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Alternative Art Spaces in Chicago

Where They Began and Where They Are Now

With identities as diverse as the neighborhoods they occupy, alternative art spaces operate on the same basic premise: to share contemporary art not exhibited in Chicago’s established art institutions.

By Arts & Culture, Uncategorized

Exterior view of MDW Art Fair 2013. Image by Patrick Putze.

Exterior view of MDW Art Fair 2013. Image by Patrick Putze.



2.DEFIBRILLATOR Performance Art Gallery
3.Eric May/Roots and Culture
4.SAIC and Alternative Spaces
5.Why Artist Run Spaces Open
6.And Why They Close



Chicago has its fair share of established cultural institutions, ranging from the big kids on the block in the Art Institute and Field Museum, to the relative newcomers such as the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Chicago History Museum. Don’t forget our highly acclaimed theaters and music venues. What many outside art circles might not know is that Chicago also has one of the world’s most vibrant and revered alternative — or artist run — gallery networks. This idiosyncratic community of citizen-artists has thrived on multiple levels, with a number of distinct personalities representing varying levels of active participation since the end of the 1800s. The alternative art spaces in Chicago during the 2010s are a fairly tight-knit group of apartment or not-for-profit galleries, performance spaces and arts centers sprinkled throughout many of the city’s neighborhoods. With identities as diverse as the neighborhoods they occupy, these alternative spaces operate on the same basic premise: to share contemporary art not exhibited in Chicago’s established art institutions.

What is it that drives these artists to open their own galleries in apartments, abandoned warehouses or long empty storefronts? I queried people from approximately fifteen different operating spaces, in myriad locations, about how and why they began their endeavors and what keeps them going. I also asked them to relay any anecdotal happenings since they’ve been operating. I learned — like anyone else has who’s conducted in-depth anthropological research — that answers range from long, detailed accounts to respectful declination. More importantly, I learned that there are almost as many reasons for venturing forth as for shuttering operations.

 What exactly defines an alternative space? In her book “Alternative Spaces: A History in Chicago,” Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator Lynne Warren defines an alternative space as any “not-for-profit or noncommercial organization originated by and for artists (and assuring them a primary role in policy development and programming) that primarily shows Chicago-area artists, has a fixed location and operates on a continuous basis.” Published almost thirty years ago, in 1984 — an eternity in contemporary art standards — Warren’s definition mostly holds true today. A plethora of spaces have come and gone since the book’s initial printing, and most still consider the curator’s definition valid. Ironically, the Art Institute was founded by a group of artists with the notion of the museum as an artist-run space in mind.

 In a recent interview, Warren, once a board member for the revered, albeit defunct since 1998 Randolph Street Gallery, explained why alternative spaces are an important faction of the Chicago art world. “Alternative spaces are really important to Chicago because even today there aren’t that many mainstream organizations. There are lots of artists who come to Chicago to go to art school. There have been since the turn of the twentieth century. So it’s a way that artists can take matters into their own hands and have a place to show and to develop community.” Most of the artists interviewed agree that one of the biggest reasons for undertaking the task of opening a space is to show their friends’ work and the work that they like. While many began with such a simple premise, several have more deep-seated, personal reasons.


DEFIBRILLATOR Performance Art Gallery

Film still from F Newsmagazine video interview by Thao Nguyen Phan .

Film still from F Newsmagazine video interview by Thao Nguyen Phan .

As Joseph Ravens of Defibrillator Gallery on Milwaukee Avenue explains it, he was on his way out of town when he practically stumbled into converting an old antique storefront into one of the city’s now premiere performance art spaces. After having several nude portraits taken by Alan Rovge removed from a pop-up art exhibit in the Loop, the artist became embroiled in a controversy centered on a cover story in the Chicago Reader entitled “This Guy’s Penis is a Work of Art.”

“I strive to be a kind, generous, polite, humble and optimistic person. Yet, despite this, many people wrote very harsh responses to the Reader piece. It broke my heart,” Ravens explained. Ultimately feeling betrayed by the city that he had chosen as home, he made the decision — like many others do — to move to New York. “My devotion to the city was dashed as I read the mean things people wrote about me and my work. Chicago had forsaken me.”

