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From Department Store to Art Department

The School of the Art Institute opens galleries in the former Carson Pirie Scott building.

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The latest step in the transformation of downtown Chicago into one big happy college campus is the addition of a pair of School of the Art Institute galleries on the second floor of what used to be Carson Pirie Scott's State Street flagship store. This week the SAIC officially opens its 32,000-square-foot Sullivan Galleries in the Louis Sullivan-designed building, now known as Sullivan Center. According to the school, it's the largest "contemporary art gallery space" in the Loop.

It's definitely a capacious piece of real estate—a mostly open, concrete-floored expanse that ends on two sides in huge windows, trimmed with Sullivan's fretwork and framing the pulsing intersection of Monroe and State.

As a free-admission venue in one of the world's great architectural landmarks at one of the city's busiest pedestrian corners, it has the potential to draw an enormous audience. And the appointment last month of SAIC professor Mary Jane Jacob to head up the school's expanded exhibition program suggests that it just might. Jacob, a former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, has helped change the interaction between art institutions and the public from stodgy and static to dynamic and collaborative. The inaugural exhibition, "Ahh... Decadence!," which features 122 works by 42 Chicago artists, could be a little blockbuster—if the throng on the street gets a clue that it's there.

Right now, nobody's going to stumble on the Sullivan Galleries. The street level of the building, under construction, presents an inscrutable wall of black-painted plywood. When I was there last week, entry was through a nearly hidden doorway off a sidewalk encased in scaffolding. The construction will continue for another year.

The school has leases that extend to 2018 with two five-year renewal options. In addition to the two gallery spaces, the deal covers the rest of the seventh floor, which has housed the SAIC's expanding fashion program—now launching one of the country's few graduate programs in that subject—since last winter, and the 12th floor, which is occupied by the design and architecture departments, along with administrative offices. Chief operating officer Ed McNulty says the school began negotiating for the gallery spaces a year ago, after deciding not to put any more money into renovations on a gallery at 847 W. Jackson, in a building the SAIC had sold a few years earlier. Not that the new quarters didn't require some investment: McNulty says it cost $8.6 million to outfit both floors of the Sullivan Center digs.

Interim dean of faculty Lisa Wainwright says Jacob's appointment reflects a shift in the art world at large: "a migration of curators from museums into universities," where they enjoy "a more experimental ethos" and—perhaps more to the point—"don't have to deal with the museum board."

Wainwright, who curated "Decadence," says it's no accident that the inaugural exhibit sports a nearly all-Chicago roster of artists, including SAIC students and alumni. "We have a rich tradition, we're very productive at the moment, and I'm tired of this coastal prejudice," she says. "We don't get the attention we deserve in Chicago." Retiring SAIC president Tony Jones—who turned his job over to former Arizona State University architecture and design dean Wellington "Duke" Reiter last week—noted in one of his last formal statements as the school's head that "with the Sullivan Galleries on State Street, the School is poised to become a greater player on the contemporary scene in Chicago and beyond."

Wainwright says she drew the show's theme from what she sees as a "rehashing" of late-19th-century decadence in the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. "There's a level of unease, and at the same time there's this flagrant consumerism—the conflation of sex and death—jamming into each other," she says.

Whatever the rationale, it's a show about excess, from one of Nick Cave's soundsuits—a knit-and-metal flower-man hybrid, blooming profusely—to Richard Willenbrink's larger-than-life oil painting of Salome alone in her boudoir with Saint John's unfortunate head. There are major works by the likes of Jim Lutes and Wesley Kimler, as well as contributions from recent graduates, like Delivery, a multimedia pizza orgy by Ben Fain, Liz Magic Laser, and Dafna Mainon.

My favorite is Alison Ruttan's hypnotic mural Chromophilia , in which a pornographic video clip has been reduced to forms resembling Matisse's paper cutouts; multiplied and animated into a chorus line, they cavort to the strains of Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers." As Wainwright notes, there's a lot of naughty here, but it's not all graphic sex. There's also plenty of decay.

"Department (Store)," a collaborative exhibit conceived and directed by SAIC alum J. Morgan Puett, occupies the second of the two Sullivan spaces. It features 130 or so fluorescent-lit glass cases—the kind Carson Pirie Scott might have left behind—lined up in rows. The plan is for the show to develop over a three-month run, as SAIC students and others fill the cases. As of last week just two were full: one displaying a candelabrum—a motif for "Decadence"—the other offering a family narrative by author Martin Perdoux, complete with photo albums, boxes of letters, and newspaper clippings. The public's invited to participate; inquire at deptstore@saic.edu.

The overall plan for the galleries is to present the work of students and more experienced artists together, and Jacob says modernism's on the calendar for next fall. But the other shows scheduled for 2008 will consist almost entirely of student work, with an undergraduate exhibition coming up next. Whether that'll grab the massive potential audience of shoppers, tourists, and neighborhood workers and residents remains to be seen. But "Decadence" is an easy sell. All they'll need is a teaser or two at street level.

As for the Loop as campus: college students are chronically broke and nonprofit schools suck local resources while escaping local taxes. But it works as an instant gentrification plan—the prestigious high end of a service economy. Maybe parents will always be willing to shell out the price of a Picasso to give their offspring four or more years at one of our sleek urban finishing schools. Or maybe they won't: the fastest-growing college in the country is the University of Phoenix. That's phoenix.edu, the mostly virtual school.v

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