Berger World; Yet Another Organization Loses Its Head; The Successful Failure | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Berger World; Yet Another Organization Loses Its Head; The Successful Failure 

The controversial landlord of the Flat Iron Building takes over the Fine Arts complex, with grand plans.

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Berger World

That tremor at the Fine Arts Building earlier this month was a transfer of power. Volatile real estate mogul Bob Berger purchased the 120-year-old landmark from its faithful longtime steward, Tom Graham, for more than $10 million in a deal that closed March 4. The sale includes the ten-story main structure at 410 S. Michigan--designed by Solon Beman as a Studebaker carriage showroom and reopened as a home for the arts in 1898--and two connected buildings at 421 S. Wabash and 408 S. Michigan, a total of about 200,000 square feet. The 164 artists and arts organizations housed there greeted the surprise announcement with trepidation: every building in the posh-again neighborhood is a condo candidate. But Berger, who's owned Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building since '93 and is now the city's art-space czar, says Graham sold him the Fine Arts because he promised not to make major changes. He does, however, see the historic bastion of high-art training as the future site of "Chicago's answer to Motown."

Berger and his team started courting Graham last summer, after a nonprofit group headed by former Auditorium Theatre Council director Jan Kallish expressed interest in the building. He says he has no immediate plans to raise rents, which range from $300 to $800 for studios. He thinks he can reopen the building's two theaters, the Playhouse and the Studebaker, closed since their last incarnation as the Fine Arts movie house, and says he's working on a plan that could include educational use. And he wants to make the Fine Arts the hub of an empire he'd previously envisioned at the Flat Iron, with a 2,000-square-foot recording studio where he'll launch something called Flat Iron Records and a gallery where streaming video will allow artists at both buildings to display their work. In the expansive universe of Bergervision, he says, "We're in the entertainment business. It will be spontaneous, extemporaneous, and planned. Our motto is 'Round the clock, round the world.'"

Yet Another Arts Organization Loses Its Head

In 1974, when Arlene Rakoncay's painter husband had been laid off from his day job and was thinking he ought to move to New York to have a real career, she spotted an ad calling for Chicago artists to organize. She dragged her spouse to the meeting and discovered "a whole world of artists' gripes." By the next year that group had evolved into the Chicago Artists' Coalition, with Rakoncay, who wasn't really an artist but could take shorthand, as its secretary. In '78 she wrote a grant request for a salary for an executive director, and when it came through she got the job. The painter husband was history by then but, 27 years later, she's only now beginning to think about leaving CAC.

"We started as an artists' rights organization, with about 150 people," Rakoncay says, reviewing a few highlights of her tenure. "We advocated for an agency that would recognize the arts in the city." That resulted in the Chicago Council of Fine Arts (forerunner of the Department of Cultural Affairs), established in 1976. CAC also campaigned for laws that mandate a percentage of the budget of new state and city buildings for art and for the state consignment act that requires galleries to insure work in their possession. In '88, after several aldermen stormed the School of the Art Institute and confiscated David Nelson's painting of former mayor Harold Washington in bra and panties, CAC established a committee to deal with censorship; in '89, when gallery buildings at Huron and Orleans burned, CAC's emergency fund channeled assistance to artists who'd lost work.

Now housed in offices at 11 E. Hubbard, CAC runs on an annual budget of about $275,000 and has four employees, two of them full-time. It publishes a monthly newspaper and the occasional book, keeps a slide registry and Web site, and offers workshops, a job bank, and insurance for members. "We've operated in the black all these years, but it's getting harder," Rakoncay says. "No matter how frugal we are, it seems like something else comes along." Last year's fall exhibit and benefit went into the red, and membership has been trending modestly down. "At one point in the 80s we were up to almost 2,800 members," says Rakoncay. "Now we're about 2,200." She says she's ready to stop worrying about all this, and new blood might be a good thing for the organization. She plans a July retirement if a successor's turned up by then. The CAC board is soliciting resumes.

The Successful Failure

Kansas City gallery owner Paul Dorrell was in town last weekend, dispensing advice and hawking his autobiographical survival guide, Living the Artist's Life, at the CAC's Business of Art conference and the Barnes & Noble at Old Orchard, where three people showed up to hear him on Sunday afternoon. An unpublished novelist and self-described king of failure, Dorrell says he's gotten 177 rejections from publishers, 35 for this book alone. He only made it into print after he fired his New York agent and took things into his own hands, finding a Kansas City publisher and working with a travel budget that has him bunking at Motel 6. But he's on a roll now: Living the Artist's Life is in its second printing and will be used in classes at 80 universities, he says.

Dorrell says he's suffered from depression all his life, though he's not on medication. He got into the gallery business to support his fiction habit, somehow unaware that most galleries are money pits. After three years he was $100,000 in debt, punching holes in his bedroom wall and thinking things couldn't get worse. Then his gallery burned. He'd let the insurance lapse three weeks earlier, but didn't let it defeat him. He had a fire sale, moved to a better location, and six months later landed a major commission that saved his ass. Before long, Steven Spielberg and Charles Schulz were on his client list. So here's his advice: beware of drugs, booze, the bohemian life, television, and the Internet. Read, love, count your blessings, follow your intuition, be disciplined and persistent, and when you sign on with a gallery, pick one that needs to make sales to stay in business. And watch for his next book: an exposé on kids' baseball. "Little League is terribly messed up," he says. "It's time someone told the truth about it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe, Robert Drea, Bruce Powell.

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