Why I Left Chicago
PG: How old are you? Where are you from? When did you come here? Is Chicago one of many stops on your journey?
I had lived in London. Cornwall, Paris, and India exploring the art world in my youth. I was looking to experience the quality and dynamic of American life. I watched from abroad the ascendancy of New York as the epicentre of contemporary art. I, naturally, was curious to explore what Chicago offered. I was teaching at Chicago State College and there I met the art historian and writer, Jane Addams Allen. We teamed up and attended the College Art Association, and joined the New Art Association, founded by Edward Fry. The NAA was the godfather of the Black Causus, the Woman’s Caucus and other spin-offs. As the Chicago chapter we published a news letter. By accident and fortune we became art critic for the Chicago Tribune. We were probably fired as a museum organized a letter writing campaign. We advocated that Chicago recognize important art, in this case abstract, other than the Hairy Who.
After having an article lifted off the galleys of the Tribune three days before publishing, because a boycott on advertising was threatened, it was clear we had no future in Chicago. Indeed we had, and still do have, avowed enemies. Jane realized this and suggested to me that if we want to be art writers we would have to be our own publishers. I thought that was a crazy idea but the New Art Examiner, ‘without fear or favor’, was born as an 8 page tabloid in October 1973. This was the beginning of a power struggle between the MCA and the New Art Examiner. It has been constant as it is still alive today and it should not be so. There is a book published and another one is being written which is ample evidence of our status and it is high time the MCA acknowledged us.
PG: For what did you hope when you came to Chicago? A degree? A job? What did you think that you’d find here? What was your first impression of the city?
I arrived in Chicago January 1969. I and Jane Addams Allen departed in 1989, simply to keep the New Art Examiner alive. After 15 years of publishing the NAE had maximized subscriptions in the Mid West – our yardstick was Art in America.
You know the city is architecturally magnificent as a manifestation of Early 20th Century heroic materialism architecture. The politics of City Hall and the art scene are deplorable, which will ensure that Chicago will never be a significant creative art centre. Everything is controlled by a gangster culture. I love the expression “nobody wants a nobody that nobody sent for”. By 1989 we were persona non grata. Never invited to insider parties – the party after the opening at the CA for example. We personally stopped reviewing Chicago artists because they told us our interest would adversely affect how the system viewed them. Many a time we were requested not to harm their career by reviewing them. That frustration continues today.
There is not enough space to tell the whole story. I am very pleased that Mark Staff Brandl in his interview noted that his career was blocked by the Kushner clan. Judith has had a remarkable career occupying all the top positions in UIC and SAIC. Judith wrote very well for Artforum and hyped her colleagues and chosen artists and students. There was, and is, a power struggle in place. The art is not important but the power struggle is. Artists in Chicago are cannon fodder. Though people know Chicago is a blighted culture few know the depths of control in the art world. After Jane Addams Allen and I retired from the NAE in 2000 due to ill health, the NAE passed to a new regime. Again, space does not permit a full explanation. On the new masthead we were termed ‘Publishers Emeritus’, which meant we no longer could contribute. Chicago provincialism reared its ugly head. “The independent voice of the visual arts” was replaced by “The voice of Midwest Art”. I was told this was a secret suggestion or request from Lou Manilow, who donated $350,000 to the new regime. That sub-head was the death knell because – who cares outside of the Mid-West for the Mid-West?
Chicago does not care about LA nor vice-versa. The hustle for success is not only Chicago in style and nature but also American with a harnessed provincial twist. Nelsen Algren says it all in “City on the Make” in 1951. The NAE has nothing to trade. It does not give favours or look for them. In this it is hopelessly out of date and high minded.
A great recent success was the printing of the anthology “The Essential New Art Examiner”. At last a recognition of our contribution including many worthy writers. The NAE was, and is, a critical art journal with status achieved without patronage. Crucially it carries forward the values of Jane Addams but even Hull House, dominated by the art department, has kept its distance. If you want an example of Chicago corruption that takes the prize. I also find it difficult that Mary Jane Jacobs teaches activism and other liberal values and concerns, and uses Jane Addams as an important Chicago source while ignoring the contribution of the NAE. The NAE co-founder Jane Addams Allen (later a Smithsonian Fellow) crafted and designed the editorial nature of the NAE and practiced what she learned from family history. Jane Addams was her grand aunt.
Yet the NAE is ignored by the very people who should hold it closest. Why? Simple. We did what we did well on the street. We did not broker power behind closed doors. We did not shut others out of our decision making process. Naturally the tone at times was independent and feisty. The punishment of non recognition and isolation finally took its toll so we departed Chicago. We had been shut out.
PG: How long were you in practice here? Did you enjoy success on your own terms? Can you recall some peak experience? If you felt frustrated, what frustrated you? Poor sales? Lack of publicity? High rent? Crime? Inefficient transportation? Public apathy? Bad weather? What was the total amount of time that you spent as a resident?
The NAE evolved into a national art journal born in Chicago. We initially publishes from Oct 1973 to 2002.Revived in June 2005 onwards. Peak experience was the Production in 2011 of the Essential New Art Examiner which was blighted as Chicago chauvinism because it cut out mention of New York and any other places. This was the ultimate frustration. We matched Art in America for sale in the Mid West, which was excellent, and we managed all the other problems. I was in practice here for 17 years.
PG: How does Chicago know you? Does Chicago know you? Have you been misunderstood?
I would like to explain to Chicago, for which I have never had the opportunity, the nature of the misunderstanding and the propaganda that was let loose against us.
