Flat Iron Left Behind

By Megan Ferringer

Several years ago, Wicker Park’s art scene was burgeoning. Studio space was cheap, and yearly art festivals cluttered Milwaukee and Damen avenues with abstractly painted canvases and hopeful artists waiting to catch a passer by’s attention. The vibe was tragically hip and the creativity infectious-at the height of Wicker Park’s art festivals, more than 800 artists filled the Near West Side neighborhood, and at the center of all the hype was a symbiotic collaboration between the Flat Iron Artists Association and Around the Coyote.

But by late 2007, rumblings of an unexpected change began to slowly spread through Flat Iron’s halls, a change that would come about rapidly and with little forewarning.

Around the Coyote, which had long held the title as Wicker Park’s catalyst for emerging artists, was to uproot itself from the Flat Iron building at North and Milwaukee avenues and move out after a 19-year relationship. Flat Iron and its 50 artists’ studios were left behind as they struggled to lift themselves up from a hard-hitting blow. Around the Coyote had been a major source of income and marketing engine for the building, and without them, the Flat Iron Artists Associaton, led by painter Kevin Lahvic, was forced to take matters into their own hands so Wicker Park’s art scene wouldn’t dry up and fizzle out.

“For Around the Coyote to move out of the neighborhood, that was something that none of us ever expected,” Lahvic said. “We started feeling very strongly that whatever Coyote was going to do, it wasn’t going to involve Flat Iron. Coyote was drastically changing. And at that point, we saw the writings on the wall.”

It was the Coyote festivals held throughout the year that brought in most of the attention and revenue for Wicker Park artists, and Flat Iron had become an essential component to its success-much of the art was housed in the building, becoming open for viewing by the public, Lahvic said. But when February 2008 rolled in, Lahvic and other Flat Iron artists knew something was up. Rumors surfaced that Around the Coyote was going to move the second of its two annual festivals off-site, giving no more than a month’s notice to artists that the event would be no longer, Lahvic said. Around the Coyote later announced it was also pulling up its stakes in the office across the street from the iconic Coyote tower for smaller quarters in the Splat Flats on Division Street. And to truly be around the Coyote, nobody could be anywhere else but in that area.

“It just caught people off guard. That was quite a hardship,” Lahvic said. “It was only a couple months before they told us that they weren’t going to do the fall show in our building. It was devastating news for the artists.  If we had been informed early on that they were leaving and had been given some sort of transitional period, that would have been a help.”

Around the Coyote’s decision to move was made rather rapidly and was based mostly on the declining economic state of the art world, said Anne Mills, a recent Columbia graduate who took over Allison Stites’ position as Around the Coyote’s executive director. Their previous office hosted year-round Around the Coyote programming and exhibitions, but their new location at Splat Flats allows for occasional shows as they look to expand their interdisciplinary program to include more theater, film and music-a new, and not to mention cheaper, opportunity that originally wasn’t possible with the old location.

The festivals, that were traditionally held in Wicker Park right outside of the Around the Coyote and Flat Iron offices, were another change spawned from the area’s increasing economic woes. After finding that there was little space left in Wicker Park to procure for the fall festival, they had little choice but to shift the location to a more spacious venue, which included the West Loop, Mills said.

“It was pretty spontaneous. We were having some financial trouble, and we realized that we needed to move or else there would be no Coyote,” Mills said. “It was either us surprising Flat Iron now and moving or waiting a few months and surprising them that we had to shut down because we’re broke. We’re trying to lead the change rather than becoming a victim of it.”

Mills said the shift in the festival’s venue shouldn’t hinder Flat Iron artists from participating. In the past, Around the Coyote has always included Flat Iron in the festivals, and she doesn’t expect that things need to be any different because of geographical differences-Mills encourages artists to continue to participate in their festivals even if it is in the West Loop. The only real difference now is that Around the Coyote won’t be using the Flat Iron venue for the festival, Mills said.

Around the Coyote’s statement regarding their move is one that Lahvic is finding hard to come to terms with. Both Lahvic and the artists at Flat Iron were simply told that Around the Coyote had outgrown the area and run out of space to place their artists. But in reality, the show that they ended up with in the West Loop had no greater amounts of artists or space than what had previously been held in Wicker Park, Lahvic said. In fact, the entire show held in the West Loop could have neatly fit into the Flat Iron building. For Lahvic, Around the Coyote’s economic and space issues became a convenient excuse, but he doesn’t necessarily think that is their true reason for leaving.

With Around the Coyote’s move came a shift in their own mission, Lahvic said. What was originally an arts program dedicated to helping emerging artists find their way is now cozying up to the art establishment in a way that they never really did before. Lahvic calls it the “gatekeeper mentality,” this idea where an organization sets itself up as the judge of what is or isn’t good art.

In the past, Around the Coyote provided a vibrant atmosphere for artists to show their work, leaving it solely up to the public to decide what they liked and didn’t like. Nothing was censored out simply because of their own artistic sensibilities. But these days, things are a bit different.

“Their move to the West Loop had them changing. They wanted to endear themselves to the larger, established art community in the city,” Lahvic said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just a completely different mission than what they had in the past.”

Despite the surprising ups and downs, Lahvic and Flat Iron artists encountered in the past year, they can’t help but remain optimistic about their own future.  As soon as whispers of Around the Coyote’s plans surfaced, Lahvic began reorganizing the artists’ association. And in the midst of all the talk, events like next September’s smARTshow were planned, and the 2009 calendar is now full with future shows and exhibitions.

For Adam Siegel, who has been an artist at Flat Iron for more than eight years, and many other longtime resident artists, Around the Coyote’s move won’t hinder their involvement in Wicker Park’s art community-there will always be a passion and need for art, regardless of what galleries come and go throughout the years. These days, Lahvic said Flat Iron is filled with a great energy, an energy that he hasn’t seen in his eight years there. The building is fully leased, which is something that wasn’t the case even during the height of Around the Coyote. And as far as Lahvic and other artists are concerned, Flat Iron is doing something right-people are getting excited about the fact that artists are still alive and well, and that Flat Iron will carry on.

“It’s Flat Iron’s goal to keep this neighborhood vibrant and moving forward and I think that’s what’s happening,” Lahvic said. “I feel very safe saying that I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat. We’re getting traffic into the building, and our shows are full. I know all of us are very hopeful for the future and that we’ll continue to grow. We’ll do just fine.”