the script and music, it did not have the right to lift the stage direction, choreography, lighting, costumes, and set design. And they're demanding the return of the Jeff along with compensation and credit.

Ronald H. Shechtman, their attorney, says a photo spotted on the Internet by choreographer John Carrafa was the catalyst for the complaint: "He thought it was the New York show, but when he looked closely he didn't recognize any of the actors. Then he came out and saw the Chicago show and was furious."

The situation is similar to a 1994 case in which the producers of a Drury Lane Oakbrook staging of The Most Happy Fella were charged with copying the stage direction of a Broadway production mounted two years earlier. That suit was settled for an undisclosed amount of money and a full-page ad in Variety acknowledging the contribution of the New York director.

The Art Fair Shuffle

Art Chicago, now under the stewardship of the Merchandise Mart, has a new logo: instead of the guy with the backache, the symbol for the show is a comic-strip text balloon. As for other changes, Mart spokesperson Shawn Kahle says no director will be hired for the 2007 edition; it'll be run by Mart VP Mark Falanga with a team that includes sales director Tony Karman and marketing director David Drury. A selection committee will decide which galleries are accepted, and the main event will be fleshed out with a quartet of other shows: antiques; outsider art curated by Intuit; the Bridge Art Fair; and the Artists Project, a totally new show featuring about 50 artists without gallery representation. Paul Klein, whose efforts to create a museum for the Chicago Art Project have stalled, has been plugging the new show via an e-mail blast as a "related endeavor," encouraging local artists to apply (it'll cost them $1,000 to participate if accepted). The e-mail also notes that Klein's "just gotten set up as a dealer of high end audio/video equipment. If you are in the market for a new LCD or plasma screen..."

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

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