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Thompson Hotels Chicago Influencers X Robyn Farrell


Robyn Farrell knows her way around the Chicago art world. Throughout her career, she’s worked at an auctioneer company, written for publications, assisted a gallery director, and more. Now, as Assistant of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, she’s bringing innovative new work to one of the city’s preeminent cultural venues.

This month, she helps the Art Institute open an exhibition of work by Ragnar Kjartansson, a major contemporary artist who collaborated with the band, The National, to produce the work on view (entitled A Lot of Sorrow). Don’t let the title fool you—the piece is a cool and compelling blend of music, video, and performance. We asked Robyn about the show, the art community in Chicago, and her favorite spots to visit after major openings.

What drew you to Kjartansson’s work, and is there anything people should know about the artist or show before coming to the exhibition?

Ragnar Kjartansson has been on our radar for some time. His brand of music-based, performative, and endurance-driven work has garnered wide acclaim since he represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale in 2009. We were lucky to host the artist in Chicago in November 2014—at the invitation of the Society for Contemporary Art’s lecture program—and were thrilled to add A Lot of Sorrow to our collection last year. I think it’s important to note Kjartansson’s theatrical background is a driving influence in his performances and video art installations. A visitor should keep this in mind while watching A Lot of Sorrow, which is part music video, part extended concert film. The work captures the experience of the Brooklyn-based band The National and their fans as they repeat their three-and-a-half minute ballad “Sorrow” for six hours. Presenting Ragnar’s work also builds on our tradition of exhibiting culturally interested, durationally challenging, and musically inclined work in the Donna and Howard Stone Gallery for Film, Video, and New Media. Steve McQueen’s Girls, Tricky (2001) launched the Stone gallery at the opening for the Modern Wing in 2009, and last summer Frances Stark’s Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free (2013) was shown in this space as part of the artist’s first survey of video and digital work, Frances Stark: Intimism.

How would you describe the art scene in Chicago?

I would describe the arts in Chicago as more of a community than a scene. Artists, performers, educators, curators, and art administrators are all active and incredibly supportive of one another. It’s this collaborative nature that has launched so many venerable non-profits and artist-run organizations over the years: Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago Artist’s Coalition, Threewalls, Co-Prosperity Sphere, and Roots & Culture, among many others. It’s a legacy that continues to inspire young spaces today. Chicago is a culturally rich city that offers a diverse landscape for all interests. From paintings, film, and performance to dance and jazz, our city plays host to a significant history and home to some of the most exciting and engaged artists in the country.

The Kjartansson show blends visual art and music. What are some other experiences / institutions in the city providing opportunities to experience different art forms in exciting new ways?

This is tough. There are so many wonderful organizations that fuse visual arts, performance, and music! The Graham Foundation is always at the top of my list. Located in the Madlener House in the Gold Coast, they present exhibitions and programming from a range of disciplines. They often partner with LAMPO, a roving organization that promotes and produces experimental music and performances. The Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) has been working with musicians and sound artists for over thirty years. They partner with other Chicago organizations like the Chicago Park District to present large-scale sound based works in unexpected places like Millennium Park, but also host live performances at their space in Ravenswood, like the annual Summer Sonic performance series. The Garfield Park Conservatory has been host to a yearlong presentation of sound and light art by Chicago collaborative Luftwerk. I believe Solarise is on view through September of this year. There are countless other organizations like the Rebuild Foundation in Hyde Park or small artist-run spaces like Tritrianlgle or Lawrence and Clark that often present avant-garde exhibitions and programs of art and music.

After big art openings, how do you celebrate?

For openings at the Art Institute, like the annual focus exhibition series, we typically celebrate with a public gallery viewing and reception at Terzo Piano in the museum’s Modern Wing. If I still have energy after the official celebration, I might head to Lula Cafe in Logan Square to unwind—it’s a favorite in my neighborhood.

What upcoming art-related events are you looking forward to?

I’m really excited about our upcoming fall schedule at the Art Institute of Chicago. In October we open exhibitions with Richard Nonas on the Bluhm Terrace and Kemang Wa Lehulere in the Modern Wing. The exhibition with Kemang Wa Lehulere is part of the museum’s annual focus exhibition series. Our show will be his first solo exhibition in an American Museum. Kemang (b. Cape Town, South Africa, 1984) has risen to prominence in recent years making deeply thoughtful and resonant work in performance art, large-scale wall drawings, works on paper, photography, sculptural installation, video, poetry, and other forms of writing. Everyone should check out this show, especially the opening weekend, as the artist will perform in our galleries October 28-30. In addition to Kemang’s exhibition, I will be working on the next installation of work in the Stone Gallery for Film, Video, and New Media: a selection of videos by Andrea Fraser, who is widely regarded as a pioneer of institutional critique. I’m looking forward to the Diana Thater exhibition at the MCA as well. This show will also open in October and will include a work from our collection, Delphine (1999).


Photographs: Elísabet Davids

© Ragnar Kjartansson and The National; Courtesy of the artists, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik