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'Art for Life' gears up for annual auction
by Kerry Reid

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For years, the Chicago branch of Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS ( DIFFA ), an organization composed of architecture and interior design professionals, has raised money for AIDS nonprofits. Some of those who've received DIFFA grants include the AIDS Legal Council ( now known as the Legal Council for Health Justice ), Chicago House and VIDA/SIDA.

However, DIFFA stepped up its profile in the last year through the "Art for Life" auction, which returns for a second year on Thursday, Oct. 18, at Venue West, 221 N. Paulina St. Around 60 works of art—selected through a juried process—will be available at the auction. ( Online early bidding begins Monday, Oct. 15. )

For Art for Life committee co-chair Oliver Aguilar, a senior designer with Gooch Design Studio, the auction isn't just about raising money and awareness. It's also about creating community and connections for the artists themselves. And as an avid art collector himself ( he estimates he owns about 500 pieces of original work ), Aguilar also wanted to help people just starting out as collectors be able to find good work at affordable prices.

"We want to have everyone that comes to our auction to be able to go home with an original piece of art," said Aguilar. "We believe everyone deserves good original art." So he advocated for creating an auction similar to those that have been held by DIFFA chapters in other cities. In the past, Aguilar said "We auctioned off furniture and things that were related to the architectural and interior design businesses."

One way to get original art for less at the auction is through the "Off the Wall" piece. This collaborative effort consists of a large canvas ( around eight feet tall by 20 feet wide ) with sections painted by several of the artists participating in this year's auction. Buyers acquire parts of it through bidding on square footage. So, as Aguilar explained, "I think we started at $200 per square foot last year. Every 30 minutes it goes down to a lower number. Thirty minutes before the end of the event, it's $5 per square foot. But you may not get the section you want, which is your risk if you wait."

The committee did have to put some restrictions on the kinds of art submitted. Aguilar noted that they've also limited the number of pieces. "We had way too much last year because I think we were just super-excited to receive so many artists who wanted to participate," he said. He added "We can't take anything bigger than six feet by six feet." ( The Off the Wall piece is an obvious exception. ) Aguilar also noted that video art isn't featured, although the auction does have a sculpture this year. "We have photography, a variety of painting styles such as abstract and figurative in all types of mediums, from decoupage to oils and acrylics and other mixed media."

But Art for Life isn't just a one-night event. As Aguilar noted, there are "pop-up" parties throughout the year, where participating artists give a sneak preview of the work they're donating. On Thursday, September 20, the BLNC yoga studio in the West Loop provided the wall space for several pieces. Artists and patrons mixed and mingled over hors d'oeuvres and drinks as a string trio played in the background.

Justin Suico, a painter and native Chicagoan, was there with one of his pieces titled Invictus, a vibrant abstract in red and gold with elements of graffiti art. He was also part of last year's auction.

"It's been a great introduction to other curators and collectors," Suico said. "So often when you donate to auctions, you don't know what happens to the piece." By contrast, he stayed in touch with the buyer of the painting he donated last year. Through the connections he made with the auction, he's also participated in some "live" painting events ( creating art on the spot ) as well as other pop-up parties with DIFFA.

Fine-art photographer Gail Mancuso noted that the mix of "cultural event and community effort" makes Art for Life stand out. "Art is almost secondary to the community vision," she said.

But as Aguilar noted, the quality of the work, even from artists who may not be well known yet, has been improving. This year's jurors included Richard Bentham of the Smithsonian Institution, Aron Packer of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, and Laura-Caroline Johnson of the DePaul Art Museum.

Bringing in new patrons from outside DIFFA's usual target audience has also been important for Aguilar. "Last year we succeeded in having a mixed group of people coming in. We did have our steady supporters in the architectural and interior design industries, but we had new buyers out there who were not part of it." Aguilar estimates that they raised $80,000 last year. This is less than DIFFA auctions in other cities, but he notes that those cities, such as Dallas, are partnering with major art museums, while Chicago's Art for Life is still growing up from the grassroots.

One poignant aspect of the auction is the "Memoriam" section. This year, work by the late Kieran McGonnell, donated by his partner, Gregg Driben, will be featured. The Irish-born McGonnell, who had relocated from Brooklyn to Chicago before his death from a head injury in 2011, was celebrated for working across a wide range of subjects—some inspired by Celtic themes. At the pop-up party, one of his abstracts as well as a Warholian Pop Art homage to a Van Gogh self-portrait adorned the walls.

Aguilar noted that raising awareness about HIV and AIDS is perhaps even more important now that the disease isn't dominating headlines as it did at the height of the crisis. "I think we need to have an understanding that even though it's not a deadly disease based on the media reports anymore, extensive research still needs to happen. I am doing this work for my friends and people I know that have it and I want to support them." Suico noted that for people of his generation ( he is in his early 30s ), there's "a false sense of security" about the risks of the disease.

Many of the organizations that benefit from Art for Life work with chronically underserved populations, including homeless people and youth of color. Aguilar said "I actually see and shake hands with the people who receive the money, along with the rest of my DIFFA team." Building lasting connections with them is part of the continuum with building connections with the artists who contribute their work.

"It is so much more than them giving their art for a donation," said Aguilar. "We consider them as a family from now on."

Art for Life Chicago will take place 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 18, at Venue West, 221 N. Paulina St. Tickets are $100 ( including cocktails and "bites" ); call 312-644-6412 or visit .

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