Although I wasn't quite sure what point Ben Joravsky was trying to make with his article on the 77-year-old freelance illustrator, Ralph Creasman, in "No Job Too Small," November 28, whether 1) City Hall is picking on the little guy or 2) enforcement of business-license laws is arbitrary, he should have mentioned how lucky Mr. Creasman was that he didn't have to pay for all those years he didn't have a proper license and that his office had the right zoning for running a business. No, I don't work for City Hall nor am I endorsing Mayor Daley's crackdown on anyone who owes the city money, as mentioned in the article. I am an artist who is very active in the arts community of Chicago and learning all the time about city business licenses for selling art, building codes for hosting events, and what one has to do in order to serve peanuts at an art opening.
We, too, were "caught" by a woman from City Hall who, during one of our art openings, asked to see our retail license. We had none. It never dawned on us to get a sales license for a simple art opening. After all, as artists we always ended up spending more on our openings (food, drinks, invitations, rent, making the art, etc) than we made selling the art. But it didn't seem to matter that we were losing money at our shows. After all, we were exhibiting our work, meeting other artists, and getting comments on our art. The lady from City Hall said she had the authority to shut down the show and confiscate all of the artwork. Since she said she liked the artwork (and seemed to be enjoying herself at the show) she gave us permission to "carry on," but we had to go to City Hall within 30 days and get a license. What was supposed to be a onetime trip to City Hall turned out to be a yearlong series of trips and countless phone calls.
During the past year I found myself spending more time in City Hall than I had planned to, just to be sure we were "legal" when hosting an art opening in my studio. The first shock we experienced was to discover our art studio is located in a building zoned "manufacturing" (M12), which means no retail license can ever be issued for our location. If we want to sell art in our space, we must obtain an itinerant merchant license at $25 per artist per event and pretend that our art show is equivalent to a summer street fair. In order to get this special onetime event license, you also need an Illinois tax number, which can be obtained in another building. You can also get the $25 fee waived if you work with your alderman (ours was easy to work with) and belong to an art-support organization that has a not-for-profit status, which you can get (after filling out an extremely long application at the State of Illinois Building), but only if you have a federal tax ID number, which you can get from Kansas City after filling out another lengthy application.
If you want to serve food, you need to obtain a food-serving license that costs $100 per onetime event plus attend a class in order to get certified on how to serve food properly. Even if you serve wrapped chewing gum and bottled water, you need a food license. (Tap water requires no food license.) Serving, not even selling, liquor also requires another license ($125 per event) plus a certified bartender to serve it. Want to do a silent auction for a worthy cause? Cough up $1,000 for a gambling license plus hire a certified auctioneer to run it. A raffle? Shell out $100, hire a certified public accountant to run it, plus show that the proceeds will go to a nationally registered not-for-profit group.
So what's my point? Is City Hall picking on us artists? (I don't think so.) Should "starving artists" be exempt from paying any city fees when it costs more to run a small studio art opening than you'll clear from art sales? (Not really.) My point to anyone who runs a business in the city of Chicago is know the rules and regulations. Whether you like them or not, it's the law. Now, what about the kid's lemonade stand down on the street corner?