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At Art Institute, there’s a place for artists from Chicago

Artist Tony Fitzpatrick with his work an exhibit Art Institute Chicago. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Artist Tony Fitzpatrick with his work in an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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When: Through June 2

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan

Tickets: Free with museum admission

Info: (312) 443-3600;

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Updated: June 27, 2013 6:19AM

The restaurant community has learned to think local.

So has the organic Chicago indie music scene.

And now the Art Institute of Chicago is again seeing that home is where the art is.

The emerging local scene of artists who work on paper is a window into “The Artist and the Poet,” a satellite show mounted in conjunction with “Picasso in Chicago,” an exhibition about the Spanish artist-poet. “The Artist and the Poet” closes June 2. Featured artists include England’s David Hockney, New York’s Robert Motherwell and Chicago’s best-known artist-poet, Tony Fitzpatrick.

“The Art Institute now has 182 of my etchings,” Fitzpatrick said. “This and MoMA [Museum of Modern Art in New York City] are the high hurdles. There are no more prestigious collections in the world.”

The museum’s home base is well represented.

“A notable amount of the collection is made up of art created in Chicago or by artists who went to school here and moved away,” said Mark Pascale, curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute. The collection has nearly 100,000 objects, he said and that “5 to 10 percent” are from Chicago-related artists.

“That’s a substantial number,” Pascale said. “People think we should have everything. It is a museum of international scope. We can’t have everything.”

There have been different degrees of local exposure at different times in Art Institute history.

Pascale explained, “It was unusual for awhile in the contemporary section. James Rondeau [curator of contemporary art] has seen the light and, given that he had a new suite of galleries to work with when we opened the modern wing [in 2009], he envisioned a minimum of two galleries he was going to use to showcase work from Chicago artists at any given time. In the inaugural installation there was a room of Jim Nutt and a room of Kerry James Marshall.”

Exhibiting those two Chicago artists “wasn’t something all contemporary curators did,” Pascale said. “In the past the museum had gone for international people with international scope.”

For decades, the Art Institute showcased local artists at its annual “Chicago and Vicinity” shows. “It was the main opportunity for artists to exhibit in the museum,” Pascale said. “It occupied a lot of the time of our small curatorial staff.”

A proliferation of galleries rendered the show unnecessary in the 1980s. The gallery scene flourished until fires “decimated” the River North scene in 1989, he said.

Fitzpatrick said, “I never felt a museum should be a ‘homer’ thing. I felt they should set the bar high. It’s hard for artists who work on paper, because a lot of the museum is paintings and sculpture, but in the last 10 to 20 years you’ve noticed a market for collage drawings. As people’s ability to collect art has changed, works on paper are a lot more present in the marketplace.”

Local artists had access to master printers and top-notch equipment at Landfall Press, which started in Chicago in 1970. It embraced discovery and took chances, eventually branching off into publishing fiction, music and poetry, before moving to Santa Fe, N.M., in 2004.

“Landfall Press was a fantastic thing to have in Chicago, and it’s not the same that it’s gone,” Pascale said.

Anchor Graphics, the Chicago Print Center, Screwball Press, Sputnik and White Wings Press followed and elaborated on Landfall’s legacy. In 2010, Fitzpatrick and playwright Adam Seidel opened the Black Shamrock Press etching shop at 1513 N. Western.

Fitzpatrick cut his chops at Landfall before establishing the no-commission World Tattoo Gallery in the early 1990s in a then-fringey block of South Wabash. Pascale recalled, “World Tattoo was huge in Chicago. I still remember an exhibition there of thrift store paintings by Jim Shaw. It was one of the greatest exhibitions ever done in Chicago, for me. It said a lot of things about the state of the art world. It traveled. But back then there was no INTUIT [the Center for Intiuitive and Outsider Art on the North Side]. Having such a major exhibition in a space like that that was free made it possible for people to imagine that it didn’t have to happen at the Art Institute or the MCA.

“We are now at a moment in Chicago history where there are more opportunities to exhibit than ever before, even though the commercial gallery scene is declining.”

Fitzpatrick said, “In some ways that is good because it has engendered a dialogue between people like me and institutions which we didn’t necessarily have five or 10 years ago. A lot of it has to do with the economy and the Internet. Once I had a PC and realized I could send my images out, I said, ‘I’ve hired my last art dealer.’ With Facebook and all that, all of a sudden a much bigger conversation is possible.”

The minute an etching is finished, before it is dry, it is scanned and printmakers can send it out to collectors from Madrid to Tokyo.

“There’s a new currency for works on paper,” Fitzpatrick said while sitting in the Art Institute’s Department of Prints and Drawings. “Which makes rooms like this all the more important.”

Pascale does not believe in the cliche that an artist has to leave Chicago in order to make it in Chicago.

“A lot of people have chosen to stay,” he said. “Largely because of all of its warts, Chicago is still a place where you can actually live. It’s not so gigantic that you can get lost in it. The community is way less provincial than New York, where people won’t go from borough to borough to say hello. Here, it’s not unusual for someone to go to the far ends of the city to see somebody’s show.

“I remember talking to Studs Terkel about this when he was very much alive. I asked if he thought we could have won World War II had it not been for the Depression. He said no. He said what people learn in the Depression is how to be more than self-serving and to be supportive of the community. And community depended on everybody doing that.

“That attitude is now very pervasive in Chicago with all people involved in the arts, whether it is visual art, music or writing. It’s always been there in a way but lately as funding sources dried up and more extravagant opportunites came to light, people realized they need each other.”

“The Artist and the Poet” opens with Hockney’s ““The Blue Guitar” (1976–77) print series inspired respectively by the poetry of Rafael Alberti and Wallace Stevens — who was inspired by Picasso.

“David Hockney, Robert Motherwell, those are the premiere names in American art now,” Fitzpatrick said. “You want to stand tall in that company.”

Collection manager Emily Ziemba, who chose the works in “The Artist and the Poet,” said, “I knew I wanted to use works from [a Fitzpatrick collector’s donations] because otherwise people don’t know we have them. ‘Bum Town’ is a good counterpoint.”

“Bum Town” was Fitzpatrick’s 2001 artistic and prose poem tribute to his late father’s life on the South Side. The exhibit includes “Bum Town” depictions of the White Sox’ Shoeless Joe Jackson and a slaughterhouse from the long-gone Stockyards.

Said Ziemba, “I figured the viewers would like the material because it is about Chicago and our recent past.

“I picked images I thought told the story of us.”

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