Bitter Suite/Stuck in the Middle | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Bitter Suite/Stuck in the Middle

The city says its latest public art adventure was a success, but artists David Philpot, Kathy Kozan, and Layne Jackson are calling it a fiasco--and they're not going to take it sitting down.

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Bitter Suite

After three listless auctions, the city finally pulled the plug on Suite Home Chicago. Curator Nathan Mason said a "second-chance" on-line sale ended about two weeks ago because they weren't getting any inquiries and needed to move on. More than a dozen lots of the clunky furniture remain unsold, along with about two dozen pieces commissioned by Circuit City that haven't yet been put on the block. Proceeds from all three events--the original on-line auction, a live auction, and an on-line sale of the leftovers--totaled $103,376, or $3.4 million less than Cows on Parade earned two years ago. The city's claim that the cows were an anomaly and Suite Home was a success sounds like a pile of cow patties to artists whose work went at fire-sale prices.

Kathy Kozan was pleased when her chair Phoenix wound up on the cover of the exhibition catalog. When it sold for $800 in the sparsely attended live auction at the Chicago Theatre last month she was horrified. Kozan was in the lobby making repairs to her Toon Chair, also on the block that night, when Phoenix came under the gavel. "I borrowed a flashlight from one of the ushers, and I'm on my back, trying to fix the wiring," she says. "By the time I got back inside Phoenix had been sold. When I realized how much it went for, I walked back out and told them, 'Get me Nathan Mason. I'm pulling Toon Chair from the auction.'"

As Kozan--who paid her own entry fee--recalls it, Mason came out and said, "You can't do that." But Kozan had the auction rules in hand. "It said the chair can be pulled by Sotheby's or by the sponsor any time before the final bid is taken," she says. "Other artists were standing around saying, 'Take mine out, take mine out,' but unless they had been their own sponsors, there was nothing they could do. Many of the pieces went for $300 or $350."

"It's still hard to talk about it," says David Philpot, whose decorated cow brought in $36,000 for its nonprofit sponsor in the 1999 auction. This year, with his church as partner and beneficiary, Philpot had sponsored his own clock-studded suite and didn't realize he could withdraw it. He also hadn't followed the Internet auction, where part of the suite had already sold for as little as $350. When his sofa went for $900 at the live sale, he was shocked. "I invested $15,000 in [the suite]," he says--he paid the sponsor's fee of $7,500 for the base pieces, bought other materials, and put in three months' work. "My whole church was there. We thought we could get a down payment on a new building." Proceeds from the entire suite were $2,175. Under this year's rules, half of that will go to a list of city-designated beneficiaries that includes Gallery 37.

Kozan, Philpot, and Layne Jackson--who wanted the battered-women's shelter Deborah's Place to benefit from her work, rounded up a corporate sponsor to help with the $5,000 cost, and then saw the piece go for $350--have decided not to take this sitting down. The three are collaborating on a manifesto that will be printed and distributed by the Chicago Artists' Coalition. Part philosophical treatise, part practical guide to the business of art, it's meant to stop artists from giving away their work. "There's the idea that you're so lucky to be doing art, you shouldn't be paid for it," Kozan says. "But luck has nothing to do with it. This is a skill you're marketing, like anything else. Would a plumber do something for free? Unstop a drain for the joy of it?" When she called CAC to see if they'd be interested, Kozan says, "I learned they advise artists not to participate in any auctions because the only thing that's tax-deductible is the materials--they can't deduct [for] their time."

Charities like Deborah's Place that were counting on a windfall are out of luck. "We were so disappointed," says the shelter's communications manager, Natalie Nash, who figures the group will get less than $200 after the city takes half. While some nonprofits that sponsored their own pieces were satisfied with the visibility Suite Home gave them, most agree about the problems: chairs aren't as cute as cows, the novelty card was played the first time around, the economy tanked, and 9/11 was the capper. But city public art director Mike Lash says the real problem was irrational exuberance. After the cow auction soared to explosive heights, "everybody's expectations were crazy....Suite Home Chicago did exactly what we thought the cows would do in terms of numbers and in revenue generated. It exceeded cows in the number of pieces and was in the black the day it opened." He says there will be another big public art project in two years, though "we're pretty sure it won't be plastic stuff on the street." Mason expects the charities to have their money, such as it is, by the end of the year.

Stuck in the Middle

Arts management guru Alvin Reiss says midsize nonprofits are going to hurt most in the new economic environment. "The large groups will still have their major funders," he says, "and the small ones will have their volunteers." Reiss, who founded the Arts Management Newsletter in 1962 with future Future Shock author Alvin Toffler, will head his 44th annual conference on professional arts management at Columbia College at the end of January. He's forged a partnership with Columbia; the college is cohosting the conference--"America's oldest continuing course in cultural administration," says Reiss--and has taken over publishing his bimonthly newsletter.

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

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