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Thinking Outside the White Cube: Alternative Art Spaces in Chicago

Haunted by the institutional white cube? Not sure where to start showing your work? Here is a run-down of artist-run exhibition spaces in Chicago, featuring friendly faces from SAIC.

By Arts & Culture

Masked visitors attend an exhibition at LVL3, and alternative art space in Chicago.

LVL3 art exhibition. Photo courtesy of LVL3.

Beyond the white walls of the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art is a community of alternative art spaces which emphasize the connection between art and life in an ever-alienating art world. It is well-known that non-commercial art spaces are the lifeblood of Chicago’s art community, but these spaces often struggle to keep afloat because they prioritize creation, connection, and exhibition over profit. We are proud of the SAIC students, faculty, and staff who have had a hand in keeping these places alive, and it is up to the next generation of Chicago artists to keep this tradition going. The following is a non-comprehensive list of exhibition spaces that deserve our support.

A man holds a piece of paper for "Still Life," a show by artist Alberto Alguilar (BFA 1997, MFA 2001) at The Franklin.

Ricardo Vilas Freire De Carvalho Filho (BFA 2023) holds a piece of paper for “Still Life,” a show by artist Alberto Alguilar (BFA 1997, MFA 2001) at The Franklin. Photo by Monica Gong.

The Franklin

The Franklin was opened by the SAIC Contemporary Practice faculty Edra Soto and her husband, Dan Sullivan, in the backyard of their home in East Garfield Park. The mostly Black, working-class neighborhood is contending with an influx of struggling artists in search of affordable studio space. Rather than ignore this complication, The Franklin aims for “a continuous reflection about opposite demographics” by engaging with the neighborhood beyond art exhibitions. On Saturday, November 6, 2021, The Franklin hosted “50 Ingredient Molé,” a public event with Alberto Aguilar (BFA 1997, MFA 2001, Contemporary Practices) who is exhibiting work in their current show, “Still Life.” Aguilar made the titular molé only using ingredients from Soto and Sullivan’s kitchen cabinets. Joined by guest artist, Ricardo Vilas Freire De Carvalho Filho (BFA 2023) who made feijão tropeiro to accompany the dish, the two fed a full meal to about thirty guests.

Currently on show, in partnership with the Chicago Architectural Biennial, the Garden Apartment Gallery, and Compound Yellow is “Still Life,” a group show including work from SAIC alumni and professors. The show explores the artists’ interactions with everyday objects. Artists responded to the prompt: “What is your relationship with your surroundings?” with performances, site-specific installations, sculptures, photography prints, and other mediums.

The Franklin is located at 3522 W Franklin Blvd, Chicago. “Still Life” is on view from October 16, 2021 to March 12, 2022. Because it is an outdoor event, no appointments are necessary.

Heaven Gallery

Operating in Wicker Park for nearly 20 years, Heaven Gallery‘s goal is to preserve the creative energy that defines the vibrancy of the neighborhood amid the soaring rent prices which have driven artists out of their homes. Their proposal process does not require submission or exhibition fees, making it an ideal space for emerging artists.

The space recently hosted “Inflorescence,” a group show organized by recent SAIC graduates, and featured many artists connected to the school. The show centered community network and grouping, emphasized by colorful, layered compositions of each work placed in conversation with each other.

Beyond art exhibitions, Heaven Gallery holds community events such as the ongoing workshop series “Mutual Aid is our Future” in partnership with the Kola Nut Collaborative and Equity Arts.

Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 North Milwaukee, 2nd Floor, Chicago. Though they are currently between exhibitions, you can continue to support the gallery by attending events and donating. They are not currently taking submissions, but a sample of their 2021-2022 application process can be found here.

​​Terrain Exhibitions

Oak Park’s Sabina Ott began Terrain Exhibitions in 2011 by inviting hundreds of artists to install site-specific works on her front yard and porch. Though the majority of the works are still sprinkled throughout Chicagoland, the Biennial has grown into a worldwide festival with artists participating from as far as Cuba or India.

Currently in its fifth edition, the 2021 Terrain Biennial featured work by SAIC professors and students including “Consonance” by Julietta Cheung (MFA 2012, Contemporary Practices) at Anthony Overton Elementary School;  “afterglow of radiation” by Erin Washington (MFA 2011, Painting and Drawing) outside the Springfield Art Association Collective; and “Log and Zinna” by Tallulah Cartalucca (BFA 2023) and her mother, Jill Bocskay at 100 Shoreline Drive, Park Ridge, IL.

