You Can Almost Buy SUGs a Drink
The student-run art galleries at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are turning twenty. With three professional-grade exhibition spaces on campus, Student Union Galleries (SUGs) exclusively shows student work. They have become an integral part of the school’s culture, offering student artists professional exhibition experiences. But 20 years ago, art students at SAIC had no officially designated space at the school to show their art.
“When I was asked to interview for the SUGs advisor position, nothing existed,” says Michael Ryan, an arts administration professor at the school who served as the faculty advisor to the group during its first 19 years. He recalls that students wanted the proposed “Gallery X” to be just as respectable as Betty Rymer Gallery, an exhibition space on campus controlled by the administration.
At the time, the school’s administration was still responding to the Mirth and Girth and “Flag on the Floor” controversies of a few years prior. In the former, SAIC student David K. Nelson, Jr. painted the recently deceased Harold Washington, a popular African-American mayor of Chicago, wearing only a bra, G-string, garter belt and stockings. A year later, in 1989, student Dread Scott Tyler made What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, consisting of a podium with a notebook for visitors to wite their feelings on his work of art. To reach the podium, visitors had to stand on an American flag draped on the floor before the podium. Both works, exhibited at the school, caused tremendous public and national controversy and raised issues around censorship within the school and at large.
Students felt that their ability to showcase their work on campus was being limited. “What we developed in terms of SUGs was an answer to that,” says Ryan. “After I met with the students and knew what they wanted, I told them the only way to do this would be to run it as a professional business.” The fledgling group was given a ten thousand-dollar start-up grant by the school. Knowing that it would not be enough to jump start the kind of operation the students were proposing, Ryan had Student Union President Brian Petroff petition the school for an additional ten thousand dollars. “It immediately made me realize how supportive the school is of its students,” says Ryan, “because he got it pretty easily.”
Using F Newsmagazine as a preexisting model of a student group with professional standards, they made their vision a reality in 1994. “We had the money. We just had to start figuring out what the hell we were going to do,” says Ryan. With no proposals, no office, and lots of construction to be done on Gallery X, getting funding was proving to be the easy part. Getting the gallery up to professional standards would require lockable doors, gallery attendants and accountability from student staff. SUGs did not have an office or a phone for its first month, instead relying on a shopping bag with folders in it that Ryan carried to each meeting. “In the beginning, I was paid to be there one day a week, and I was there every day,” he says. Slowly walls were built, phones were installed and the vision began to take shape.
Today that vision has grown, and SUGs has expanded with it. As of 2012 it includes the Leroy Neiman Center gallery located on the first floor of the Sharp Building, in addition to Gallery X. Over the course of the last 20 years, SUGs has continued its mission to reflect the ever-evolving student voice of the school, showcasing graduate and undergraduate student work. Some of the builders of SUGs’ legacy include SAIC staff member Nancy Gildart, who was a student director, as was Ellen Alderman, a notable Chicago gallerist. Sterling Ruby had a SUGs exhibition as an undergraduate at SAIC and will be part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
The street visibility of the Leroy Neiman Center has allowed SUGs to develop an “edgier” personality, according to the staff, as opposed to Gallery X. With sidewalk traffic, the Neiman Center has allowed the visibility of student work to expand beyond the student population. This has involved conversations incorporating new factors such as Chicago City Code policies, security, and additional levels of responsibility regarding public viewing.
Ross Jordan, curatorial fellow for SUGs, notes that this increased visibility “bumps everything up a level,” challenging SUGs staff to carefully consider how viewers outside the context of an art school may interpret potentially confusing or controversial displays. In this way, working for the student-run organization is an even more useful and interesting experience. Staff members say they make a habit of anticipating public scrutiny as part of the job of professional gallerists.
Meanwhile, they will continue, as part of their mission, to display art that reflects “student voice, but challenges the public,” says Jordan. Despite its growth, SUGs has always been about students, their work and how best to leverage the organization as a learning tool. “After you complete a SUGs proposal, you’re basically set for any other proposal in the art world,” says Ariel Fang, SUGs’ Administrative Director.
SUGs will hold a party to celebrate its 20th anniversary in February that will include alumni artists Claire Ashley, Alberto Aguilar and John Phillips. For more information, visit their website.