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Chicago artists, institutions look to build a more prominent presence

Ronan Erwan Bouroullec Cloud Modules 2002. Courtesy Ronan   Erwan Bouroullec. Pho© Bouroullec. The exhibit is coming Museum Contemporary

Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Cloud Modules, 2002. Courtesy of Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec. Photo © Bouroullec. The exhibit is coming to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago . Oct. 20, 2012-Jan. 20, 2013.

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Updated: March 12, 2013 7:07PM

Steppenwolf Theatre Company and the Second City and their famed alumni, like Joan Allen and Bill Murray, have helped make Chicago an indispensable center of American theater.

Similarly, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Symphony Orchestra ­­— two of the country’s largest and most prestigious classical musical organizations — have assured the city an important place in that field.

Much the same can be said about the city’s visual arts scene, which boasts the eminent Art Institute of Chicago, several of the country’s top art schools and a glittering group of major collectors.

“There might other cities like Dallas or Houston or Miami that have some of those pieces of the puzzle but maybe not as many as we do. I would definitely see us in third place,” said Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, who ranks Chicago behind New York and Los Angeles.

Despite such a top-tier national ranking, an argument can be made that the visual arts somehow don’t garner the same level of respect or recognition inside or outside Chicago as theater or classical music do.

“That message isn’t getting out there,” said internationally known Chicago-based artist Tony Fitzpatrick. “The discussion has to become bigger.”

Just look at the level of attention the genre receives in the city’s two daily newspapers. While each has a full-time critic devoted to theater, for example, art is covered irregularly by free-lance writers.

What’s the reason for this disparity? Chicago art world insiders believe the answers lie with both bolstering aspects of the art scene and doing a better job of promoting what is already here.

“The art world can be so much spin,” said Kavi Gupta, owner of a West Loop gallery bearing his name. “If you can get some good press and make it sound like this is the greatest thing in the world, people have to listen. Everyone in the world is like, ‘Something is going on there, I should look.’ ”

Darling said he thinks Chicago has not achieved a “critical mass” of world-renowned artists. Too often, promising artists graduate from the city’s art schools and move elsewhere in pursuit of better opportunities.

It also doesn’t help, he said, that Chicago’s commercial galleries are so spread out. There’s no concentrated art district like New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, which makes it easier for people to see what is happening.

Gupta agrees that such a grouping would help, but he doesn’t think the gallery scene is large or influential enough to begin with. “You need at least six or seven big players to make a scene,” he said. “Ours are spread out, but I’m not even sure if we have six or seven big players.”

It becomes a chicken-and-egg problem. Artists need major gallery representation to prosper, but dealers can’t survive without a strong community of artists.

“With the issues that are here, you need a catalyst,” Gupta said. “You need somebody who wants to take it on themselves to fix it and put the pieces together.”

London’s contemporary art scene skyrocketed with the emergence of the Young British Artists or YBAs in the late 1980s and ’90s. They became a global phenomenon with the help of British museums and collectors who heavily backed them, and Gupta said something similar could happen here with the right support from local institutions.

Another boost could be the creation of something in the visual arts akin to the League of Chicago Theatres, which has 237 member companies. A key part of its mission is promoting Chicago theater as a whole, locally and beyond.

“We talk about collective leverage,” executive director Deb Clapp said. “The really wonderful thing about the league is that we serve both nonprofit and commercial theater, and we also serve all sizes, including the very smallest and very largest, and everybody understands that there is something in it for them.”

What won’t help, Fitzpatrick said, is for artists to wait around for something to happen. If they don’t get busy making things better, the complaints about Chicago’s visual arts scene will become a “kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Artists are always the first to throw up their hands, and go, ‘Woe is me,’ ” he said. “Take some ownership. Take some accountability. Be part of the solution. Build something. Put something out there.”

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