For many artists disillusioned with the typical art gallery exhibition experience, the idea of running their own space, featuring their own work or work that they believe in, is not only an attractive option, but sometimes an idealized one. However, on opening night, it is often difficult to see the behind-the-scenes and late-night effort that goes into the presentation. F News spoke with five different galleries and alternative art spaces, and the curators shared a few of the things they've learned along the way.
"Challenge? Getting 20-plus artists/writers to do ANYTHING in an organized fashion."
Three of the main organizers/participants in Telophase are MFA Writing students Matthew Jewel, Odie Lindsey, and MJ Rider. While Jewel says his main responsibility is to "edit, format, and design the publication that accompanies every show," he also "helps organize the folks to get the space ready and to install." "And I do my own performative installations," Jewel added. Rider and Lindsey also participate in the organization and installation of the show.
The group Telophase formed when "Mary Margaret Sloan had a group of us MFAW kids over to talk about how to get stuff started. She gave us wine and food and laid out maybe 50 small press publications. She seemed to think Chicago was ripe for something to get started. Odie came up big with the space. We got to use it for cleaning out all the nasty shit the last tenant left."
The space, which is usually the greatest expense and thus the largest barrier of entry for an aspiring gallerist, was a lucky score for the Telophase group. Lindsey explained how they found their space: "We started poking around the neighborhood, Ukrainian Village, for places that might have unused space, and asking other students if they had any leads. Idris Goodwin suggested we check the Inner Town [Pub]. I appro-ached the owner and we talked for a while about using his upstairs. Initially he was -- and maybe still is -- gun-shy about the whole thing: his former tenant had not only stiffed him on rent, but also left piles of garbage and old furniture behind. We offered to do a ton of work: clean up, haul out, throw away, whatever ... in exchange for one night of Telophase use. This, alongside the fact that a few of us are neighborhood residents -- and most importantly because Mike's a fan of the artist -- got us the space. Consequently, for the second event, we again painted, cleaned up, patronized the hell out of the bar -- such work! -- and, thankfully, earned his trust."
When asked about the biggest challenges Telophase faces, as well as the rewards they enjoy, Jewel said, "Challenge? Getting 20-plus artists/writers to do ANYTHING in an organized fashion. Reward? Nipping the flask under my pillow while the show flows smoothly around me. "
For those interested in starting their own space, Jewel says this about the experience: "Jesus Christ, it's a lot of work, if you want it to look professional. Give yourself time for every fuck up and eventuality. Make sure everyone's supposed to install several days before the show because someone won't make it, something will break, and once everything's up you'll realize that you've got no toilet paper and half the lights are burned out. And spend time making labels. Last-minute labels make a show look like a low-budget student affair." And, finally, "Never mind the truth; truth is rarely as interesting as presentation."
"We wanted to create something that has more of a symbiotic relationship with the artworks and that facilitates a dialogue, rather than the established norm of neutral-architecture gallery that simply contains the works."
In their mission statement, co-creators Taylor Hokanson and Audrey Peiper write: "Locus is a large-capacity portable battery that brings electrically dependent art outside the confines of a traditional art gallery or display space. ... Locus and the art it exhibits form a collective of objects that take ownership of the space they occupy, breaking the notion that a gallery must be an architectural construct. Each piece, depending on its power consumption, determines the show's length, further emphasizing the relationship between gallery, art, and performance event."
Hokanson explains the beginning of Locus: "We started it in the middle of last [Fall] semester and we quickly realized that one of the limitations of a mobile, non-architectural gallery setting is that your audience is subject to the elements, which meant a particularly harsh winter these past few months. Luckily we were able to debut a show on an unseasonably warm day in November. The 'show' consisted of my piece'Operator,' which I performed and Audrey documented."
While the first show was somewhat modest, Hokanson says, "Now we are ready for a second show, which will be informed by the problems we faced in the first. We would like to include multiple artists, more diversity of content, and do larger-scale advertising to publicize the event."
The two artists started Locus, Hokanson explained, because "I am in the Art and Technology Department and Audrey is in Arts Administration. We wanted to collaborate on a project together, and were very interested in 'alternative' venues for art. We wanted to create something that has more of a symbiotic relationship with the artworks and that facilitates a dialogue, rather than the established norm of neutral-architecture gallery that simply contains the works. In the interest of collaboration, we thought it would be important for the gallery/exhibition process itself be an active relationship between Locus and the exhibitors."
As for suggestions to others who hope to do something similar, Hokanson says, "We picked something that was attainable, approachable and renewable (rechargeable); in a way, it was our response to the 'alternative' apartment gallery scene. Apartment galleries are nice for artists to work with because they're much easier to deal with than larger institutions, or organizations with more bureaucracy or limitations ... really, anyone can take initiative and use their creativity to realize a new forum."
"DollHouse Gallery acts as a juncture where art and everyday life collide."
Leah Meyerhoff, the founder of DollHouse Gallery, created an art space in her apartment because "I was interested in creating an alternative to the standard white cube, wine-and-cheese sort of gallery." In fact, DollHouse "is actually more of an art space than a gallery. Our last event was a costume party as well as an art opening. The artwork included sculpture, giant inflatable breasts; performance, a durational performance in the bathtub, a girl duct taped to a wall, etc.; video projection; and photography. I am interested in turning the events themselves into artwork, rather than just have an audience look at/buy art from a distanced perspective."
