Eric May of Roots and Culture on Chicago’s Apartment Galleries

December 9, 2009 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Eric May

(Ed. Note: May’s essay takes the format of responses to a series of questions about Chicago’s apartment gallery scene, posed by EC Brown of Floor Length and Tux).

Do these space have real cultural or regional impact? Does anyone really care if Chicago has 2.3 trillion small project spaces?

The overall arc of sixty+ years of independent art spaces in Chicago clearly has significance in that it’s become the tradition it has, and an activity that folks here seem to stay interested in. Beyond that, the factors of cheap rent, lack of venues, and DIY spirit lend to the reason why every other undergrad starts their own space and we end up with 2.3 trillion things going on. I think that perhaps one of the strongest cultural benefits is the self- education of young folks in organizing- something risky and entrepreneurial. It almost doesn’t matter if their project is “successful”- at least they’ve gone through the motions of taking on something bigger, outside themselves, and collaborative. And who will see all these activities? I think that’s up to the folks running these spaces and how hard they are willing to work to promote themselves and stay dedicated. Some survive, some don’t- lesson learned. A recent train of thought has questioned whether these spaces are a mere surrogate for the healthier, better supported art venues of the bigger cultural centers- a last ditch effort for artists to get their work shown. All said, in the end of the day, the work gets shown. Chicago can have a really healthy community-supported art scene. Regional impact beyond our own metropolitan area? Folks that I know in Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kansas City, St. Louis, Ann Arbor, and Minneapolis pay attention to what happens here. I know people that, inspired by the independent space scene in Chicago, have embarked on their own spaces in their home cities. Flyover maybe, but at least Chicago’s got the busiest airport (do we even anymore?). Beyond that? Eh. Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask – I’ve been here my whole life! More press would be helpful…

Do these projects propose alternatives to institutional models or do they reinforce them?

We all start out feeling revolutionary in our aims, to do something better, more community-based, holistic. I guess the models that we have are, in fact, usually of the institutional template, though. In some ways I feel that the dominant modes of production- the very art being made and shown follows pretty conservative models. White wall, painting, sculpture, pedestal, postcard, press release, price list, opening- it is all rather rote and familiar of the institution. Perhaps we are at a moment where all is challenged- a proposition that interests me. Artists making conventional objects need conventional exhibition space- but let’s say we blow the whole thing apart. Social projects, space as practice, radical arts admin, I think that it’s a ripe moment to challenge the institutional paradigm. Artists run spaces? I keep asking myself what this means, what if I really ran a space as the artist? Actually, I run a space that functions quite by the books for the most part- though, I do believe that we are an active and relevant part of the art world. Some day I may re-invent the space, but for now, I am bound to the dominant structure and will support the kind of objectmaking- that while sometimes may feel conservative – I feel is still worthy of contemplation.

Do these spaces really provide something that institutions or larger galleries can’t?

I think this is a good point of defense for these kinds of activities. Again, maybe it’s a Chicago thing and symptomatic of our weak collector/ commercial gallery system that cannot support the throngs of artists produced yearly by our plethora of art degree producing programs. But I truly believe that we need the independent spaces to self-support our scene. Nurturing challenging and indefinable work is always at the core of the best of the missions of these spaces. If commercial galleries are too nervous to work with this type of art because there will be no one to buy it, then in order to foster a healthy and provocative art scene we need independent spaces to fill this role. I think that the nonprofit model can still be relevant in obtaining cultural monies to support such projects. Even more progressive programs can take this further, blurring definitions of artist run space/ curation/ production. If we look ahead to more progressive models of both exhibition and production, we will need to move further and further toward new models that will support these new activities.

Have there been particular programs that you feel excelled in these spaces and would have benefited from being seen in a more traditional environment?

Well, I support all of my artists and wish for them to succeed in their careers, so of course I can envision our programming in larger art centers, museums, and perhaps commercial galleries. There seems to be an identity crisis that might be particular to Chicago – on one hand you’ve got the DIY, decentralized, almost anti-consumerist activities by both artists and venues. Then there are plenty of artists and spaces – both “alternative” and independent – style commercial spaces that are interested in participating in the market and the production and exchange of saleable objects. I cannot blame any artist for striving to achieve financial successes, we all know how hard it is. Make nice paintings, want them to sell? Why not. In the Capitalist age we all must survive in someway and that might mean participating in more traditional environments. On the other hand, programming at more progressive projects like Mess Hall and InCubate would be paradoxical to enter into institutional environments. I can think of several particular programs at R & C that probably would not fit so well either.

