With Scott Reeder’s new show up on the walls and the exhibition space turned over to a show on Gordon Matta-Clark, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA) long-running UBS 12x12 program is officially over. There have been a number of opinions aired about the end of the 12x12 program, most of them approving of ending the program and approving of the replacement program series, “Chicago Works.” But with the end of the UBS 12x12 hasn’t something been lost that was important?
First a quick recap on the UBS 12x12 program: begun in 2001 by then-director of the MCA, Robert Fitzpatrick, the program’s tagline was “New Artists/New Work” presenting twelve emerging artists per year, one every month. Over its decade-long run, the program presented the work of 108 artists, including Rashid Johnson, Melanie Schiff, Curtis Mann, Jason Lazarus and many others who continue to gain recognition. The program ended in October 2011, ostensibly replaced by “Chicago Works.”
The “Chicago Works” program will have a longer exhibition run (three months rather than three weeks), more exhibition space (about double the square footage), and will have printed materials accompanying it.
Scott Reeder kicks off the “Chicago Works” series, followed by Laura Letinsky and Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. Reeder’s debut for “Chicago Works” is fine; his two Untitled paintings that utilize spaghetti noodles in both cooked and uncooked states make a delicious pun on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s seminal Structuralist volume from 1969,The Raw and the Cooked. Having spent many hours in different galleries and museums listening to visitors declare, “My kid could do that!” I have a particular appreciation for the use of noodles in art, the classic kid-craft staple. Not to mention that the painting itself is quite attractive, recalling Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952 and the sgraffito of Cy Twombly. Reeder’s joke pieces didn’t seem to have the same depth comparatively.
Installation view of Scott Reeder's Untitled, 2011, MCA Chicago. Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta, Chicago|Berlin. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Commission. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
The merits of individual pieces aside, one has to commend “Chicago Works” for supporting mid-career artists with exhibition opportunities. (Even though one could say that both Reeder and Letinsky do seem to have regular exhibition opportunities.) But if support shifts to mid-career artists, why should it dry up for emerging artists?
That seems to be what is lost in the ending of the UBS 12x12 program, the crucial high-level exhibition opportunity for emerging artists which now appears to be extinct at Chicago’s museums. Increasing institutional exhibition opportunities and support of young artists is essential to retaining artistic talent in the city. (It is well known that Chicago loses talent to both coasts regularly.)
Sure there were problems as Steve Ruiz pointed out in his article on ArtSlant, but these were issues that could have been overcome. The exhibition runs were extremely short and it was difficult for even the most interested (myself included) to see all of them. That could have been easily overcome with a simple extension, say a two month run of six artists, and they could have even kept a slightly silly moniker, like the UBS 6x2=12 series. Frankly, the exhibition space for the 12x12 never bothered me, it was perhaps small but it was a clean white cube space. It was always up to the artist to transform the space or make it work, which happened with more and less success. I regularly see worse exhibition spaces all over Chicago. Accompanying curatorial essays to an exhibition could have easily been placed on the web, thereby circumventing the expense of printing. The focus, and tagline, was “New Artists/New Work” and that could have been loosened up or scrapped without losing the commitment to emerging artists.
At its best the UBS 12x12 series was an opportunity to do something risky, frequently something that was riskier than whatever else may have been on display. Some 12x12 editions, like those from Tim Louis Graham, Harold Mendez, Henry Howard Chen and Aspen Mays, could be more exciting than or at least compete with the art elsewhere in the building and seeing that competition was part of its appeal. Speaking to Lauren Weinberg at TimeOut Chicago, MCA curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm recognized that the UBS 12x12 was “a place for risk-taking.” At its less-than-best, as Rashid Johnson noted in the same article, “[it had] the potential to start just seeming like grad thesis shows.”
Now it appears that the MCA will support emerging artists through “new 'convergent' programming,” according Widholm. Writes Weinberg, “The museum plans to recruit local artists for performances and lectures, Tuesday-night workshops in the museum café, and the Coffee and Art exhibition tours.” Though Widholm hints that, “We’re always looking at artists for special exhibitions and our collection shows,” what’s missing is dedicated exhibition opportunities. It seems that younger artists now just get to entertain the museumgoer, rather than show them their work.
In Weinberg’s article Johnson notes that, “I don’t think there were any young artists looking at the Art Institute saying, 'There’s an opportunity for me here.'” With the extinction of the UBS 12x12, it now seems that young artists can no longer say that about the MCA either.
-Abraham Ritchie, Editor ArtSlant Chicago