Chicago knows me as the Publisher of The New Art Examiner, the only successful art journal to emerge from Chicago. The New Art Examiner grew to compete with the other American art magazines Art in America, Artforum, and Art News. We effectively gained as many subscriptions in Illinois and the Mid West. Unofficially blacklisted by the art elite in Chicago, frozen out from introductions to visiting artist and above all from any teaching positions, even adjunct or part time, we left. Chicago isolates those they cannot control.
The NAE is totally misunderstood because given the deep problems in current society around identity, criticism has virtually died. The culture of hustle and insider trading has taken over. The Chicago elite, the Art Institute, MCA, Arts Club (Rue Shaw excepted), U of C and UIC Art Departments did not have the imagination or courage to recognize the great contribution that the NAE made. Franz Schultz was an exception he wrote that, “The NAE is the best thing to have happened in the Chicago art scene for 50 years”.
PG: Was there an event which precipitated your departure? For which other city did you leave? What was waiting for you in that other city?
I cannot remember any occasion when I or Jane had a substantial invitation to be visiting artists/critics to any art department. If misunderstood means prejudice, certainly there was and is institutional prejudice in place. Our life in Chicago was McCarthy-ised in private. Never in public. A deadly and toxic ploy was the vicious smear that we were antisemitic. This came to my attention as a Jewish woman from DC transferred from the DC office to Chicago. When I visited, she requested to have dinner with me as she was quite distressed. She had received a number of phone calls questioning her with some insistence as to my and Jane’s behaviour and social attitudes. I should not have to deal with this poison but will say the present UK Editor is Jewish and all of Jane’s in-laws are Jewish. An early warning was circa 1974/5. Don Rose that veteran journalist had a radio show. We were invited to participate along with the MCA. They refused to attend the show if we were included. Don cancelled the show. Washington DC welcomed us as an addition to their cultural scene.
PG: Does Chicago look different to you since your arrival to it and/or departure from it? Do you have advice for someone about to begin what you’ve finished?
I can share an experience which the previous questions have elicited. Downtown has lost vital space as the Trump tower and other high rises have filled in. If the new arrival is an artist, understand this, New York controls and always has the last word. Chicago cannot compete. It managed to with the Hairy Who, whose work now commands good prices though not in the top bracket. The art world is complex and corrupt, Chicago is complex and corrupt, but unfortunately also very provincial. At its core the culture is anti-intellectual and the power people run a system in which we are all caught. The new arrival should read City on the Make by Nelson Algren. He had it taped then and things have not changed. The New Art Examiner offers a door to the wider world, free from the Chicago gatekeepers.
PG: Do you expect to maintain a connection to Chicago and its art world? What’s your incentive to stay connected? Have you left friends or family here?
The New Art Examiner will maintain a connection if Chicago wants to maintain a connection. The most recent problem of the defection of previous colleagues, who resented the fact the NAE had an interest in art outside of Chicago and so tried to steal the name and status from me, is just another in a long line of coup attempts. History has demonstrated with previous similar actions that Chicago does not have the imagination, ability, or commitment to maintain and support independent discourse. Chicago will support pandering PR. The NAE does not do that. I have friends in Chicago but no family. I am always looking for new colleagues to participate, they are always few.
PG: By what means do you stay abreast of developments in the arts in Chicago? Print? Social media? Visits?
Social media and a visit if invited. I have requested MCA and Columbia College to offer an invitation to lecture. The MCA refuses to respond. I therefore assume it has no interest. Waiting for Columbia College. Art politics in Chicago are not imaginative or positive.
PG: In the end, is place important? Is physical location a matter of consequence in 2018?
A place is important. I lived in Chicago for 15years and worked with Chicago for decades. My late wife was founder of the NAE. The physical reality of Chicago is impressive and a vital experience, the lake has its own beauty. The culture is mini-minded and repressive. I experienced much. The best was the tradition of Jane Addams now, sadly, virtually dead
I have tried to indicate in previous questions the importance of certain issues. I do not wish to repeat. The best answer is to read Nelson Algren’s great work “City on the Make”. Basically Chicago has no time for an individual unless a deal can be struck. The NAE does not make deals as simply thinking about Art cannot be sold or comprised or traded.
Derek Guthrie is the co-founder and Publisher of the New Art Examiner.
Volume 32 no 3 Jan/Feb 2018 pp 12-15
11 thoughts on “Why I Left Chicago”
A gangster culture?
Why would anyone want to ever leave Chicago?
Issues are issues, and they will always remain better placed in the Alzheimer’s area.
Cheap Shot Chris how about never Trust anyone under 40l
Not bad Mr. Guthrie.
Who is PG, the interviewer?
Paul Germanos here
Having just recently rediscovered the New Art Examiner that I used to read in the late 70s -80s, I was very interested to read its history. Notwithstanding all the difficulties described, somehow the magazine has resisted for 45 years, no small feat. Above all it has resisted every tentative of corruption and has followed the tradition established by Jane Addams. I’m now anxiously awaiting the arrival of the March/April issue of the magazine.
What a powerful story! The interview with Derek Guthrie seems almost like the introduction to a film script. His life needs to be told in video format, as so few people buy books or read anymore.
In an interview from 2015 Annie Markovich rightly said:
“The examiner is starting up again because we feel that people do not have a voice. They are afraid to say what they feel or they don’t trust their intuition anymore about what they see,” she said. “A lot of what I read today is puffery, everything’s nice, oh, this is good art. And not really getting to the heart of the political surroundings.”
New Art Examiner is about giving people a voice on art. Annie Markovich, we know the important work that you have done and look forward to hearing from you here.
What Annie Markovich said in her interview was back in 2015, 3 years ago. It looks like the New Art Examiner really has started up again. Well done!
A wonderful story by a genuine pioneer, one not afraid to stand on his own two feet! Yay Derek, you’re the man!