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Other People's Money

As the art community watches with apprehension, Lisa Alvarado gets tough about receiving her promised grant.

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By Ben Joravsky

Other People's Money

Lisa Alvarado isn't the first artist who didn't get paid the money she was promised for the work that she did, but she's one of the few to complain publicly. In doing so she's flashed a light where no light's wanted--on the murky fiduciary inner workings of one of Chicago's best-known galleries.

At issue is the Randolph Street Gallery's handling of the Regional Artists' Projects grant program, or RAP. "RAP was designed for artists who would not otherwise be funded by existing programs," says Peter Taub, a board member and former executive director of RSG. "In the last six years we have awarded close to $300,000 to over 100 artists."

Working with a gallery in Ohio, RSG oversees RAP in the midwest, running workshops, reviewing requests, and raising money from private and public sources including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Alvarado, a poet, heard about RAP from a friend. "It sounded ideal for me," she says. Her anguished, highly personal accounts of surviving an abusive working-class family were popular in feminist and multiculti circles. But her self-published collection, Reclamo, and her frequent coffeeshop and bookstore appearances didn't bring in enough money to pay the rent. "There are many artists like me in African-American and Latino neighborhoods," says Alvarado, who lives in Pilsen and works as a hospital aide. "We're not tied to the established artist community, and we have to have outside jobs. But we're as devoted to our art as anyone."

For the last few years she and her husband, filmmaker Greg McCain, have been devising ways of integrating her poetry with video and other media. They planned to construct a series of tableaux, like Mexican-style Day of the Dead altars, fitted with television screens showing tapes of Alvarado reading her poems.

On May 12, 1995, she submitted an application to RSG asking for a $4,000 grant to create and stage her project, which would be "divided into five tableaux...representing the themes of: bulimia, mother/daughter relationships, sexuality, and bicultural identity."

The happy news came almost a year later in a letter from Kapra Fleming, Randolph Street Gallery's RAP grant coordinator. "Congratulations! I am very pleased to inform you that your proposal...has been selected by our panel," Fleming wrote. "The grant will be disbursed on a 50/50 basis with 50 percent disbursed after we receive your signed Contract...and 50 percent after you submit the Interim Report (by September 15, 1996)."

Alvarado was awarded only $3,000, but she wasn't complaining. The competition was fierce for what little money existed for experimental artists. She was one of 17 recipients chosen from a pool of over 200 applicants. "It was a prestigious award, and besides, I needed the money."

She received the first $1,500 installment and went to work. "I bought icons to be used on the altars. I rented video equipment and made arrangements to pay rent at a gallery in Pilsen to stage the project," she says.

In September she submitted her "interim report," which included an itemized account of every expenditure. "I did everything they told me and more," she says. "I had all of my bills dated and signed by the purveyors. I had set up a separate account to administer the money, and sent the canceled checks. I wrote a report explaining that we needed the final payment for video editing time and renting the space for the exhibition."

Two weeks passed without word from RSG. "Near the end of September I started calling them," says Alvarado. "I asked for Fleming but she didn't work there anymore. I told the receptionist my story and she said, 'I don't know who's responsible. I'll take your name and number and have someone return your call.' But no one ever returned my call.

"After the third week I was told they had a development director named Gustavo Paredes. I started leaving messages for Gustavo, and somehow or other I got ahold of Laurie Kerlin [the business manager]. Laurie was profusely apologetic. She said, 'I can understand you are upset, and let me assure you that we will make every attempt to get you the money. Rest assured that your check will be in the mail.'"

By now it was mid-October and time was running out. Alvarado was supposed to stage her show in January, and the gallery in Pilsen was on the phone: Do you want the space? Should we send out press releases? She called the Randolph Street Gallery every day and still she had no answers. It was dispiriting, almost depressing, to be treated so rudely. It wasn't as though her request was outrageous. The grant was hers, not the gallery's--RSG was only the conduit through which the money flowed. Yet here she was, all but groveling, badgering them every day with calls and questions. Where's the money? Has it already been spent? "I heard that they recently bought their building [at 756 N. Milwaukee]," she says. "Did that mean they had fallen behind and they were using grant money to pay their expenses? That's not right, but at least I'd understand. Maybe I wouldn't be so upset if they didn't give me such a runaround.

