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Artists Struggle to Stay in Wicker Park

North Avenue in Chicago, looking east from CTA...
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Karen Gagich is an independent ceramics paint artist in Wicker Park who said her days are numbered in a neighborhood that was once thriving with artists from all over the world—but is now dying out.

The program manager of the Wicker Park & Bucktown Chamber of Commerce said artists are moving to other neighborhoods because of rising property taxes and the bad economy.

“Artists just can’t afford to live here anymore. Local organizations have been hanging on to maintain the cultural part of the neighborhood, but it’s getting more difficult for independent artists,” said Jamie Simone, the chamber’s program manager.

Simone said Wicker Park used to be a hot spot for artists in the early 1990s and a vibrant destination for tourists, but has dramatically slowed down in the last couple years.

She said most independent artists have moved into the Flat Iron Arts Building that was built in 1913 on Milwaukee and Damen avenues, where they can rent a studio at a cheap rate that range from $700 for a single studio and $1,400 for a two-bedroom.

Gary Marr, one of two gallery owners in The Flat Iron Building, said most independent artists have been driven out of Wicker Park by high-end art galleries and boutiques.

He said gentrification has been a benefit for the art market and his gallery — despite the bad economy– because more people living in Wicker Park are able to afford the type of art he sells.

“If the artists were good and selling art that is sellable, they would still be here,” said Marr, owner of Sapere Art.

Marr said there are only two galleries in the Flat Iron Building and the rest of the space is rented out to  about 36 independent artists who sell their work from their studio.

He said he sells work from 23 artists — none from within the building  —and all of which produce art that the “John Q. Public” will want, he said.

“People want what looks good on their wall. It doesn’t have to be art, it just has to be nice,” said Marr.

Gagich said artists from all over the world flocked to Wicker Park in the late 1980s. This is when a monthly block event called “Around the Coyote Festival” was created that gave local artists the opportunity to display and sell their work, she said.

Gagich said the festival was canceled three years ago, but the Flat Iron Artists Association is trying to bring a similar event back called “Beyond the Coyote” that ran mid-September.

“Most of us are hand-to-mouth artists, so these types of events are our survival,” said Gagich, who has lived in Wicker Park since 1980.

Gagich said Marr is like most politicians in the area who care only about the business aspect of the art market, which takes away from the Wicker Park appeal.

“It’s all a show for [politicians]. I don’t think anyone really cares about art institutions in the area anymore. That’s why you see more artists moving to Pilsen and Bridgeport,” said Gagich.

Simone said Wicker Park is split into two wards — 1st and 32nd — and both aldermen have been supportive in their efforts to save the arts community.

Matthew Bailey, director of communications for Ald. Joe Moreno (1st), said Moreno  is a big supporter of artists and art in the community and has met with local artists to assist them.

He said Moreno has helped produce murals that are a deterrent to vandalism and has a close collaboration with Johalla Projects, which was featured on

“Moreno is passionate about the neighborhood retaining its artistic instinct. He believes it to be one of our biggest pluses, and will continue to support art and enable artists,” said Bailey.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said he realizes resources are limited for artists, but hasn’t given much thought about what can be done to resolve this issue, he said.

“We have resources for the Industrial Planned Manufacturing District, which is another hurting industry, but we have no resources for independent artists. [Art’s] not just a hobby, it’s an industry too,” said Waguespack.

Waguespack said the Flat Iron Arts Building receives incentives from the city of Chicago for housing artists, but does not benefit local artists in the long run in an expensive area like Wicker Park, he said.

“It’s hard to find affordable space in an area like Wicker Park, it’s difficult there. But it’s definitely something I will have to look into,” said Waguespack.

Waguespack said he is helping raise donations for a mural by Tony Fitzpatrick on the Bloomingdale Trail in remembrance of the two girls that were beat earlier this year.

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