My perspective on the College Art Association conference is ultimately limited, as anyone’s experience might be. The conference is just so massive. Overwhelmed with choice, one is always missing something else. Lectures, a book fair, job interviews, art installations, film screenings, and miscellaneous “business meetings” take place as an annual event to bring together the academic art community. I was excited and interested to attend this nationwide art gathering that draws professors from around the world. It is regularly held in New York City, and makes a Chicago appearance about every six years.
Taking place within the Hilton hotel at 720 South Michigan, a labyrinthine building with boulevards, halls, salons and ballrooms, a number of mezzanine floors, and lobbies, this building was once the largest hotel in the world. While riding one of the 14 elevators up to the 8th floor, I read the digital screen, an anachronism within the wood paneled pinnacle of bourgeois elegance, that the Grand Ballroom could fit ten two-story, five-room houses.
Later, the lecture that I attended in that room, part of a panel on Art of the 1960s in response to Cold War politics, had perhaps 20 people in a space that could fit maybe 500. Every morning, noon, and evening, the conference hosts about 10-15 simultaneous panels of around 4-5 lectures. People enter and leave at whim, fickle and uncommitted to any panel in particular. There are of course a few dedicated listeners that sit the whole time, but as my own time is limited, I joined the wanderers roaming the halls of the Hilton in search of some insight.
I glimpsed performances and films held on the 4th Floor, one featuring SAIC alum Daviel Shy. Free events dotted amongst the place seemed more interesting than the academic panels, many of which consisted of people reading directly from thesis papers and showing powerpoints.
The book fair, an exhibition held in a salon on the basement level was an excellent resource for book catalogs, discounted books (attending during the last 2 hours seemed key), free journals, free pens and pencils (including high quality art making supplies), and looking at paint samples. Publisher’s representatives would make an approach in hopes that you were an academic looking to stock up your establishment’s library. There were also a few schools and residencies promoting their facilities. All in all, this was the most friendly area in the hotel with good browsing materials.
The interview room, in another basement salon, looked terrifying to me, but as I did not have any employment opportunities lined up, I only imagined the anxieties emanating from the corridor of black curtains. Really, considering the colorful grandiosity of the rest of the building, bursting with gilded mirrors, marble balustrades, and Baroque-style paintings, I questioned the choice of black curtains separating beige municipal-esque tables from each other.
The scale of luxury and indulgence contrasted sharply with the probable income of many of the attendees. I thought – these are artists and art teachers – why in such a fancy fancy building? When I went to buy a coffee in the morning, I considered purchasing a granola bar for breakfast – total bill $7. “What?” I exclaimed. The barista kindly informed me “That granola bar is $4. It’s expensive. Everything is expensive here.” I thanked her for the honesty and replaced the bar.