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Art Against Apathy

After giving up on making Chicagoans care about peace, Vesna Rebernak is testing the waters again with an exhibit in Highland Park.

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To Fear or Not to Fear," an exhibit of work by ten artists mostly from war-torn countries, probably won't break any attendance records at Highland Park's Art Center, where it's now on display. Ostensibly examining the ways that "the global media perpetuates a feeling of fear that permeates all cultures," it's heavy stuff and mostly didactic--from Anya Belyat-Giunta's drawings of apparently bullet-riddled babies to Granite Amit's ever evolving Grapes of Wrath, with its litany of Palestinian and Israeli suffering. But for curator Vesna Rebernak, who plans to take it to the east and west coasts (and maybe even as far as Chicago), it's enough that it even exists. It's evidence thatthe organization she poured herself into for ten years, Links for International Promotion of the Arts, isn't among the dead.

The story behind LIPA is both political and intensely personal. Rebernak, who grew up in the pastoral northern part of the former Yugoslavia that's now Slovenia, came to Chicago in 1988 to study architecture at UIC. After graduation she stayed, working at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and watched in dismay as conflict in the Balkans escalated. Desperate to do something that might help, she founded two human rights groups. The first, Dialogue for Peace, was a multiethnic organization of Yugoslavs living in Chicago. Intended to counter "media misinformation about centuries of hate" as a cause of problems in the area, it succumbed to factionalism after the Bosnian civil war broke out. The second, Bridge for Humanity, limped along after both anti-Croatian and anti-Serbian factions threatened to bomb a multicultural dance program it was sponsoring. But there was an upside to her frustrated efforts: while attending a Washington peace conference she met and fell in love with another activist, a Bosnian expat mathematician named Amer Beslagic, a professor at George Mason University in D.C.

Rebernak's next few years were writ large: in 1995 she was diagnosed with cancer; after surgery and treatment, she moved to D.C. to join Beslagic. They were married that year. In '97 Beslagic, an experienced climber, lost his footing in the Grand Teton mountains and fell to his death. He was 38. Three months later, carrying out plans they'd hatched together, Rebernak founded LIPA as a nonprofit gallery primarily devoted to Slavic arts. (Lipa is also the Slavic word for the linden tree, the "tree of life" around which Slovenians traditionally hold gatherings.) When she moved back to Chicago in 2001, the organization moved too, landing at 160 E. Illinois. Rebernak had seen war in both Yugoslavia and Iraq (where she was working in 1983); in a Reader interview published a week before the gallery's Chicago opening, Rebernak told author Jack Helbig, "I founded LIPA because I was sick of politics. I was sick of flags. I was sick of all those political slogans. I was sick of different religious factions. The LIPA goes back to pagan times. There is nothing ethnic in it."

The gallery opened on schedule--three days after 9/11, just as bringing art and artists in from other countries became both harder and more critical than ever. Visas were difficult to obtain; government funding shrank. LIPA, with an expanded global mission, was at the Illinois address for two and a half years; in 2004, when that building was to be slated for demolition, Rebernak moved it to the fifth floor of the Fine Arts Building, then owned by Tom Graham. During the course of its existence, she says, it has exhibited art from 40 countries and sponsored discussions, performances, concerts, and films. While Graham owned the building, LIPA was allowed relatively free use of other areas there, including the tenth-floor concert hall. But after it was sold to Bob Berger in 2005, Rebernak says, things changed: access to areas outside the gallery was restricted and services seemed to deteriorate. When an overflow audience for a LIPA concert was forced to stand, facing a stack of extra chairs they'd been forbidden to use by building management, Rebernak says she knew her days there were numbered. (Fine Arts Building manager Kyle Walsh says the chairs, which belonged to a rental firm, were available for a fee and Rebernak chose not to use them. He also says LIPA moved out owing rent that was never paid; Rebernak says she deducted for building improvements LIPA had funded.)

LIPA left the Fine Arts Building in March 2006, and Rebernak toyed with the idea of moving to New York. Here, it seemed, the organization had run out of steam: volunteers who'd labored to rehab the Fine Arts space less than two years before were exhausted and grants were increasingly hard to come by. She says grant-making organizations, never enthusiastic about the Michigan Avenue address, would ask, "What community are you serving?" But once LIPA lost that space, funding became even more elusive. It seemed to her that grant makers didn't really read her proposals--instead, she says, "they look at the budget, at who you serve, who's on the board." The process of "begging for money" became "disgusting." Concluding that "in this country, no one's really interested in promoting international understanding," she says, "I gave up." For most of last year, Rebernak focused on her freelance architecture practice, and during that period LIPA's nonprofit status with the state lapsed.

But Rebernak's itch to curate persisted. She did a small show at the Highland Park center in December and two in New York this spring. Now she has LIPA events planned for Bridgeport and Highland Park in September and says she's trying to find a new home for the group in the city--maybe in Bridgeport or Wicker Park. She wants a place where LIPA can offer simultaneous residencies to artists from multiple (read: antagonistic) countries, and says she's working on getting the nonprofit status reinstated. In her notes for "To Fear or Not to Fear," Rebernak's still shooting at the messenger--blaming the media for perpetuating "simplistic cultural notions of good and evil, euphemized as 'centuries old hatred' or 'clash of civilizations.'" But in the end, she says, "the thing I fear most is apathy."

Follow-Up

Local sculptor Erik Blome says he returned from a trip to Africa to learn that his statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., commissioned by the town of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but banished shortly after its installation, had been quietly reinstated late last month. The statue was relegated to storage in 2005 after widely publicized complaints that it didn't look enough like MLK. According to coverage by the Rocky Mount Telegram, the city council voted to return Blome's work to Martin Luther King Park when funding for a replacement failed to materialize. Public reaction was reportedly mixed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Rob Warner.

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