The day after paying for a deposit on an apartment in New York something struck Ravens as he was walking to his favorite Chicago coffee shop. “When I was walking home, a few doors north of Lovely Bakery, I noticed the antique store that had been there only two days before had suddenly vanished. It was like a Stephen King novel. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I walked up to the glass front doors, cupped my hands around my face and looked in. I was amazed! It was a big empty room — cavernous almost — with silver walls.” In that moment an idea came to him that perhaps he should stay and fight. “It came over me in a rush! I thought that maybe one of the reasons there was such a backlash against my harmless nude photographs was that people in Chicago are not exposed enough to challenging and fearless material. I realized that I should stay and make a difference instead of running away.” Ravens asked for a refund on his New York apartment and — considering the location ideal as the neighborhood was young, lively and close to his beloved Polish Triangle —  used the money to open what is now Defibrillator.

 After only two and half years running, the space is now a hot-spot in Chicago for all things performance and regularly features local, national and international performance artists. DUCHESSES, a recent piece this spring, featured French artists Marie-Caroline Hominal and Francois Caignaud hula-hooping atop lighted platforms for thirty-five plus minutes, in every conceivable physical position. And, by the way, they were doing so in the nude, continuing Ravens’ promise of bringing “challenging and fearless” material to Chicago. He couldn’t be happier with decision to stay and “fight the fight.”

Eric May/Roots and Culture

Eric May of Roots & Culture. Photo by Patrick Putze.

Eric May of Roots & Culture. Photo by Patrick Putze.

Ravens isn’t the only artist to have an epiphany about running an alternative space by way of controversy. Eric May runs (and lives in) Wicker Park’s Roots and Culture, just blocks south of Defibrillator. After receiving his BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2000, May went to work for a commercial gallery that he would rather not name — and for good reason. After spending several years at the gallery learning the ropes on grant writing and gallery administration, the FBI stormed in and arrested the gallery owners for stealing over $400,000 from federal grants funding intended for education purposes. Indictments by the FBI charged that the gallery director and one board member committed seven counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and theft of federal funds. Investigations showed that they had used the funds for personal reasons, including paying personal credit card bills, medical expenses, car payments and international travel expenses.

Needless to say, May learned what not to do when running a gallery and performance art space. “It was a very formative experience for me, to say the least. It gave me a taste of what I liked about the business and also helped me decide what I wanted to do to further my career,” the artist says. “I was also involved in some alternative space curation with Caleb Lyons at artLedge. I was collaborating with them, putting together one-night ambitious events and arts programming.” After getting a taste of curatorial success, May envisioned his practice extending far beyond what his daytime duties had been up to that point. He was on the lookout in the Wicker Park for a space that he could live and work in. “I was living in Logan Square and I wanted to move deeper into the action that was happening in Wicker Park. Also, I was increasingly aware of the different apartment galleries and do-it-yourself (DIY) spaces happening — often checking out Coma and VONZWECK — so I definitely envisioned something like that.” His vision was realized upon finding the space at 1034 Milwaukee Ave., which he still occupies, even seven years later and with his pending nuptials on the horizon. 

Roots and Culture has become a mainstay in the alternative scene in Chicago, and May readily admits that he had some mentors through the process, including John Corbett of Corbett vs. Dempsey, Britton Bertran of 40,000 and Bill Gross at 65. “Even though Corbett runs a commercial gallery, he’s always been supportive of the grass roots places in the neighborhood. He was definitely an inspirational figure for me when I was first starting out. A lot of those guys were all advisors to me at one point or another,” says May. He’s also more than willing to  name several other spaces he admires. “I really love The Hills [Esthetic Center] on Campbell. They’ve been at it for a while now, and I really hope they stick around,” he explains. “I love how raw and nebulous their programming is.”

May ponders, however, how invested others who run spaces are in what they’re doing  and respectfully wonders about the landscape and the ethereal nature of the artist’s run space. These spaces are like any other business venture in that one moment they can be open, only to have to close a week later for whatever reason. “It’s an honest question and something that interests me because I’m obviously pretty committed,” he says. “I don’t think long-term commitment is necessary either though. Some of my favorite spaces are the loosest projects.”

