It's Not an Art Fair If There's No Drama; Do the Arts Have a Home at Hull House?; The Acquiring Mind | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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It's Not an Art Fair If There's No Drama; Do the Arts Have a Home at Hull House?; The Acquiring Mind

A Nova employee accuses Michael Workman of bad business.



It's Not an Art Fair if There's No Drama

Art-fair follies, junior edition: local artist and curator Dirk Knibbe says working on the second annual Nova Art Fair, where he was programming and operations director, was an incredible experience, but as soon as it was over, things turned ugly between him and founder Michael Workman. "One minute we're running an art fair together, I'm flying to Miami, I'm getting health insurance, I have a bonus coming, and I have a job that I've made a commitment to; the next I have no job, I'm out a thousand dollars of due pay, and he's threatening me with criminal charges if I come back to the office."

Workman says he fired Knibbe because he was responsible for a "whole realm of problems," and "I caught him taking money out of the ticket drawer." According to Knibbe, "I took $60 out of the till to pay someone and I left a receipt for it. It was petty cash. Why would I think that was a problem?" Workman says it wasn't petty cash and Knibbe only wrote a receipt because he was aware that "I saw him taking it."

Nova's "fashion train," which had volunteer models in garments from local boutiques lurching through CTA cars during a joyride around the Loop, was one of Knibbe's responsibilities. In the weeks following the fair, he says, people were "screaming at me because they're owed money or their checks have bounced, and [Workman's] bad business is on my name." Fashion-train curator Sarah Ponder, who says she had one check bounce, and City Soles owner Scott Starbuck, who says over five hundred dollars' worth of footwear he loaned to the show came back damaged, confirmed they'd been attempting to contact Workman for several weeks in order to collect expenses or reimbursement, but he hadn't returned calls. (Last week, the day after I called Workman to ask about the situation, he got in touch with Ponder and delivered a check to Starbuck.)

Workman, who's been in Miami working on the show he'll be doing there in December under the name Bridge Art Fair, admits to having a "few little cash flow problems, like every small organization does," but says he took care of them. As for the delay in dealing with Ponder, Starbuck, and others, he was "just trying to figure out what's the right thing to do." Holding Nova at Lakeview's City Suites Hotel worked "really well," he says (though he couldn't provide a specific attendance figure), but next year he might do without the hassle and expense of extra programming like the fashion train. He says Knibbe is a "disgruntled worker trying to get a pound of flesh." Knibbe says Workman paid him what he was owed last weekend, and he's now ready to move on.

Do the Arts Have a Home at Hull House?

Hull House Association president Clarence Wood says the venerable institution isn't leaving the arts behind, even though its arts and culture center on Wilson Avenue, home to its once-popular programs in photography and ceramics, closed at the end of April for budgetary reasons. The association invested over $1 million in the Wilson center, which it opened two and a half years ago after selling the long-standing Jane Addams Hull House Center for the Arts on Broadway. According to Wood, "we'd hoped we'd be able to recruit people in the community to participate; we were unable to develop that clientele." He says classes have been integrated into the rest of the organization's services, which include community centers, public housing for senior citizens, and after-school programs, and a decision will be made "in the near future whether to open an arts center in some of our space at our new facility at 1030 W. Van Buren."

The closing came as no surprise to Richard Stromberg, who ran the Hull House photography program for years but had an acrimonious split with the association after it announced the sale of the Broadway facility. He predicted this outcome, noting among other things that the Wilson location was right across the street from Truman College, which also offers public arts classes. Stromberg is now concerned about a collection of photographs taken by his former students and has asked Hull House to give it to the nonprofit Chicago Photography Center at 3301 N. Lincoln, which he helped establish. So far Hull House has refused. "What we're not doing is giving it to Richard to display in his gallery," says official Mischelle Causey-Drake, "because it's art that belongs to Hull House." She says the organization values the collection but will release photos to the students who took them. They can be claimed, preferably before June 30, at the new Van Buren headquarters.


The Acquiring Mind

Doug Seibold's Evanston-based Agate Publishing, best known for a couple of very successful and well-received novels by African-American writers, is acquiring another small local press, Susan Schwartz's Surrey Books, which puts out food and entertainment tomes, in a sale that will close June 30. Seibold says he was attracted by Surrey's extensive backlist, and expects the acquisition to double Agate's revenues while more than tripling its catalog. He thinks the move will make his company stronger, more diverse, and more able to keep publishing literary fiction like Jill Nelson's Sexual Healing and Denise Nicholas's Freshwater Road, the publisher's two most successful titles. Sexual Healing sold 30,000 copies in paperback and hardcover and got a great pop on subsidiary rights: a book-club edition, world Spanish rights, UK rights, a film deal, and mass-market paperback rights, which were purchased by Pocket Books. Freshwater Road, which came out late last summer, has sold 12,000 copies in three printings, plus a book-club edition; Simon & Schuster bought the paperback rights.

Seibold says nonprofit publishers--like the Dalkey Archive Press, which found it couldn't afford to stay in Chicago--suffer by being dependent on the largesse of funding agencies and patrons. "When that money isn't there, it creates a difficult situation, regardless of how excellent their publishing program is. There's not a Ruth Lilly hiding under every mushroom. I'm applying a different model, and that is to try to assure our future by being commercially successful." He's kept overhead low, working out of his house and handling almost all the editing and marketing himself. The company now issues about 12 titles a year, and with the addition of Surrey he expects to publish at least twice that amount next year. He'll be at Printers Row this weekend.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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