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Left Behind by Around the Coyote

The Flat Iron's artists pull themselves together after the departure of a unifying force.

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What's Around the Coyote if it's no longer around the Coyote? And what's the Flat Iron building without it? Two weeks ago, ATC, longtime champion of Wicker Park's emerging artists, pulled up stakes and moved out of the Flat Iron building at North and Milwaukee after 19 years. ATC traded its gallery and office across the street from the iconic Coyote tower for smaller quarters, minus the gallery, in the Splat Flats, 1815-25 W. Division. That left the Flat Iron, home to 50 artists' studios, seriously flat. With its year-round exhibitions and high-profile festivals, Around the Coyote had been the major marketing engine for the building. In its absence, a new group, the Flat Iron Artists' Association, led by painter Kevin Lahvic, is scrambling to re-create a scene.

The decision to move was made rapidly and was based on economics, according to ATC's new executive director, Anne Mills, a recent Columbia College grad who moved up from visual art coordinator when Allison Stites downshifted to a part-time job as development director. The new office at the Splat Flats—a smaller artists' community above L. Miller & Sons Lumber—is cheaper to rent, and ATC will no longer be obliged to program a year-round gallery. Instead, it'll mount occasional shows in the Splat Flats' shared exhibition space. "We're still in the neighborhood," Mills says. "And we're looking to expand our interdisciplinary programs—more theater, more film, more literary events, more music." And that's all in tune with the interdisciplinary mission of ATC's new landlord.

The uprooting was a shock, but not a surprise. Flat Iron owner Bob Berger says he tried to work with ATC to keep them there, but they had "lost interest, lost focus" during Stites's four years as executive director. He was offended by the near absence of recognition for the Flat Iron building as a major supporter in ATC's official history, and by what he perceived as its snubbing of Flat Iron artists. Then, he says, last fall, when ATC moved the second of its two annual festivals off-site, he was incredulous. How could a festival that had brought tens of thousands of visitors to the Flat Iron and other Wicker Park venues be held in rented quarters in the West Loop?

The West Loop experiment—and one before it that took ATC's 2008 winter/spring festival downtown as part of Looptopia—fell far short of expectations. Stites says ATC is in the grip of "a perfect storm," with all sources of income in decline. The organization needs to raise $30,000 in the next four months and to rethink its operation. If it doesn't, Stites says, "it would not be good." She describes the situation as "a borderline crisis." Although Mills says ATC will do a fall event this year, and is "hoping to do one this spring in Wicker Park," it'll be interesting to see if they materialize. This is mid-March, and they don't have a location for spring yet.

By late February 2008, Lahvic says, "we all kind of knew something was up. There had been rumors that they were going to leave the neighborhood, but we were having trouble getting a straight answer from them. They kept saying, 'We're not sure what we're doing.' We had a meeting with Allison, and she finally said that she was taking the festival out of Wicker Park. Their corporate line was that they had outgrown the neighborhood, there weren't enough venues in the neighborhood. But the show they ended with could have been contained in the Flat Iron building alone. We got the distinct impression they were trying to distance themselves from the Flat Iron."

Stites denies this. "It's not specifically an attempt to distance ourselves from the Flat Iron," she says. "Our focus is to be current with what's happening, to support the best of the emerging arts." And that means not being tied to one neighborhood.

Lahvic says, "The Coyote festivals are what drew me and a lot of other artists to Wicker Park. They were such unique events." And the Flat Iron was intrinsic to them: "the twists and turns [of the hallways], being able to see the art in the halls and studios."

He says ATC had trouble dictating what went on in the building during the festivals. They had no real power to tell the residents what they could and couldn't show, and there were artists in the building who "would open up for their shows, and take advantage of the crowd, without paying any fee." But, he says, "I got the feeling that [Stites] was trying to ingratiate the organization with the powers that be in the art community in Chicago, and divorce it from the old image of what the Coyote was—a lot of emerging art, a lot of new art, a lot of art that wasn't expensive so people could come to the show and buy things."

Although it's been years since the ATC festivals peaked, with as many as 800 artists participating, they were still a significant source of income for the artists in the building. "For some of the people Coyote was all they would do," Lahvic says. So their loss "was a huge economic struggle for a lot of people, myself included. Coyote shows were about 40 percent of my own income. We immediately started trying to figure out what we were going to do."

A group of tenants who'd held a couple of small, off-season shows in the building formed the Flat Iron Artists Association, and they're now doing regular Wicker Park-Bucktown "First Friday" events, and a three-day "smARTshow" every season, the next one coming up in June. "What I tell everybody is, except for the name, you'll recognize this show more as Coyote than what the Coyote's doing," Lahvic says. More than 100 artists participated in the February smARTshow (the artists pay $50 and keep the proceeds of their sales), and the FIAA is planning its first membership drive for the fall.

"Making up the lost income from those two shows wasn't something that was going to happen overnight," Lahvic says. "We didn't have the marketing mechanism that Coyote did. But we managed to put some things together. It's hard not to be compared to [ATC], because it had such a history here. And all of us loved it, it was a huge part of all of our lives. We would be kidding ourselves if we said we weren't trying to replace that."

Lahvic predicts the FIAA will draw 10,000 people for the September smARTshow. About ten studios are open to the public every Saturday and Sunday, from 1 to 5 PM—and this week they held an open house for local businesses, looking for sponsors for festivals to come.

Yanks Stand Down in Giverny

The Terra Foundation is easing itself out of its museum in Giverny. On May 1, the former Musee d' Art Americain, opened by Daniel Terra in 1992 to show his collection of American Impressionism, will become something quite different: the Musee des Impressionnismes—exhibiting Impressionist work from around the world. It'll be run and supported by a group of French government bodies and museums, with two board seats held by the Terra Foundation.

The foundation says this will allow it to "reallocate financial resources throughout the world," as it continues to "foster understanding of the historical art of the United States." While the foundation's headquarters remain in Chicago, it's also opening a new office in Paris.

But Once You're Inside, It's Free

The Art Institute of Chicago has been ready to raise entrance fees for the last two years but held off because parts of the museum were closed for the renovation that accompanied construction of the Modern Wing, according to spokesperson Erin Hogan. She says the new rates of $18 for adults and $12 for seniors and students—increases of 50 and 71 percent, which go into effect May 23—bring the AIC in line with Chicago's other nine Museums in the Park, in part because extra charges for special exhibitions will also be eliminated. That sounds great, but the museum's only locked into that arrangement for seven months. At the end of this calendar year, says Hogan, they'll "reevaluate."v

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