Indeed, this seems to happen more and more in Chicago’s urban environment. Tricia van Eck —formerly a curator at the MCA and now running her own space, 6018NORTH in the Edgewater neighborhood — ran a series of pop-up spaces in and out of the city’s Loop called The Happiness Project.  Spaces are venturing outside their walls to install site-specific art or experiment with performance. ROOMS Gallery, conceived and run by Todd and Marrakesh Frugia on South Halsted in Pilsen, has held performance events in several other spaces over the last year, including TRITRIANGLE, Defibrillator and even on the streets of Wicker Park at the Polish triangle last July. When asked about the increasing likelihood of seeing art in more unconventional environments, May said, “I think that the nature of this stuff should be kind of fleeting. It has a lot to do with the youngness of the scene here in Chicago and that a lot of people are right out of school.” Even though May once admitted to me that he’s not too handy with tools, he seems to have hit the nail on the head this time.


SAIC and Alternative Spaces

Drawing night at Peanut Gallery. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Drawing night at Peanut Gallery. Image courtesy of the gallery.

Besides Ravens and May, many others running spaces are graduates of SAIC, which seems to have been at the epicenter of the scene since the mid-nineteenth century. Emily Green of ACRE holds a B.F.A. and Shannon Stratton of threewalls has both an M.F.A. and an M.A. in Art History and Criticism from the school. Ryan Dunn and William Robertson — both founding members of TRITRIANGLE — hold an M.F.A. and B.F.A., respectively. The Peregrine Program’s Edmund Chia has an M.F.A. from SAIC. My fellow SAIC M.A. in New Arts Journalism alum Kelly Reaves co-runs Peanut Gallery, an exhibition space and co-operative workspace in Humboldt Park. The fact that SAIC seems to be an incubator for artist’s run spaces definitely backs up Lynne Warren’s comment on how many artists come to Chicago for school.

Another person formerly entrenched in the alternative scene in Chicago, Lanny Silverman, former director of the renowned N.A.M.E. Gallery, reiterates this idea of younger artists — many straight out of academia — keeping the scene fresh. “I think alternative spaces were, and are, an important option for artists to gain visibility,” he says. “In this city, the commercial galleries and museums really aren’t looking at advanced alternative work by Chicago artists. I think it’s really critical to have these spaces for helping these artists out and to get them moving forward.”


Why Artist Run Spaces Open

More than a few artists polled said that the overwhelming reason for them to start a space was to show artist friends’ work. Alma Wieser from Heaven Gallery on Milwaukee just south of North Ave. says that her husband David started their space in the Flat Iron Building thirteen years ago because their friends all seemed to be artists who had nowhere else to show. Peanut Gallery’s Reaves says almost the exact same thing: “We had a lot of talented friends whose work we wanted to share. We already had a venue in Charlie Megna’s studio [co-founder of Peanut Gallery], so we figured ‘why not?’” Aron Gent, owner of Document in the West Loop, realized that there was an overabundance of great artists and a lack of spaces that were showing the work he was interested in, so he started his own. 

65 Grand’s owner and director Bill Gross explains how he got started: “A friend was moving to Portland and we wanted to show his work to his friends, so we cleaned up my kitchen and presented the work there. That event went so well that I decided a few months later to continue presenting work in my own space.” At this point, eight years later, Gross considers his space to be more of a hybrid between alternative and commercial. After a controversy about whether or not he needed a license to run his apartment gallery, he moved to a storefront space in 2010. The one thing Gross hopes to accomplish — a universal mission among my interviewees — is to foster the careers of artists that he believes in. As he puts it, “I like to provide opportunities for their work to be experienced in a sympathetic, supportive environment.”


And Why They Close

Often, once this goal is accomplished, the novelty may wear off, and this means the majority of these galleries come and go. Some last for only a few shows, and some stay the course for much longer. threewalls is celebrating their tenth anniversary this year, and Roots and Culture has been around for almost as long. Christopher Renton, currently the Development Coordinator at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, told me that he was excited to start an apartment gallery at his place in Bucktown, but after five shows had to give it up because he relocated and the new place just didn’t feel the same.

At the Extinct Entities symposium held recently in the SAIC Ballroom, persons affiliated with past and present alternative spaces gathered to discuss the phenomenon of spaces that come and go. Philip von Zweck discussed his old apartment gallery, aptly titled VONZWECK. “It was a great space that I never made any money at — not that that mattered. We had great times putting on shows, and I would just give the keys to whoever was showing that I could trust and they would install their work. We’d buy a couple cases of beer and invite people, and the show was on. We did that from 2005-08.” He remembers these exhibitions so fondly that he says he still holds shows in his current office at Columbia College when he can.

