In an unexpected turn, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) has won the broad approval of Chicago’s artists by the recent announcement that it will be revamping the oft-derided UBS 12x12 series into something worth paying attention to. As part of the Museum’s larger plan to focus and shuffle its programming, the monthly exhibition of local and emerging contemporary artists will be replaced by a quarterly exhibition of the same, trading inclusivity for exclusivity, and variety for impact.
Artists in Chicago have maintained a rocky relationship with the UBS 12x12, viewing it at best as an opportunity to exhibit in the museum’s space; and at worst, as a weak and underfunded concession to regional artists with extremely short exhibits located in a room about the size of the nearby coatcheck. For artists already feeling marginalized by the museum’s exhibitions and collection, the 12x12 was a barely inclusive gesture that for some confirmed the museum’s disinterest in work coming from its own city.
But all that is changing.
According to the MCA's chief curator Michael Darling, the new exhibition series, renamed “Chicago Works,” will exist as a quarterly exhibition in a new space on the third floor, with double the gallery square footage and greater educational and curatorial engagement. Aiming to better represent the region’s artists, “Chicago Works” reflects an emphasis on brand-making, ideally presenting a golden circle of more highly produced exhibitions rather than a lower-profile battery of limited shows.
Surprisingly, given the reduction of included artists, this announcement was broadly celebrated by Chicago’s artists. The reasoning is only a little complex: while the change reduces the odds of any given artist participating in the program, the overwhelming support for the “Chicago Works” decision reflects the priorities of emerging artists, who are mostly willing (if unhappy) to spend the time and money on a short-lived and minor exhibition, even and especially if it is well-placed. Having better shows is worth the risk of not being shown at all, though it goes without saying that this appreciation for exclusivity reflects some competitiveness and artistic narcissism, with all parties assuming they’ll be among the four artists exhibited.
However, even for those artists who are not themselves participating in “Chicago Works,” there is a real potential that the benefits of a better local spotlight will spill over, trickle down, or pool up for everyone else. Institutional or curatorial exclusivity as demonstrated here benefits those excluded artists by implying that, with greater resources, extra space, additional staff, or a longer solar elliptical, an equally excellent show could have been built around additional artists. In terms of their relation to the Museum, it may be significantly better for Chicago’s artists to be positioned as potential “Chicago Works” artists, with practices capable of full realization in a museum space, rather than actual exhibitors in the UBS 12x12. Viewers will have to wait until Scott Reeder’s November exhibition to find out its implementation, but here’s to hoping “Chicago Works” lives up to the brand.
-Steve Ruiz, ArtSlant Staff Writer