When asked what kinds of work Dollhouse exhibits, Meyerhoff responded, "All kinds. All mediums. All subject matter. Our next event will be a film screening consisting of narrative films [and] videos as well as installations."
Meyerhoff listed some of the challenges she faces: "Not letting the bureaucracy overwhelm the art, financial considerations, crowd control." The rewards include "Changing the way people perceive art and how it should be viewed. Getting to work with talented artists." And finally, "art is its own reward."
"It's been a joy to do it, but make sure you know what you're getting into."
Begun in November of 2001 in creator Van Harrison's apartment in Pilsen, 1R Gallery has had the fortune of forging a partnership with BRIDGE Magazine and moved to River West. 1R has four directors: Van Harrison, Marc LeBlanc, Maddy Nusser, and Silas Dilworth. Marc LeBlanc has been largely responsible for designing and curating shows. The gallery, according to LeBlanc, has been conscious of not settling into any one medium. They've had all-drawing shows, multimedia, Internet-driven work, large-scale installations, as well as guest curators. There is however, "an aesthetic we lean toward ... Van and I are both partial to work with a sense of humor, work that is playful ... and life affirming. In the broadest terms, work that is 'conceptual.'"
LeBlanc got involved with 1R at the invitation of Harrison. He took the position because he "had taken an interest in curation, and how the layering of artworks informs other work. There aren't a lot of opportunities like that." LeBlanc was also interested in the chance to work collaboratively with Harrison and the other directors.
LeBlanc advises artists to do their research before submitting work to galleries like 1R. He likes to know that artists "know the work we've shown. They know whether their work fits in our program. Choose a gallery that best represents your work," he advises. "For every type of art, there is a specific gallery" that will show that work.
For aspiring gallerists and curators, LeBlanc says, "It's been a lot of work and commitment. It's been a joy to do it, but make sure you know what you're getting into. There's a lot of financial strain and strain on your time. Make sure you're doing it for the right reasons." He added, "Show art you believe in."
For LeBlanc, the rewards are seeing "a work sell" or seeing an artist "get a show or a review. Sometimes the gallery serves as a stepping stone for emerging artists and knowing that's happening is a great reward."
"My favorite thing is after it's installed but before anyone arrives. ... It's like finishing an art piece."
Verge is not an alternative art space, strictly speaking. It is an exhibition organization. Francine Affourtit's interest in organizing shows began when she took a class with Michael Ryan at SAIC called Operating Student Galleries. That led to a job with the student galleries at SAIC, where Affourtit met Jessica Peterson. Peterson, in fact, wrote the bylaws for the student galleries. While she was a student, Affourtit helped run the galleries with three others. On her own, she had begun organizing exhibitions in New York, and because it was such a complex undertaking, she appealed to Peterson for help. The two later formed Verge.
Peterson and Affourtit decided early on not to have a space for a few reasons. First, "it is extremely expensive to maintain a space. In every case, we've been given a space to do a show." Also, they wanted Verge to be "a more free-flowing thing. It adapts to our lives ... with changes and moves [to different cities]." The two were motivated to start something new when "we realized, especially in Chicago, that a lot of young women weren't curating shows. And if a show featured a woman, the show became advertised as featuring a female artist. We decided not to do that." Verge's first show, Six, featured six female artists, although the show was not advertised in this way. Most viewers did not realize the show featured a roster of all-female artists until they went to the opening. Verge has now produced eight shows. Affourtit says, "Primarily our interest in doing this is we are two working artists. We have no dream of being curators some day. We think there is a voice that isn't being heard. Usually we ask ourselves, 'What is lacking right now?'" Both Affourtit and Peterson had another motive. They are "also extremely interested in creating community outside of school. Visual artists are insular. We have learned so much about collaboration."
When asked how she would recommend others learn about starting a gallery, Affourtit answered, "Books." She also said, "it is very important to have some experience working in a gallery. The complexity cannot be seen from the outside." She stressed that if anyone feels strongly about trying to start a space, they should do it. "It is extremely rewarding but also frustrating and difficult." She made this recommendation: "Find a group you collaborate with well. It's nice to have someone you can fall back on when you get tired." Affourtit also warned, "You have to assume a total loss financially. Most of the people I know cannot make a living or even pay for the time and the money that go into a show." She reiterated this by saying, "Do it for the love, not the money."
One of the challenges Affourtit has had to deal with is "artist myopia." The artists do not realize "they aren't the only artist we're dealing with. Many artists can be disorganized. And showing your work can be stressful. You aren't working with them at their best. You're usually working with them at their most fragile state," she said.
As far as the rewards, Affourtit says, "My favorite thing is after it's installed but before anyone arrives. For me that's completion. It's like finishing an art piece. If it's good, it feels good. It's basically sculpture."
Photography provided by the respective galleries.
Images in the order they appear:
Alexis Hopper reads during Telophase 2 above The Inner Town Pub.
"Immaculate Conception" by Leah Meyerhorff and Daniel Leeb at the DollHouse Gallery.
The 1R Gallery space in the West Loop.
"effective english" by Andrea Pinal and Chelsea Green at the Verge show Found in the ASAP Gallery.