Melissa Merli: Best-artists lists often leave out women, minorities

Melissa Merli: Best-artists lists often leave out women, minorities

When I first saw the blurb on the cover of the most recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine asking, "Who are the six greatest living artists?", my first thought was "sez who?"

The editors of the magazine? No. In this case, art professors, artists and directors of blue-chip galleries and museums, among them Josef Helfenstein, a former director of Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois.

He left a few years ago to head the prestigious Menil Collection and Foundation in Houston.

Altogether, 100 experts were asked to weigh in on the always provocative question. Fifty-four responded.

Such lists are generally biased and banal and are made up of well-established white male artists and few women or minorities. Such is the case with the Vanity Fair list:

1. Gerhard Richter

2. Jasper Johns

3. Richard Serra

4. Bruce Nauman

5. Cindy Sherman

6. Ellsworth Kelly

Four are white American males. Sherman is an American photographer known for her large-scale photographs in which she adopts different identities, to great effect. Gerhard Richter is German. I admit he's one of my favorite living white male artists.

The 54 who voted actually came up with 140 artists. Kara Walker, a black American, made the top 15, as did Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and South African William Kentridge.

"If anything, I'd say the list reveals a disheartening shortsightedness, made all the more depressing by the fact that it was compiled by some of the most high-profile people in the art world today ..." Jillian Steinhauer wrote at the website Hyperallergic, which describes itself as "sensitive to art and its discontents."

Time trip

The Art Theater, now the Art Theater Co-op, to our knowledge the only cooperatively owned art movie house in the country, celebrated its 100th anniversary Tuesday night with an interesting program of historic and mostly classic film shorts, accompanied by live music by the Andrew Alden Ensemble, a trio from Boston.

Also, the 1991 documentary "The Last Picture Show," made by Charles Castle, was shown, in a change of program, as Luke Boyce of Shatterglass Studios was unable to render his new Art Theater doc in time for the event.

The 1991 doc is a time capsule of the Champaign-Urbana movie-theater scene in the early '90s, before all the development took place in downtown Champaign and around the time the Virginia and Thunderbird theaters closed as movie theaters.

(The Thunderbird is now the Canopy Club, a nightclub, and the Champaign Park District eventually bought the vintage Virginia, which is now a beautifully renovated, beloved, all-purpose venue.)

Also at the Art anniversary event, which lasted more than four hours, were three writers, among them theater historian Perry Morris, who gave a rundown of the contents of their new book, "The Art Theater Playing Movies for 100 Years."

Along with the text, the 160-page paperback is full of old newspaper ads, illustrations and black-and-white and color photographs about the local movie scene of the past 100 years.

Unlike most single-screen movie houses, the Art has survived a century (it was closed for only four months at one point) because of all the farsighted people who stepped in to take over — and the fact it operated as a porn theater in the '70s.

"Anyone in central Illinois who has an interest in motion pictures has quite a treat in store," Bob Alger, a son of a former owner of the Park Theatre, predecessor to the Art, wrote for a cover blurb. "The authors really dug deeply into the archives to find the history of the motion picture theaters from the beginning in the early 20th century."

I bought a copy ($25) but haven't read it yet, but as Alger says, it looks interesting. (Disclosure: The other co-authors are Joseph Muskin and Audrey Wells; she is a friend of mine.)

The Galways

I just read John Frayne's review in e3 ( about the Sir James Galway, Lady Jeanne Galway and Irish Chamber Orchestra concert Nov. 7 at Krannert Center, so I won't add much to his take other than to say I was blown away by Sir James Galway's virtuosity on the flute.

In a phone interview before the concert, he had told me he sounds like no other flutist. I must agree.

So does Sam Reese, a jazz lover and retired UI music education professor who was at the concert, too.

If Galway were a jazz musician, one would say he has a voice, Reese told me. Reese also deeply admires Galway's intonation and the precision of his notes.

He was an extremely warm presence on stage, telling the full house in Foellinger Great Hall that he was born into poverty in Belfast worse than that depicted in the best-selling book "Angela's Ashes."

He also told a lot of jokes.

Frayne mentioned Lady Jeanne's flowing, long yellow dress. I thought it was the most dramatic and beautiful I'd seen on the Great Hall stage since 2005, when Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli wore an impressive green gown for her unforgettable concert there.

As Frayne reported, the Galways graciously signed autographs for more than 200 people who waited patiently in line. Many were young fans.

As the Galways left the lobby, I introduced myself to Sir James as the "dorky reporter" who had interviewed him by phone. He's quite friendly, as is his wife, also a virtuosic flutist, who commented to me that the acoustics in the Great Hall are "crystal clear."


The evening of Nov. 8, I went to a reception at Shatterglass Studios, 309 S. Neil St., C, to celebrate its recent regional Emmy win for its 2012 Ebertfest documentary.

A nattily attired Boyce, director of the doc, showed me around the Shatterglass studios and offices, which are contemporary, comfortable and fun. Maybe the coolest workspace in C-U. If you ever get the chance, visit.

Among those at the reception were Nate Kohn, director of Roger Ebert's Film Festival, and Mary Susan Britt, associate festival director.

Kohn told me plans are coming along for the 2014 Ebertfest in late April at the Virginia. The lineup, as always, will feature movies Roger Ebert had selected before he died in early April, as well as recommendations from festival emcee Chaz Ebert, his wife, and Kohn.

Festival passes are $145 each and on sale now. For more info, go to

At Parkland

On Nov. 9, I made the long trek from Urbana to the Parkland Art Gallery in west Champaign to see "Defining Territories: Contemporary Drawings," featuring works by five artists, among them Shelby Shadwell, assistant professor of art at the University of Wyoming.

I examined his large-scale drawings closely because they are so photo-realistic. I could not believe he drew them with charcoal. He's a master of that medium, for sure.

His work — among his subjects are stuffed garbage bags and a bevy of insects — is about "the visible versus the hidden and the valuable versus the disposable in art and a broader cultural context," he wrote.

My winter hats are off to Parkland art faculty Joan Stolz and Matthew Watt for curating this show.

My bad: I went on the closing day and so missed recommending this show to my readers.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (1):People

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