Shannon Stratton spends her days doing a lot of unsexy work. Yes, there is unsexy work in the art world. It isn't all Art Miami all the time, and thank goodness for that. Because although the style blogs and even certain art critics might suggest otherwise, decadence isn't the new meaningful. As executive and creative director of ThreeWalls, one of Chicago's most vital visual arts organizations, Stratton writes grants, raises money and does whatever else it takes to make sure the organization she co-founded in 2003 "has all four legs screwed into the table," as she put it in a recent telephone conversation. In a city more famous for temporary apartment galleries than stable, supportive small-scale art centers, eight solid years of exhibitions, residencies, artist grants, publications, conferences and commissions is something to celebrate. "There's a lack of basic understanding of how smaller-scale art projects add to a healthy ecology," explained the Calgary, Alberta, native, who moved to Chicago in 2001 to pursue a master's degree in fiber arts at the School of the Art Institute. Multimillion dollar spaces like the Art Institute or the Museum of Contemporary Art aren't the only ones that count. Stratton's budget for the past year totaled just $360,000. It's a modest amount that belies the breadth and ambition of work undertaken by ThreeWalls in 2011. In addition to showing challenging work by emerging locals like Zachary Cahill and Betsy Odom, this year Stratton debuted a tremendous series of new programs in the service of regional artists and independent art spaces. The MDW Fair, mounted in April and again in October, provided a grass-roots alternative to the luxury shopping mall of conventional art fairs. The Hand-in-Glove Conference brought together small, noninstitutional visual arts organizers from across the country. Community-Supported Art Chicago offered a yearly service for subscribers to invest in and buy art by a choice array of local artists. The Propeller Fund redistributed to local artists money originating from the Warhol Foundation, a means of funding creative work that Stratton hopes other foundations will follow. She's most excited about 2011 awardees like ¿Monsters and Dust¿ and ¿Disciplines Journal,¿ seeing in these self-publishing projects a counter to the familiar charge that Chicago lacks visual art periodicals. "But it's nonsense to pretend that it's all just one person," Stratton said, detailing a long list of collaborators, including Abigail Satinsky and Lauren Basing of ThreeWalls, Eric May of Roots & Culture, Ed Marszewski of the Public Media Institute and Erin Gent. Stratton's adamant not just about the need to share credit but also to make sure everyone gets paid. "Our culture doesn't see the value of arts labor," she said. By contrast, ThreeWalls compensates every artist, writer and staff person who takes part in its programming. "Arts administrators deserve a living wage too." "We are 8 years old now," Stratton reflected. "It takes a long time to figure out what the work is you should be doing. We've figured out the breadth of things we can take on. We should support our peers. Who better to support others than we who started out with four people and $5,000?"
William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune
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