In Chicago, too few exhibitions seize the occasion of eager publics and ample space to experiment with methods of making, curating, displaying, and engaging with art—that is, to test the very function of art and, in doing so, to attempt to expand the scope of its efficacy and relevance to a broader public. In many ways, the Hyde Park Art Center has been leading this charge for three-quarters of a century, functioning as an intermediary between artists and a citywide community, presenting emerging and established artists in a widely accessible context, and bringing youth and community creators together with career practitioners to make art under the same roof.
Nonetheless, on the occasion of its 75th anniversary, it is a bold, if not obvious, move to further these efforts by committing to a series of open-ended projects that take the Art Center itself as the subject of critique and experimentation. This process begins now with a fall exhibition, continues with a year-long think tank and residencies, and culminates with a catalogue documenting these projects that is meant to serve as a case study for community art centers. All told, the next year at the Hyde Park Art Center is designed to examine and re-evaluate the role of the urban art center as much as it is also meant to promote its worthiness of donations and foot traffic.
The Chicago Effect: Redefining the Middle initiates this year-long endeavor and represents its exhibition component. The work of ten of artists engages the concept of the ‘middle’ in some thematic fashion. Flanking both entrances to the main gallery, Devon Diekou’s installation Pay what you wish, but you must pay something presents replicas of the donation boxes of several American museums, including, in this iteration, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Warhol Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, and several others. As part of the conceptual underpinning of the work, the artist forwards money left in these faux receptacles as donations to the institutions they represent. Smaller, scrappier outfits might be more deserving and more in need of the visibility and (nominal) fiscal support than those Diekou has selected, but Diekou’s sculptures nonetheless allude with readymade elegance to the complex and often unseen relationships between publics, artists, cultural institutions, and governmental agencies that can be traced through the visible and invisible transactions of funding. Few of the other primary works in The Chicago Effect engage meaningfully with the notion of the middle. To name just a few: assemblage sculpture by Marissa Lee Benedict simply suggests work in mid-process, while Assaf Evron’s photos of segments of the separation wall between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories convey a middle that is all too literal, if not also utterly opaque. In other contexts and with different curatorial and didactic support, these works may function differently than they do here, where their presence seems primarily intended to foster a familiar gallery feel through traditional exhibition-making methods that work against the otherwise unconventional presentation of artworks and projects.
The exhibition’s strength is, unsurprisingly, where it reaches the furthest beyond the traditional structures of an art exhibition. Throughout the gallery, announced by wall labels and expounded on by individual artworks, videos, sub-exhibitions, diagrams, and statements, six commissioned ‘experiments’ examine the nature of the middle from the perspective of other institutions in the middle ground of cultural production: the art school, the MFA program, the small independent gallery, the philanthropic organization, the design firm, and the university. These experiments vary in strength and complexity, but collectively they represent a sincere attempt by the Art Center to evaluate both its current efficacy and its potential for adapting to an unknown future. To this end, and setting aside corporate productivity idioms like ‘metrics,’ ‘sustainability, and ‘growth,’ these experiments undertake seriously what many arts institutions pay only lip service to: sustained and meaningful collaborations with peer institutions.
In this exhibition, these experiments are not hypothetical propositions, but real projects that engage in actual making. For Experiment One, the Chicago offices of IDEO Design firm will prototype temporary architectural interventions the Art Center building that have been voted on by gallery-goers throughout the run of the exhibition. IDEO, a private international firm with clients like PepsiCo, Microsoft, and Ford, stands apart from the exhibition’s other collaborators as a large, for-profit entity, but this presumably pro-bono project and their consensus-based approach to identifying and solving HPAC’s design challenges counters some of the concerns that public-private partnerships will raise with rightfully suspicious Chicagoans who have, for instance, recently witnessed their city outsource their parking meters such that public space is monetized for private profit. For Experiment Five, architect and IIT professor Andrew Schachman will host seminars on the evolving role of the arts institution in facilitating the presentation, production, and educational elements that support public experiences of visual art. He will focus on art that appropriates managerial, administrative, and educational forms, a timely inquiry into a complex question about the increasingly overlapping roles of artists and arts institutions. In Experiment Six, Jim Duignan, Stockyard Institute founder and DePaul University Associate Professor of Visual Arts and Secondary Education, will focus his year-long residency on building an educational archive of locally-sited community arts efforts and a companion curriculum to be piloted in an upcoming studio arts class at the Art Center’s Oakman Clinton School and Studios. While the exhibition will not live long enough to witness many of the fruits of its experiments, the show’s commitment to effecting real change is apparent in the duration of the projects and their proposed outcomes, as well as in the names and affiliations of the key collaborators, all of whom are committed practitioners. A Cranbrook Academy of Art student-designed catalogue will document the progress and culmination of the year’s endeavors, and, if successful, serve more as a manual than a memento.
Exemplary of the show’s strengths is a brief interlude in the middle of the main gallery marked by a stripe of grey paint that hangs on the walls and floor between two halves of the white cube. A sub-show curated by students of the Rhode Island School of Design under the direction of The Chicago Effect co-curator Christopher K. Ho, this display recreates the final exhibition of the former Chicago apartment gallery The Green Lantern, which has since endured as an independent press and will return to a gallery space in Logan Square in late 2014. In creatively resuscitating a brief moment in the history of Chicago apartment galleries, Ho and the RISD students examine the crucial role these minute, ephemeral institutions play in the production, exchange, and circulation of visual arts in Chicago. Isolated Fictions: A Reenactment, as the sub-show is titled, presents a provocative case study in the generative possibilities between art schools, small galleries, art centers, and other ‘middle men’ of the art economy.
The Chicago Effect is most successful in several moments like this one, when it acknowledges the necessarily multi-faceted and collaborative nature of cultural production and the importance of an interconnected network of middle institutions in achieving many valid approaches to making, presenting, and sustaining the life cycle of visual art. Chicago, a geographic and cultural middle, is a prime site for this kind of inquiry, and the Hyde Park Art Center is well positioned to take the necessary risks such an endeavor entails. Such risks include, among others, the tendency for these kinds of experimental efforts to collapse back into traditional structures of making and exhibiting discrete objects. This is the inevitable result of disciplinary rigidity and market forces that dominate art-making even in the hot crucible of social and community-based practices that is Chicago. The influence of these factors is already visible in the numerous standard art objects that sit inert in the gallery among the many other, more courageous efforts on view at the Hyde Park Art Center this year.
The Chicago Effect: Redefining The Middle is on view at The Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Avenue, through November 23, 2014. Installation images courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center. Photography by Tom Van Eynde.