Something new on the books
Vacant Borders store comes to life as pop-up art exhibit
02/15/2012 10:00 PM
When Borders Bookstore went belly-up last year, cities everywhere began to wring their collective hands. The bookstores were big sales tax generators with big footprints — who would replace them in this economy?
But over the past few months, several stores that used to be part of the Borders chain found a new lease on life. Walgreens plans to open a multi-level store in the vacant location at the intersection of Diversey Parkway, Clark and Broadway streets. Trendy Chicago-based clothing chain Akira is scheduled to open a branch in the Hyde Park location this fall.
However, the same couldn’t be said for the chain’s former flagship store downtown. Located at the intersection of State and Randolph streets in the heart of the Loop’s Theater District, it sees more foot traffic any the one location. Yet, in spite of the potential to attract significant customer base, it remained empty.
That changed suddenly at the end of January when the first floor became a site of a mixed-media art exhibition. Organized by the Chicago Loop Alliance as part of the Pop-Up Art Loop initiative, it features the work of a pair of local mixed-media artists, Liz Miller and Baltazar Castillo.
You don’t go inside the former Borders to get a look at their art: it’s designed to be viewed from the street. Their work faces the windows, allowing it to be seen by anyone who passes by. Miller created the sculptures that face Randolph Street, while Castillo works on the canvases that face State Street.
The current property owners allow the Loop Alliance to use the space while they are looking for a more permanent tenant. Under the terms of the Pop-Up Art Loop initiative, the artists are rotated once every six to eight weeks. If the building owners don’t find another tenant by then, another artist will be moved in this space.
Tristan Hummel, the program manager for the Chicago Loop Alliance and an artist in his own right, describes the Pop-Up Art Loop initiative as an attempt to do something creative with the spaces that would otherwise remain vacant.
“Our goal, simply stated, is to transform vacant or underutilized urban space and put something fantastic there,” said Hummel.
The Alliance works to create partnerships between property owners and the artists. The artists get to use the space for free. In exchange, the property owners reserve the right to ask them to leave as soon as a more permanent tenant is found.
The Pop-Up Art Loop initiative has been going on since the fall of 2009. It involved a wide variety of artists working in just about every medium imaginable. This marks the first time the former downtown Borders has been used as part of the project. According to Hummel, it is simply the matter of what space happens to be available at the time.
Hummel is responsible for choosing the artists that take part in the initiative. As he explained, his choices based more on the artists’ attitudes than the quality of their work.
“I choose people who exemplify strong desire,” he said. “I don’t judge them by their artwork, just their passion. I curate like a madman, often choosing artists who seem to best understand how to balance personal efficacy and its relation to the hierarchies that bind it.”
For the Borders exhibition, Hummel drew on both local and regional talents. Miller is a Minnesota-based artist and an associate professor of drawing at Minnesota State University. Miller’s contribution to the Borders exhibition features a variation on her signature work — large, multi-colored paper cutout sculptures that stretch across the room in three dimensions.
Castillo on the other hand, is a Chicago-born artist who currently lives and creates in Wicker Park. He has been painting and sculpting since the 1990s. Castillo currently serves as an artist in residence for Urban Gateways — a Chicago organization that works to enhance art education throughout the city.
When asked how he got involved in the Pop-Up Art Loop project, he explained that he met Hummel when during the 2011 Build Festival. Both artists exhibited their work there. When Hummel was looking for artists for 2012, he invited Castillo to participate.
Castillo chose to create the “Look at Us” project especially for Borders exhibition. The project was meant to be a constant work in progress. Anybody who passes by along State Street would notice canvases growing and changing, and Castillo can sometimes be seen working on new additions.
Castillo describes Look at Us as an “interdisciplinary work that examines the process, possibilities and consequences of merging the identities of two into one distinct personage — US.” A more detailed artist’s statement is available at the project’s official work blog at lookatushere.com.
Hummel admits that the space itself is still a work in progress.
“I spent a lot of time setting up walls,” he said, “and new improvements are being added currently — Lights being the main thing to still go into the space.”
Still, he is happy with the way the exhibition is going so far. He offered nothing but praise for both of the artists involved.
“They are both wonderful and accomplished artists in their fields,” Hummel said. “It was a pleasure to get to curate them.”