Monday, November 6, 2017

The History of Chicagoland Art Colonies.

There is a long tradition of artist colonies in Chicago and summer outposts some distance from the city. The most famous artist colony, at 57th Street and Stony Island Avenue in Hyde Park, was located in a pair of one-story frame buildings that had been constructed to house concessions for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Among the few buildings not demolished after the fair, the complex soon became a haven for artists, literary figures, including Sherwood Anderson, and related businesses such as used bookstores.
Old Town, Chicago, Art Fair, 1954.
The 57th Street Artist Colony had two nearby satellites. Cable Court, located a few blocks northwest, was a narrow, dark street surrounded by three- and four-story tenement buildings occupied by artists and fellow travelers. Further west, at Kenwood Avenue, a third cluster occupied several buildings centered on 1328 East 57th Street, where John Dewey founded the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago in 1896. In the 1940s, the first floor housed the Little Gallery owned by Mary Louise Womer, who, with others, founded the 57th Street Art Fair in 1948, the first of Chicago's community art fairs. Among the artists displaying their work was Gertrude Abercrombie, with her surreal paintings propped up against her ancient Rolls Royce automobile parked at the curb.
Old Town, Chicago, Art Fair on Menomonee Street, the 1950s.
In 1898, Lorado Taft and a small group established the Eagle's Nest artist colony overlooking the Rock River near Oregon, Illinois, 80 miles west of Chicago. The summer facility originally had tents and, later, cottages and studios. The Eagle's Nest activities included visual arts and historical pageants in elaborate costumes. Regular visitors included Harriet Monroe.

Ox-Bow, in Saugatuck, Michigan, was founded as a summer artist colony in 1910 under the auspices of the Art Institute of Chicago Alumni Association; it remains active as an outpost of the School of the Art Institute. Faculty members have included Ed Paschke, architect Thomas Tallmadge, and Alphonso Iannelli. Also located in Michigan, John Wilson's Lakeside Center for the Arts thrived in the 1970s and 1980s with artists such as Richard Hunt and Roger Brown. It had an outpost of the Landfall Press of Chicago, a well-known printmaker.

The Hyde Park artist colonies were among the casualties of urban renewal around 1960. In addition, the gentrification of Hyde Park pushed artists to the North Side, especially Old Town, which still has its own art fair each year. Artists also clustered elsewhere, including the Near North Side's Tree Studios, restored and commercialized in 2002, and Italian Court, formerly on Michigan Avenue. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, skyrocketing real-estate values in Old Town and Lincoln Park drove artists further west to neighborhoods such as Wicker Park and Bucktown.

Since the 1950s, juried art fairs, organized by community volunteers and nonprofit groups in neighborhoods in and around Chicago, have enabled local artists to exhibit, market, and sell their artwork directly to the public, free of the gallery system. Informal and family-oriented, these events allow artists to showcase their work to the public with complete control of how it is installed and represented. Art Chicago and SOFA, the annual art expositions held at Navy Pier, are examples of commercial enterprises that invite galleries and art dealers worldwide to market and sell the work of artists they represent. While these events are often called art fairs, they differ from neighborhood fairs because they do not directly relate to local communities or Chicago artists.

Two of the oldest juried art fairs in Chicago are the 57th Street Art Fair and the Old Town Art Fair. In 1948 Mary Louise Womer, a Hyde Park gallery owner, conceived the idea of the 57th Street Art Fair as an opportunity for local artists to meet one another and to sell their art directly to the community. With local sponsorship, the first fair consisted of 50 artists, many of them students from the School of the Art Institute and the Institute of Design. Since 1950, a volunteer committee has organized and sponsored the fair with a juried panel of professional artists to select the participants. Exhibitors have included Richard Hunt, Leon Golub, Claes Oldenburg, Margaret Burroughs, and Gertrude Abercrombie. In 1950 the first Old Town Art Fair was organized along a couple blocks in Lincoln Park West. Because the fair was open to public participation, the art ranged from amateur craft objects to masterfully executed paintings and sculptures. In 1958, a small committee was formed to establish regulations, and a jury of established artists was implemented to create a more balanced display of media and improve the art's quality. By the end of the twentieth century, each of these fairs annually showcased more than 300 artists.
Highland Park, Illinois, Festival of Fine Arts.
The art fair system has developed into an important Chicago tradition linking amateur and professional artists to Chicago communities. Based on the 57th Street and Old Town Art Fairs models, neighborhood art fairs have been established in Barrington, Evanston, Hinsdale, Homewood, Naperville, Oakbrook, Peoria, Park Forest, Rockford, Skokie, Wilmette, Buffalo Grove, Woodstock, and other outlying areas.
Buffalo Grove, Illinois,  Art Festival.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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