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The Commercial Non-Profit

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Illustration by Sierra Nicole Rhoden.

Illustration by Sierra Nicole Rhoden.

Alderman Exhibitions is at full capacity. With no more space on the gallery floor, a spillover of guests trails down the gallery’s white wooden steps. The space is dark and silent, save a single candle used to illuminate a book being read aloud to the room.

“After I am finished, I dig out the eyes, cut off the nose, the tongue, I break the fingers, legs, arms, and lastly, the gut. I set the body aside to cool down,” reads a voice, rendered anonymous in the dark. The text circulates the room, passed from one person to the next. “Did he want me to forgive him or ease his well-deserved punishment? I imagine him in various stages of life and in ordinary situations. Then I cover him in salt, wrap him in rags, drain the fat and press him, gradually and carefully, to avoid breaking any bones, extracting all blood left in the meat.”

This reading presages the exhibition “Night of the World” by artist Irena Knezevic. Her work is born from a translation of “Jedenje Bogova,” the diary of an officer at the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, where the artist’s grandmother was held. Unfathomable cruelties — cannibalism, the murdering of children for sport — are recounted with a hypnotic eloquence both petrifying and eerily alluring.

The reading lasts nearly an hour. Afterward the lights are turned on and Knezevic’s minimal works are illuminated with a new significance. A curious crowd forms around the central installation “Table.” The work consists of a sleek glass and metal enclosure, its base is lined with a translation of the text read aloud moments ago. The words are concealed beneath a layer of silver scratch-off paint, slowly rubbed away by a massive yellow boa constrictor as it slithers back and forth inside the case.

Inventive programming events like this have distinguished Alderman Exhibitions, recently established by 32-year-old Ellen Alderman, from other galleries in Chicago’s West Loop. Program Director at the Graham Foundation, the Chicago-based non-profit specializing in architecture and the fine arts, Alderman has integrated principles acquired through her non-profit role into the structure of her for-profit gallery, proving that traditional art world boundaries are anything but fixed.

Alderman discusses the dichotomy between her two positions with a fervid inquisitiveness. Citing equivalencies and disparities discernible only through hands-on exposure, it’s clear that Alderman is both curious and cognizant of her unique position. But despite their innumerable differences, the operational congruities between the Graham Foundation and her gallery seem to interest Alderman the most.

In a recent interview with F Newsmagazine Alderman explained, “When I started the gallery I honestly didn’t think much about the business side. I never wanted to ‘sell’ art,” she explains. “But really, I talk to people in exactly the same way that I do at the Graham. In both cases, you’re selling, in a way, all the time. Your goal is to help the audience understand the work, to make it interesting. In that way there’s always a level of performance. The outcome is different, but the process is astoundingly similar.”

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