The Biennial kicked off on October 2, 2021 with the Terrain Biennial Block Party at Anthony Overton Elementary School; it concluded November 15, 2021. The Terrain Biennial’s 2021 locations can be found at this link.

A smiling volunteer leans against a wood panel at an installation at Compound Yellow, an alternative art space in Chicago

A volunteer works on an installation for Compound Yellow. Photo courtesy of Compound Yellow.

Compound Yellow

Compound Yellow is an artist-run exhibition space in Oak Park with galleries, gardens, communal rooms, porches, and a studio, which their website describes as a site for “a culture of sharing, connecting and collective action.” Because they encourage unsolicited proposals, endorse a diverse set of art practices, and are always looking for volunteers to join their community, Compound Yellow is a great place to meet artists beyond SAIC.

Compound Yellow is also holding “a five year long institutional performance” called Compound Layers. The “performance” relies on the collaboration of several creators including: The Shaeffer-Nord family, who live permanently in the space; a gallery board; and a rotation of residents. Additionally, Compound Yellow releases a lookbook titled “Compound Looks” every three months and has established a series of letters called “Compound Letters.” These residencies and collaborative projects coalesce into creative projects that are rooted in community.

Their residency is currently hosting curator Ciera McKissick who is working on highlighting emerging artists of color; artist and educator Jorge Lucero who is developing a book of artist interviews; and writer, organizer, and artist Tony Foley who is researching and documenting Midwest ecology. Some of Compound Yellow’s first residents included Alberto Aguilar (BFA 1997, MFA 2001, Contemporary Practices), Alex Bradley Cohen (BFA 2014), and Aguilar’s daughter, Madeleine (BFA 2020, MFA 2022).

Compound Yellow is located at 244 Lake St., Oak Park, IL. They are open Saturdays from 2 p.m. – 6 p.m. Direct proposals to Compound Yellow at this link.


Vincent Uribe (BFA BAVCS 2013) has operated Wicker Park’s LVL3 for over ten years. Its exhibition program regularly creates group shows — usually, at least one artist who works in the city of Chicago and one from beyond the city — who may not have connected otherwise. Beyond this, the apartment gallery hosts an “Artist of the Week” interview series, spotlighting many SAIC alumni including Unyimeabasi Udoh (MFA 2019), Minami Kobayashi (MFA 2018), Derrick Woods-Morrow (MFA 2016), Hope Wang (BFA 2018), and Gordon Hall (MFA MAVCS 2011). On show until November 14 was “Mud Puddling,” a two person-exhibition between Frank Lepkowski and Yae Jee Min (BFA 2016, MFA 2019) which explores both personal and collective memory’s impact on the present, through layered processes.

LVL3 is located at 1542 N. Milwaukee Ave, 3rd Floor, Chicago. They are open Sundays from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m  or by appointment. 

Monica Gong (BAVCS 2023) is the Associate Editor at F Newsmagazine and a self-proclaimed horse girl.

4 Responses to Thinking Outside the White Cube: Alternative Art Spaces in Chicago

  1. Thank you so much Monica Gong for including Compound Yellow in such great company as the other alternative cultural spaces! We appreciate this so much! Hope to see you soon!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Two of these spaces—Heaven and LVL3—wish to buy the building where they’re housed and displace the working artists—including SAIC graduates, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and a family—living in the FOUR other units. This is the mission of Equity Arts. Additionally, the people running Heaven and LVL3 no longer actually live there, the Heaven people having bought a place to live. Both spaces also are white-walled galleries as seen in the photos.

    • Anonymous says:

      Three of the four spaces they desire to claim for their project which would insert businesses in the building are currently home to alternative artist-run art spaces, Tritriangle and NØNATION, both run by and lived in by SAIC graduates.

  3. 4/|\4y4 says:

    True, at {\}() {\}4+!(){\}, inly 2021
    we have easily presented over a hundred artists already, in 15 shows. We have been working local and internationally. Come check our next shows and our website here.

    @Fnewsmagazine , come visit us!!:))
    {\}() {\}4+!(){\}
    Tangential Unspace Art Lab

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