"I called and called and called, and they never called me back. Finally I got Laurie. I said, 'What's going on? What's the problem?' She said there is no problem, that she's going to take personal responsibility to make sure my check is in the mail no later than November 15. She said, 'If you don't receive it by Saturday [November 16], please call me back.' Guess what? I'm still waiting for the check."

As an outsider unfamiliar with the ways of the art world it's easy to be sympathetic to Alvarado. But artists and art dealers have a much different take. "This happens all the time. With all the NEA cuts and everything, people are struggling," says one gallery owner. "Randolph Street's a wonderful cutting-edge institution. I'm surprised she went public. It'll give her a bad name. She's opening up a can of worms."

Others say Alvarado should be satisfied with the honor, with or without the money. "I'd crawl across the street in a New York minute for an NEA grant," says a north-side artist. "She's got to watch it. The art world's a closed place. You don't want to upset the powers, and Randolph's a power. They're certainly more powerful than a poet in Pilsen."

Noting that about $22,000 in federal dollars were funneled into the RAP grants, the NEA promises to look into the matter, even though its investigative capabilities are strapped by the latest round of congressional budget cuts. "Federal grants must be spent for the specific purpose for which they were requested," says an NEA communications specialist in Washington. "We will call the artist and the gallery."

As for RSG officials, their response is a work in progress. It changes day by day. More than a week ago I dropped in, asked for the person in charge, and wound up talking to Kerlin, who said, "I don't know anything about this," and referred all questions to Paredes. He called two days later to say, "We're committed to paying our artists."

Have any other artists complained about not being paid?

"No."

Who are the other RAP-grant artists?

"That's confidential."

Have they been paid?

"I can't comment on that."

Is there any money to pay them?

"I can't comment on that. I'm not at liberty to explain these things. Call Hamza Walker--he's president of the board."

So I did, and Walker said, "We're waiting for the artists' [interim] reports."

But Alvarado sent in her report months ago.

"They're not all in."

Do you have to have all the interim reports before you pay Alvarado?

"I don't know. I don't know what she's been paid. I don't do the record keeping. I'm not the bookkeeper. Talk to Gustavo."

But he told me to talk to you.

"Well, he's the one who should know."

Let's get this straight. The guy who knows told me to talk to the guy who doesn't know?

"Listen. It's been hard. Peter [Taub] left [last December]. We own the building. We made a bid for stability by buying the building [in 1994] and now the cash flow isn't what we thought. We have taxes, a mortgage. We made a gamble for stability and we're paying for it. Maybe we should have sent out a press release on this. Maybe we should have explained all of this to her [Alvarado] when she first called. There are serious changes here since Peter left. Nobody can play the confidence game."

The next day Taub called to say that the story was "a nonissue" that would only damage the gallery--"which has an exemplary track record for providing opportunities to artists"--at a time "when it's most vulnerable." He said that the Reader should write about more pressing concerns, such as "the larger climatic shift that takes money away" from experimental art. And that all galleries occasionally fall behind on their bills, so what's the big deal? "We have already paid out $20,000 of the grants and we are committed to pay the rest," said Taub. "She [Alvarado] will get her money. Her show will go up. It will be great. It's now November 22. In an ideal world she would have got her check on October 1. It's six weeks late. Does that warrant a full-fledged investigation?"

Alvarado thinks it does. "Their attitude's so condescending--'Oh, you poor little peon. Keep quiet and we'll get you your money.' They act like they're doing me this big favor when really they're only going to pay me what they owe me. Taub's talking about a cash-flow problem. Please. Can you imagine me telling my landlord, 'I'm having a cash-flow problem this month. Don't worry, I'll get you your rent when I can'? I mean, these people aren't in the real world. Maybe it's a country-club thing; maybe they think it's enough to be invited in, to be a member. But it's not. Other artists may have the freedom to say 'It's all about expression' because they have the money to pay their bills. I believe in free expression, but I need the money.

"It comes down to this. They can't account for the grant money they received in my name. This is exactly what gives arts groups such a bad rep. They scream about free expression and then they don't pay their artists. They're not accountable for the money they receive and they cry for more. Give me a break."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Bruce Powell.

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