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Leave of Absence
by Erik Wenzel

Ten years ago, during my freshman year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw a flyer posted in a school stairwell seeking a band member. “Drummer Wanted,” it said and then continued on to list a careful selection of “influences and bands we like.” It was a schizophrenic list that I imagined was the product of all the band members lobbying for their interests. It included Fugazi, Iggy Pop, Joy Division and, inexplicably, Fleetwood Mac. The flyer was urgent; the new member was needed for gigs and a demo tape recording. The band had a number of goals to achieve once they found their new drummer, but the part forever etched into my mind was the final objective: “…AND GET THE FUCK OUT OF CHICAGO.”

A few years later, in the first lecture of his Contemporary Art History course, James Yood said what a lot of people had been saying in conversation, “Chicago came in third in a contest where only first and second matter.” And thus I was formally introduced to what is known as Chicago’s “Second City Syndrome.” Although of course now it’s more like “Third City Syndrome” since L.A. has overtaken us as number two. 

There are constantly waves of people coming and going in Chicago, as tied to the city’s art schools. Every four or five years the wave crests with a mixture of ambitious graduate and undergraduate students who start alternative spaces, make exhibitions and establish themselves as young artists, writers and curators of great promise. And then they leave or things fizzle out, only to swell again and crash in the next wave.

The Willis (Sears) Tower. Chicago, USA.


This is what makes Chicago feel like it is caught in a perpetual loop. It is always on the verge of something, but it never quite gets there. There is a lot of promise here, but things frequently fail to materialize into much of anything. This city is great for experimentation, as the thriving scene of apartment and alternative spaces attests. But where does this lead?

I am not interested in listing the many faults of the art scene here. That is part of the endlessly repeating discussion that fuels Chicago’s inferiority complex.

Basically, there is an abundance of artists and creative people involved in the arts in this city and only a handful of opportunities. Even less are the chances to make a living wage and less than that if you are looking to advance your career. Added to that is the rather conservative nature of the scene here. Artwork that flourishes in Chicago is roughly divided into two categories: social practices that involve the community or traditional studio practices focused on craftsmanship. If your interests fall outside of these, you are out of luck. So very generally speaking, that is why I am leaving.

After seeing a few exoduses of colleagues and friends from the city, I have decided it’s my time to try it out. This isn’t meant as some permanent departure from the city declared with extreme finality; the time just seems ripe to see how things are elsewhere. 

Zentrum Paul Klee. Bern, Switzerland. 


Since participating in the Somerakademie at the Zentrum Paul Klee in 2009, and subsequently co-editing and contributing to a publication with the Sommerakademie, Europe has become an incredible draw. For the past two summers, in addition to spending time in Bern, Switzerland, where the Zentrum Paul Klee is located, I have also been living in Berlin, Germany. Being in Berlin and Bern has offered such an engaging and revivifying feeling that I am compelled to spend more time there at the expense of ridding myself of as many possessions as possible and leaving the city I’ve called home since 1989.

One thing I have noticed of late is a massive shift away from New York. People are still moving there (who knows, I might end up there) but almost everyone I know leaving Chicago these days is going to L.A. (who knows, I might end up there). I asked two friends and colleagues to comment on this, and why they’ve decided to leave.

Mike Schuh, Artist: Los Angeles has always been a place of interest.  Recently my wife and I have had a lot of good friends move there and after visiting in February we decided it would be a perfect time to give it a try.  It's a very different kind of city than Chicago and one that has a much larger art community in every sense.  It also seems to be a very welcoming and open place in general with an infectious, productive energy.  We definitely have been feeling like Chicago did not offer enough of what we wanted and were starting to feel a little restricted in terms of the kinds of experiences that we're looking for right now–L.A. just offers more opportunity in general.  It's important to be some place where I feel a sense of potential and that things that are important to me are more important to more people in L.A. than they are in Chicago.  It’s also beautiful and a bit of an adventure.  I'm not sure what to expect with regard to a lot of aspects of living there, which is something I'm looking forward to.  I'm excited to see how all of this affects my work.

Natalie Schuh, Gallerist and Curator: Although I really enjoyed my time in Chicago and I love the city, I felt that professionally there weren't enough opportunities for me to stay. I want to work in a city where there is a higher caliber of galleries (more than three top tier galleries) and where there aren’t just one or two full time employees in a gallery. For what I was looking for professionally, Chicago wasn't able to full fill my aspirations. 

I feel that Chicago has a handful of excellent galleries (Golden Age, Golden, Peregrine Program, 65GRAND, Tony Wight Gallery, Donald Young Gallery) but after three years working as a Director I felt that I needed a change. Along with my husband, we chose L.A. because we have had many friends move out there and after visiting we realized it was the city for us. I am interested in the contemporary art scene in L.A. and I feel that for artists L.A. is a very welcoming (and somewhat affordable) city. Chicago is an incredible city and I was sad to leave but I knew if I stayed that I would be unsatisfied in my career.

I think Natalie’s final sentence pretty much sums it up. Take care.


-Erik Wenzel, Senior Staff Writer ArtSlant: Chicago

Erik Wenzel is an artist and writer who lived in Chicago.


Posted by Erik Wenzel on 8/15/11 | tags: chicago

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20120306131859-abe2bw From Victor Cassidy
The following comment was emailed to me by Victor Cassidy expressly to post to this article: I have pleasant memories of meeting Erik Wenzel at a gathering of Chicago art critics/journalists. Chicago will miss him. His analysis of the Chicago art scene and its history is spot on, but he’s ignoring some of the positives. Chicago has abundant cheap real estate, which means that it’s much easier for a young impecunious artist to find a studio here than in NYC or LA. An artist can live on very little in Chicago, not so easily on the coasts. The artist can focus on making art instead of making a living. Many people have told me this. A young artist, who’s just out of school needs some quiet time, usually several years, to develop his/her work. Chicago is peaceful compared to the coasts, which means that serious artists can get work done here with minimal distractions. Once the artist has attained some momentum in his/her career, as apparently Erik Wenzel has, then the artist may want to leave Chicago. This seems to happen when the artist is ca. 30 years old—and, yes, I have witnessed a few waves of departing artists. Among those who stay and persevere, Chicago is a good place to be, but there’s usually more money to be made on the coasts (if the artist beats the odds) and NY artists normally have the national reputations because the national art press is there. Still, there are some truly excellent artists living here who make decent livings and are nationally or even internationally known. Erik Wenzel surely encountered some of them at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Victor M. Cassidy

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