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Who Are Your Teachers?: Barbara Koenen



I first met Barbara Koenen when I got my first “real” arts admin job at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) in 2010. I was a coordinator…

I first met Barbara Koenen when I got my first “real” arts admin job at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) in 2010. I was a coordinator for Studio Chicago, a yearlong collaborative project that focused on the artist’s studio.

From this position and still alongside Barbara’s leadership, I went on to do work for more of DCASE’s large city-wide initiatives like the Creative Chicago Expo (Now Lake FX), Chicago Artists Month, and Chicago Artists Resource. It was from seeing her tireless work to provide resources, connections, and opportunities for artists that I was able to develop my own philosophy and advocacy for artists and the organizations that support them.

Someone like Barbara Koenen, who lifts up so many people at once, obviously has quite a few teachers. Here are some of them, in her own words. Her response has been edited for clarity and length.


Barbara Koenen

Mrs. Braun  lived down the block from my family starting when we moved in until after I left for college. She loved life and loved beautiful (and exotic!) things.  She was the Ruth Gordon of our neighborhood, riding her tricycle bike to every rummage sale in town.  Her house had different themed rooms — colonial, oriental, polynesian, etc. — and her walls would be painted red, blue, black, with original art, prints, documents, etc. on the walls.  She was fearless and exhuberant. She made us strange appetizers like dates with anchovy paste, and she dug up her front and back lawns and planted trees to make a forest woodland. She was a teacher in an inner-city catholic girls school (how I envied her students!) and her husband was a republican!  How did they get along? I do not know. But when I was five, I went to her house to try to sell one of my paintings, and she bought it! (I think my mom made me return the money). She was my first and biggest fan and inspiration.

Mrs. Gardner was my high school art teacher. She was a great art teacher–she exposed us to many media (ceramic, printmaking, painting, collage, etc.) and many genres of art, from ancient artifacts to Impressionism and Modern Art.  She gave us space to explore whatever we wanted outside class and after school. Many hours were spent with friends making pots and other sculptures in the ceramic room until late at night. She traveled all over the world all the time, and then arranged our annual school trips where she exposed us to places we’d never dreamed of, especially in Mexico. She also loved beautiful things, but was more grounded in practical issues. So, for example, she entered many of her students into art competitions and often we won something or other. We would never have entered on our own, but it was wonderful to have her encouragement and knowing that it would be meaningful for us to participate. She also had like 8 kids, and I have no idea how she was able to do all that she did.

Mr. Huth was my high school english teacher and facilitated the school paper. He seemed to think that I was smart, so he invited me to be editor of the school paper and he encouraged me to read all sorts of books and discuss them in Advanced Lit. He was very mild-mannered, but managed to shepherd and nurture a whole gangly bunch of hotheads and weirdos. I remember the day we brought in “electric” brownies to our staff meeting and he was completely non-plussed. He taught us about putting out a paper–from the content to the typeface–and let us write about whatever we wanted. He treated us like adults and kept us inspired and on our toes.

George Cramer was my college sculpture teacher at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He told me to rip up all my drawings and make one big one out of them.   Then he taught me how to work in fiberglass and how to weld. I was interested in geology, rocks, layers, cities and detritis, so it all made sense. When I expressed dismay at the narrowness of the art world, he encouraged me to go to architecture school. He was a big man, known as “Big George,” and he created a big space for his students to explore in.

Mike Lash was my first boss in the Public Art Program at the City of Chicago and I learned a lot from my first boss at the City. He would chide me for keeping the “logic chip” on inside my brain whenever I wanted something idealistic (or logical!) to happen.  He enjoyed working the system and the bureaucracy, and viewed it all as a game. He was good at playing it, fearless about publicity, had excellent instincts for exhibitions and artists, and I learned a lot from him.  He was an impressario.

Lois Weisberg was my first uber-boss at the City of Chicago. Lois trusted her friends and employees to do their best. Two things I most remember: 1.) Don’t worry about how much it costs or how you will pay for it, just start planning and you’ll figure it out and 2.) don’t worry about the press. The next day they will be after something else. 

Tim Samuelson is my husband and I met him when he worked in the Landmarks Office at the City of Chicago. What can I say?  So many stories. So many ways to dig into history. So much exuberance. I have learned how to do research, where to look for certain things, the value of so many stories and so many lives. His irreverence for tradition and celebration of the under-represented, under-seen–whether it is doodles on cocktail napkins or the inventors of macaroni and cheese–have inspired and entertained me since we first met. He taught me that history is found in everyone and everything.


This article is part of a larger article called Who Are Your Teachers?: After Richard Hunt at the Koehnline Museum of Art, which features several Chicago artists and workers who have been influential in the life and work of Sixty co-founder Tempestt Hazel.

This article is presented in collaboration with Art Design Chicago, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art exploring Chicago’s art and design legacy through more than 30 exhibitions, as well as hundreds of talks, tours and special events in 2018.

Featured Image: Barbara Koenen at the opening reception of Serenade at Terrain Exhibitions in summer 2013. Photo by Sabina Ott. The image is a shoulder up photo of Barbara with her at the left of the frame. Behind her you can see part of the Terrain house, and a detail of the wind chime sculpture by Michael and Yhelena Hall. 



37361153_1704341052955038_2242317393479073792_nTempestt Hazel is a curator, writer, and co-founder of Sixty Inches From Center. Her writing has been published by Hyde Park Art Center the Broad Museum (Lansing), in Support Networks: Chicago Social Practice History Series, Contact Sheet: Light Work Annual, Unfurling: Explorations In Art, Activism and Archiving, on Artslant, as well as various monographs of artists, including Cecil McDonald, Jr.’s In the Company of Black published by Candor Arts. You can also read her writing in the upcoming Art AIDS America catalogue for Chicago and the online journal Exhibitions on the Cusp by Tremaine Foundation. Find more of her work at Photo by Darryl DeAngelo Terrell.

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