Grass Roots Gallerists
by Jessica Cochran (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Like many students, as I scrap my way through a graduate program in one of the nation’s largest cities I am also engaging in an entirely parallel and somewhat self-directed course of study: the often harrowing process of learning and navigating the web-like matrix of galleries, spaces, festivals, blogs, websites, museums, non-profits, centers, and organizations that collectively constitute the Chicago art world. It is precisely when one is in the thick of this art world course of study that he or she becomes a little hardened with an increased knowledge of things - maybe even cynical. It’s not that the art world isn’t dynamic, fun, and interesting; it is all of those things. Somewhere along the line, though, the pristine galleries in River North become less mysterious and sexy and the thought of being a big-shot museum curator loses just a touch of its glam. And, as they approach graduation, studio majors begin to wonder how they will finance their life, much less their practice.
But most of all, we realize that even though we will soon have in our hands that precious degree—a piece of paper many actually consider our rite of passage into this fabulous, yet fastidious art world—we really have to take matters into our own hands. It’s sad but true: personality alone or even a auspicious fine arts degree won’t send us rocketing to the top of a towering museum administrative hierarchy or propel our work into Chelsea white cubes or on to the pages of Artforum. In other words, transition is key in this business, and, increasingly, many aspiring artists and curators are gaining important professional experience and visibility by taking matters into their own hands through apartment galleries.
Guests at Teti Gallery
Characterized by limited hours, funding, and marketing, the apartment space typically exists as a model that is experimental, temporary, and transitional. Hidden behind nondescript doors and found up steep, narrow stairways, the apartment gallery is characterized by its grassroots nature, and it is for this reason that such exhibition practice is just as exciting as it can be frustrating.
Perhaps the most significant challenges are curatorial. Apartments are by no means white cubes, so this model has an interesting degree of site-specificity that forces curators to work with the space in a direct and physical way. By nature, the apartment space itself holds the work in a much different way than the white cube and its size is a major factor that greatly often informs curatorial choices.
“The first obstacle in exhibiting in apartments is that they are apartments,” says Matthew Teti, director of Teti Gallery (2250 W. North Avenue, Wicker Park). “The rooms are small and the ceilings are low. There is creative satisfaction that results from attacking a challenging space and hanging a good looking show. But, there is also resignation at sometimes having to compromise or exclude work.” In his gallery, Teti has taken this challenge to heart. In spite of his space’s physical obstacles, he has consistently managed to mount diverse shows, ranging from video to painting, that work within the space in a way that is polished and professional. Teti’s exhibitions are complete with wall text, exhibition essays, opening receptions, and even an occasional salon.
Also in Wicker Park, Green Lantern Gallery (1511 N. Milwaukee) has, in the last year, firmly established its place in the Chicago art community as a rising star among young galleries. Like Teti, Green Lantern gallerist Caroline Picard has been trying to, as she says, “raise the quality of the exhibition space itself” with the help of white walls and good lighting. However, unlike many other apartment galleries, which follow more of a white cube model, Picard has learned to embrace the more permanent physical aspects of her apartment’s layout, such as the wide-open kitchen that is entirely visible from the gallery space. “In my mind this accentuates the apartment gallery environment, where the aspiringly formal white wall environment is countered with an awareness of a kitchen,” she says. “The relationship between these two environments is particularly important to what I am trying to accomplish: namely an environment with high-quality exhibitions that is also comfortable.” With this site-specific approach, Picard has chosen to embrace the living and working aspects of the space in a way that bridges the gap between art presentation and life.
Perhaps one of the most high profile apartment galleries founded in recent years is Gallery 40000, started by Britton Bertran, an alumnus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Arts Administration program. 40000, which started on the first floor of a two flat at 1001 N. Winchester, has been one of few apartment galleries to move westward - to the West Loop, that is, a central location for popular Chicago galleries. Bertran, however, is lucid about the fact that a new, higher profile West Loop locale isn’t the only signifier of an apartment gallery’s success. “Success is all relative in this business,” he comments. “And like any business it’s all ‘location location location.’ The real measure of success is smartly promoting the artists represented and continuing to push programming into new and exciting contemporary ways.”
Bertran’s Gallery 40000 is also a great example of an apartment gallery that has found its place in the commercial art world, and that, he emphasizes, is due in large part to the strength of the artists shown. In other words, the key ingredient for a dynamic, interesting, and especially a visible gallery is the quality of programming achieved through the quality of its artists. Like Bertran, Picard and Teti have nothing but pride and confidence in the strength and volume of Chicago artists, and both feel that the evolution of their apartment spaces is contingent on this factor.
According to Teti, the work of emerging artists is “vibrant, very informed and under-appreciated.” And though he has plans to expand his gallery he is committed to working with emerging artists no matter how his gallery expands. “People really need to recognize all the effort curators and gallerists, running spaces in their apartments, put in to get artists to the next level,” he asserts. “That’s what I want to see happen with my artists. As my career progresses, I don’t think I’ll ever move away from showing up-and-comers. It’s not where the money is, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.”
Picard’s sentiments about the merit of Chicago artists echoes those of Teti. According to her, the quality of artists her is “…absolutely shocking and amazing… there is a huge abundance of talent, both in various institutions and outside, running in the streets.” Like Teti, Caroline Picard has plans for Green Lantern. Not only is she launching a publishing company this month, but she is also in the very early stages of filling out the mountains of paperwork needed in order to obtain non-profit status.
So if you feel like your art education is doing little more than revealing an art world that is competitive, political, capricious, and altogether daunting, remember that there are people creating their own opportunities and having a fabulous time doing it. Why sit at home and mope over the lack of jobs, opportunities, and contacts? Instead, follow in the footsteps of Matthew Teti, Caroline Picard, and Brennan Bertran-- make your home a job, an opportunity, and fill it with contacts.
List of Apartment Galleries/Alternative Spaces:
2250 West North Avenue, Second Floor
Thurs- Sat. 7-10pm, or by appointment
1511 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Second Floor
Sat. 1-6pm, or by appointment
Lloyd Dobler Gallery (formerly newspace Chicago)