Some things change, some don't.
Visual art was an afterthought for DePaul University, which didn't offer a studio art major until the 1970s, and didn't have a campus art museum until 1985, when two classrooms were converted in McGaw Hall. More recently, DePaul's art museum was squeezed into low-profile quarters in the campus library building. But that's about to change.
This weekend the university is opening the new DePaul Art Museum in its own building, at 935 W. Fullerton. DPAM will have daily hours and free admission in a location that cozies up to one of the city's busiest el stations—so close that it'll be flashing video come-ons from a gallery window to passengers on the platform.
Designed by Antunovich Associates to blend with its Lincoln Park neighborhood, the 15,200-square-foot, $7.8 million, red-brick facility looks pretty much like any other storefront, except for a large arched glass window, like a big open mouth, in the middle of its public face on Fullerton. Inside, there's 4,000 square feet of display space divided into five galleries on the first two floors; on the third floor, along with offices, are amenities the DPAM never had before, like a lecture hall/event space and a state-of-the-art teaching room. The whole thing is small enough to feel friendly, and full of natural light, thanks to generous windows throughout that also frame the moving picture show of DePaul's dense urban environment.
It wouldn't be surprising if Loyola University's 2005 relocation of its art museum from its main campus in Rogers Park to its Water Tower outpost helped spur the rapid development of this little gem. DPAM director Louise Lincoln says only that in 2008 the administration decided to create a museum that would be better able to interact with the public. And when new buildings for the theater and music schools also go up on Fullerton (at Racine and Halsted, respectively), DePaul will have a highly visible "arts corridor."
But whether the public wants to interact with the museum will depend on the programming. As a university institution, DPAM will serve academic functions, complementing faculty work and research. And after the opening show, the largest of its galleries will be dedicated to art from DePaul's collection, which is small so far—about 2,500 pieces. (It wasn't until the mid-1970s that the school's Women's Board began soliciting donations for it).
That all sounds like a snooze. But the museum's mission focuses on "social concerns through innovative exhibitions," and under Lincoln, who's been there 13 years, they've mounted some ambitious shows, including 2008's "1968: Art and Politics in Chicago" which, like this one, was funded in part by the Terra Foundation.
DePaul's permanent collection includes a focus on Chicago artists, and the museum generally does a Chicago-themed show in the fall, so it was a no-brainer to make the opening exhibit in the new space Chicago-centric. Lincoln says they wanted to experiment with the "democratization of the curatorial process," and to explore the idea of a Chicago canon: "how reputations are formed, how fame comes and goes, and what drives it."
They wound up with a "group-sourced exhibition," in which 41 local collectors, critics, and scholars each choose a Chicago artist who "is famous, used to be famous, or ought to be famous." The nominators wrote short explanations for their choices, which have been mounted as wall text. The result, "Re: Chicago," is a show "free of that single [authoritative] voice telling you what to think or how to look," Lincoln says. It's also hugely enhanced by an added layer of interest in who chose what and why, as well as who's missing.
Which brings us to one thing that doesn't change: Chicago's deep insecurity about its amorphous art scene. Don Baum's 1969 MCA exhibit, "Don Baum Says Chicago Needs Famous Artists," is the jumping-off point for Lincoln's introduction to the exhibit catalog: 40 years later, she writes, Chicago still "needs and needs to recognize its famous artists." In the excellent essays that follow, art historian Wendy Greenhouse discusses the vagaries of canon formation; scholar Kirsten Jensen argues that Porkopolis once stood proudly as a cultural venue; MCA curator Lynne Warren maintains that Chicago's contribution to 20th-century photography is better appreciated anywhere but here; and curator Robert Cozzolino, of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, makes a case for Chicago artists—starting with Ivan Albright—as pop art trailblazers.
Although the rosters of both nominators and artists are dominated by the usual suspects, there are surprises: Ed Paschke didn't make it into the show, for example (Lincoln speculates that everybody assumed someone else would nominate him), but Macena Barton did. Along with an insanely obsessive, site-specific installation of dripped and dabbed paint by Cream Co. ("Years, Years Later, in Weeks, 2011"), Barton's 1932 nude self portrait, with its exuberant muff and confrontational gaze, is the first thing that meets your eye when you enter. That's a great start for an exhibit that'll have visitors pondering their own picks, and a promising opener for the little museum at the el.
As for who's missing: if fame is the criterion, where's LeRoy Neiman?