Others profess that it isn’t exactly easy to keep the ball rolling. “It’s hard to start any project from scratch,” Shannon Stratton admits about forming threewalls. Her list of necessities includes people, passion, time, desire, dedication and patience. Since threewalls is currently celebrating a decade of existence, prosperity and growth, she just might be the leading expert on spaces in Chicago. “It’s also all about the ebbs and flows. After one reaches a certain scale, the problems shift from the exhaustion of starting to the anxiety of keeping the project funded and growing.” As a matter of fact, of the individuals polled, this was the most popular answer to the question of what’s the hardest thing about running a space. While some have established themselves as officially registered non-profit organizations, many said that it’s been quite a struggle to keep things going, and often the monies come from their own pockets.

ACRE’s Emily Green explains the model for their finances as half personal and half grants. Most of the grant money goes towards established residencies and other projects. “The rent for the gallery space is donated by myself, as I live along with one of my Co-Directors in the apartment attached to the back of it,” she says. Asked about the refreshments for openings, the reply was, “We ask our audience for donations for alcoholic beverages, which typically goes into buying the beverages for the next show.” That seems to be a standard model that many spaces follow. Ron Reason, who formerly operated the gallery within(Reason), explained that he provided the operating expenses himself during the single year he was open. “In this regard it really was sort of a charitable adventure and definitely a labor of love. In hindsight, I view the starting and operating of the gallery as an artistic express in and of itself.”

Kelly Reaves readily admits that she and the Peanut Gallery haven’t quite gotten the hang of the funding situation just yet. While they do apply for the occasional grant, she shares that it doesn’t happen as often as it should. She also says they’re a little nervous about how they’ll keep things going. “We are very open to suggestions!” she jokes. “People tell us that we should be more store-like, and that frustrates me a little because I’m a bit of a purist and get kind of icky feeling when it comes to mixing money with art.” Reaves confesses that she feels that putting prices on the information sheets for shows makes her feel kind of weird about the entire process. “But, it is a necessary evil, and I know there has to be a graceful way to do it. We’re working on it.”

“There’s always money — but as I sit down and think about it, Marrakesh and I struggle with how protective we are of the place and what happens there,” Todd Frugia explains. The couple have grown over the last few years and currently employ a three-fourths time gallery manager and co-curator in Christian Cruz, also a performance artist. The Frugias also run a commercial video production business out of the space and that allows them more freedom to express themselves with the gallery. Todd says that even though they’re doing quite well, people will always offer up their opinions. “People will not be shy in telling you to be more capitalistic. Some will hound you to be more altruistic, some academic, some more community oriented — and there’s always someone wanting you to chase scenes and fads [in performance art],” he says. While they do rent their space for others to utilize, and to increase income for operations, he admits they should do so more often. “We know we need to rent the space out more often, but the whole ordeal makes me squeamish. The gallery is like our baby, and it’s hard to leave it with the babysitter sometimes,” he explains. For the most part though, all those offering answers to my questions were optimistic about the future of their spaces and are willing and excited to tackle any obstacle or challenge associated with doing so.

Obviously, the ever-changing landscape of alternative art spaces in Chicago is wrought with a passion for art and community. It is also readily apparent, after talking to so many people associated with these spaces, that almost every single place has developed from a labor of love and a lot of hard work. More often than not, the effort pays off with a wealth of good times and jubilant pride from a job well done. It takes a lot of guts to branch out from the norm. Who better than artists to buck tradition and make their own way following what their hearts tell them? Alternative spaces will always be a rejection of, or a reaction to the established norm of the institutionalized — and also the commercialized — art world. What this doesn’t mean is that they are in any way, shape or form, anything to be rejected by those already established norms. On the contrary, alternative and artist run spaces have themselves become a large part of the norm. What the future holds for these spaces or what’s to come as the next wave of ‘alternative’ is anybody’s guess, but most likely it will be fresh, exciting, game-changing and a part of the proud city of Chicago’s art history, like those that came before them — whether that’s part of their plan or not.




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