Matansky's Fair Farewell/Singing a New Tune/Hedwig Comes, Hedwig Goes | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

Matansky's Fair Farewell/Singing a New Tune/Hedwig Comes, Hedwig Goes 

After a run of more than 40 years, Arnie Matanky hands over the reins of the Gold Coast Art Fair to a director with energy to spare.

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Matanky's Fair Farewell

In 1957, when the taverns and other businesses that made up the Gold Coast Association were looking for a way to bring customers to Rush Street during the dog days of August, Arnie Matanky had an idea. Matanky, then publisher of the Near North News and the association's PR man, had been to New Orleans and observed what he thought was a great promotion: a Mardi Gras festival. A contingent from the association met with Colonel Jack Riley, Mayor Richard J. Daley's special events director, to get the city's blessing. Riley, no doubt taken aback by the prospect of a pre-Lenten celebration on Rush Street in August, came up with another idea: an art fair. "There were artists in the neighborhood," Matanky recalls, "So we said, OK, an art fair."

The Gold Coast Art Fair was the third art fair in Chicago, after the Old Town fair and the 57th Street fair, and it grew rapidly, Matanky says. "There were only five art galleries in all of Chicago when we started. There was no place for artists to show their work. And Rush Street was known as an artistic community. It was the old bohemia before it was the entertainment section. People from the suburbs wanted to see it. This gave them an excuse to come down.

"This was a time when middle-class people did not have original works of art in their home or office," he says. "Because of our fair and other art fairs, it became quite commonplace. We didn't jury--unlike Old Town, which is very strict; 57th Street, which is mainly pottery; and the Chicago [Artists] and Vicinity Show, which the Art Institute sponsored and which the artists told us was almost impossible to get into. An art fair is not really for established artists. It's for people who don't have a following. And for people who don't really know art and would never walk into an art gallery under normal circumstances."

The annual three-day event took place on Rush between Chicago and Cedar, and on the streets to the east. When it ran into a problem with the ward committeeman, the Near North News became a sponsor; Matanky says that gave it enough clout to persevere without "playing the game." For years the fair's administration was part of the job for Near North News editor Sylvia Zappa and her successor, Rhonda Sanders. By the time Jane Byrne became mayor it was so successful she wanted to move it to Navy Pier. Matanky resisted.

Ten years ago, with Rush Street "in the doldrums," Matanky moved the fair to River North--the name (always something of a misnomer anyway) notwithstanding. It drew crowds in its new location, centered around Erie and Wells, but the playing field had started to change. The city now had hundreds of art galleries and plenty of other street fairs. Plus a problem Matanky had run into on Rush Street proved to be even worse in River North: area businesses loved the fair, "but they didn't want it in front of their place, because it would block the entrance." At its peak in 1993, Gold Coast drew 600 exhibitors and nearly a million visitors, but in the last few years, spread too thin on River North's busy, broader streets, the number of exhibitors dwindled to about 150, and many local businesses wouldn't even support it with program ads. In the good times it had donated more than $200,000 in surplus revenues to charity, Matanky says. Now it was losing money. When Amy Amdur, who runs five other local fairs, expressed interest last fall, it was a relief.

Matanky says there's no money in the deal for him, but he'll retain ownership of the fair's name while Amdur runs it. "She went right out and signed up sponsors," he says admiringly. She also instituted a jury system, opened the fair to "fine crafts," signed up 300 exhibitors, and arranged to close a block of Huron for a music stage and family-friendly activities. Amdur says she'll see how things go at this year's event, which runs this weekend, before deciding what other changes to make next year--including possibly moving it back to Rush Street. Matanky, meanwhile, is busy trying to resurrect the Near North News, shut down a few months ago after investor Michael Segal backed away from taking over as publisher.

Singing a New Tune

New Tuners Theatre used a new system to choose the plays for its eighth annual showcase "Stages," which presents new musicals to producers who might stage them. Instead of Tuners staff members meeting to vote on the entries, a panel of outside readers evaluated the 112 initial submissions and whittled them down to 13. The readers--directors, music directors, and actors--used a numerical scoring system artistic director John Sparks borrowed from the National Music Theater Network. The change came because Tuners staff no longer had time to handle the task, Sparks says, not because of any public perception that the company favors work from its own workshops. "That perception is not true," says Sparks. "One year five shows were done from [the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop in Los Angeles, where he's also artistic director], and there wasn't one show from the Tuners workshop." (Sparks says he wasn't part of the selection process that year.) This year the Tuners workshop produced nearly a third of the offerings. The two-day "Stages" run this weekend at the Theatre Building might present a scheduling problem for some: it overlaps with the League of Chicago Theatres' annual conference, expected to draw representatives from 200 area theaters.

Hedwig Comes, Hedwig Goes

Hedwig packed up her sequins and split the Broadway Theatre just as the much-hyped movie version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, starring Northwestern University alum and Hedwig creator John Cameron Mitchell, opened. The show closed prematurely July 29, and a message at the box office says tickets for future performances should be sent in for refunds. But this week associate producer Carl Jaynes was in town from New York, talking about reopening with the same cast in late September. "Ticket sales were sluggish," he said. "We thought we'd reopen when there's less competition from picnics and the beach."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.

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