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In Chicago, collecting art need not be intimidating

Richard Heller with his wife Beth sons Julian 4 Richard 6 surrounded by their art collectiincluding pieces by Andy Warhol

Richard Heller with his wife Beth, and sons Julian, 4, and Richard, 6, surrounded by their art collection, including pieces by Andy Warhol (left) and Glenn Ligon (right) at their home in Chicago, Ill., on Friday, January 4, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:02AM

When Rich Heller began his internship in 1999 — his first “real” job after graduating from medical school — the radiologist didn’t celebrate, as might be expected, with a new car or television.

Instead, borrowing half the money he needed from his grandmother, the aspiring collector bought his first artwork: a screen print by famed painter and printmaker Jasper Johns.

“I spent 10 months paying my grandmother back a couple of hundred dollars a month,” said Heller, 40, who is now married with two children, “and that piece is the anchor of our collection now.”

Although Heller developed his passion for art collecting in his 20s and 30s, he is something of an exception. Chicago art leaders say that getting young professionals interested in the pursuit is often a challenge.

Many are simply oblivious to the art world, and others are intimidated by what can seem like a kind of mystery and aloofness surrounding it.

“You have young artists and young professionals who have the same level of education — they both have graduate degrees in what they’re doing — but there is no crossover,” said Helen Maurene Cooper, 32, an artist who co-founded Azimuth Projects, an informal initiative that tries to bring the two groups together.

Monique Meloche, owner of a West Loop gallery that bears her name, sees it as a problem of perceptions. Not only do many young people not realize that Chicago has one of the largest and most active art scenes in the country, they also do not think of it as potentially fun place to go.

“It’s not as visible as it is in New York,” Meloche said. “The art scene there is a viably hip place to participate in, and I don’t think the masses [in Chicago] are as knowledgeable about what great culture they have at their fingertips here.”

It doesn’t help that galleries can sometimes come off as cold and impersonal, and many of them in Chicago are spread out geographically and not always easy to find. But one thing that need not be an impediment is money.

“Young professionals in Chicago,” Cooper said, “absolutely have money to spend on going bars, listening to music and trying out all the most high-end, cutting-edge gastro-pub food that could exist, but, for some reason, people just don’t go to galleries in the same way.”

Although art sales in the tens of millions dollars grab headlines, it is possible to buy quality, original works for several hundred dollars. At the Moniquemeloche Gallery, prices start at $1,500, and pop-up “apartment galleries” in artist homes and other non-traditional spaces offer pieces for even less.

“It’s a matter of getting those collectors into these local galleries that are showing good stuff and having the guts to just go for it and make a purchase and start to get to know the artists,” said Michael Darling, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Promoting art collecting is more than simply helping young professionals find a new hobby — it is important to the health of Chicago’s art scene. By buying works, especially those of emerging Chicago artists who might become famous one day, collectors can directly support their careers and help keep them from defecting to one of the two coasts.

Collecting also matters to museums. Avid collectors are typically the kinds of people who evolve into loyal supporters and board members, and, in many cases, their acquisitions become the backbone of an institution’s holdings.

The ongoing need for new such supporters explains in part why the MCA has a collecting group called Emerge, which allows older, more established collectors to mentor up-and-comers.

“We’re not particularly targeting young collectors,” said Gwen Perry Davis, deputy director of development, “though by design, young collectors find this a really interesting way to get engaged with the MCA, learn about collecting art and help the MCA purchase a piece.”

The 48 member households of the four-year-old Emerge take part in artist lectures, tours of area private collections and trips to national art fairs. Each is required to donate $2,500 a year, with $1,000 going toward the purchase an artwork for the collection.

Other area institutions have similar groups, including the Society of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Committee at the Renaissance Society, an internationally known contemporary art space at the University of Chicago.

The two-year-old Azimuth takes a more grassroots approach, organizing casual gatherings every month or so, some drawing no more than a couple of dozen people. These events have included artist talks paired with food tastings and informal in-home art exhibitions.

A little more than a decade after he began, Heller’s collection has grown to 25 works, including examples by such noted artists as Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Chicago-based Rashid Johnson. Last year, he and his wife hosted a Super Bowl party, inviting a few other collectors and their families.

“There were equal parts discussions,” Heller said, “of the spread on the game, the call on that play and what artists are getting [museum] retrospectives next year and who should.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer

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