Moving out and moving on
The Contemporary Art Workshop retires at 60.
When the Contemporary Art Workshop (CAW) was founded in 1949, only two Chicago galleries showed local artists, Lynn Kearney recalls. Her future husband, John Kearney, started the CAW with fellow artists Leon Golub, Cosmo Campoli, Ray Fink and Al Kwitz to build up Chicago’s nascent art scene and retain the recent art-school grads who would otherwise leave for New York. They presented early showings of works by now-major artists like June Leaf, Jin Soo Kim, Seymour Rosofsky and Golub, who became an internationally recognized painter. In recent years, the workshop has showcased rising stars such as Stacie Johnson, Chris Kerr and Fraser Taylor.
But after serving emerging Illinois artists for six decades, the Lincoln Park–based CAW will close its gallery space in January and its artist studios at the end of April. Its headquarters—a landmark former dairy at 542 West Grant Place—will be converted into a private residence.
The story of the CAW is largely the Kearneys’ story. Lynn met John while taking a class from him there. They married in 1951, and nine years later, they bought and donated the Lincoln Park building to the CAW outright; they’ve sustained the nonprofit ever since. According to Lynn, who has served as the organization’s director for 20 years, she and her husband are now closing it because of their declining health and their age—both are in their eighties.
The couple didn’t consider passing the torch to anyone else because “no one came forward,” Lynn says. Artist Amy Honchell, who has exhibited at the CAW and rents a third-floor studio there, recalls that by the time the 18 resident artists began a conversation about the building’s future, it was already too late. In February 2008, they were informed that the property had been sold.
Lynn says that John—who actively keeps his own studio and practice at the CAW—has always been its “guiding spirit,” while she handled the administrative responsibilities. The Kearneys are “as sad as can be” about the organization’s demise, Lynn adds. Taylor, who rents a CAW studio, praises Lynn’s experience, supportiveness and commitment “to providing an active environment where artists could work and share ideas.” He cites the unusual freedom the couple granted exhibitors as additional evidence of their dedication to new artists; Honchell was likewise impressed that Lynn “religiously” attended local B.F.A. shows.
The CAW’s historical significance has already been recognized by the Chicago History Museum and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, which will both preserve the workshop’s archives. Taylor believes the organization helped establish “Chicago as an important and challenging city with a diverse and thriving art community.” Honchell sees its influence on younger nonprofit Chicago art spaces like ThreeWalls and Mess Hall. If, as Lynn suggests, “Now artists stay [in Chicago] because they can survive here,” that’s partly thanks to the CAW.
The CAW’s final exhibition, “Matt Davis and John Lyon: The End,” runs through January 23.