Are these projects a manifestation of DIY, or are they rogue businesses? Or vanity projects masquerading as non-profit cultural services?

Well with a constituency of 2.3 trillion, I think that the alt-space scene in Chicago most likely ranges the gamut. R & C has probably existed as all of these things. DIY seems a pretty common operational mode for most of these spaces. I don’t see larger institutions or private donors throwing loads of cash at start up galleries – we all start modestly and with support generally from our peers and friends. As for the idea of rogue business–that depends on how well folks have their shit together. Ways in which I ran our space for the first year and a half were off-the-books, the days before we were 501(c)(3). Also, it is so unclear sometimes what the convoluted beaurecracies of this city expect in terms of licensing and permits – they seem to invent new hurdles for small businesses all the time. Look at the wave of crack down last summer – I mean in my eyes, the Green Lantern is probably one of the more legitimized and organized spaces in the city, but they ran into trouble – for what, a sandwich board? Broke city needs money. Another example of DIY, while being a totally legitimately- run business is Golden Gallery. I can think of more-than-a-handful of commercial galleries in the West Loop that had humble, perhaps legally questionable, beginnings in apartments and Pilsen storefronts. Vanity projects – who wouldn’t take pride in the endless time and energy that they put forth towards a project with little gain other than supporting the local arts community. Maybe there are a few instances where self-centered motives can present a conflict of interest – for instance, curating your own art work into your own shows or at your own space. What else would this mean? I can see where maybe a curator puts together a show to the means of their own critical standpoint, but that seems commonplace enough. I don’t think I am comfortable pointing fingers at anyone in particular’s own “vanity”. I’m sure that there is plenty of it, hell, I’m vain sometimes, but projects like these for the most part, I envision to be generous and oftentimes selfless acts.

Do these projects impact, in any way, the neighborhoods they are situated in?

That is an interesting question, one that is often asked by granting organizations in their proposals. Most immediately, I feel like new communities form around some of the more off-the-beaten path spaces. This raises questions of gentrification when seen through the perspective of neighborhoods with settled populations invaded by the art-going masses (which tend to have a certain overall demographic- educated, maybe in the upper range of the middle class). It is really tricky to reach beyond that community. At R & C, I feel like we have some success- being on a commercial strip – at attracting the customers and proprietors alike of nearby businesses – the coffee shop, the resale shop, the bike shop, the tattoo shop – I mean I guess there’s not a huge gap in these kinds of audiences, but it mixes things up. Having a high school across the way always makes for an interesting dynamic – I can’t say that many of the kids have tried to stop by (they like fucking with my cats through the window), but the teachers stop by for sure. I was at an opening on an unusually warm autumn night at a new space in Humboldt Park, Monument 2, and there was a pack of neighborhood kids who came around with piñatas and caused quite a scene on the sidewalk. That was a good vibe, having rug rats running in and out of the gallery. Inevitably, though, you see mostly the same faces at art events.

Do these spaces provide a solution to Brain Drain in Chicago? Do these spaces create collectors?

Geez, I would probably have to say that the independent spaces do not solve the greater problem of “Brain Drain”. There simply are not enough resources to go around to support artists in their adult lives, exhibiting from one independent space to the next. Plenty of artists find other means and obviously stick around. I think a common path outside of the commercial system is obviously in education. The plateau seems to happen pretty quickly with the careers of showing artists that work with independent spaces (and even our commercial galleries)- there is this sort of apex of street cred that one can develop which doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. As a nonprofit, I envision a situation where perhaps I could provide stipends for my artists. If there was more public funding to go around this could be a reality, like in Europe or Canada. But unfortunately, I feel like there are two major options that the artist can foresee – get a day job (not a necessarily a bad thing) or find gallery representation. And with a lack of commercial options here, artists turn to the independent spaces, who try as hard as they may, don’t typically have the resources to help artists make a living wage for themselves. So, the folks that wish to sell their work to make a living – they bounce, anyone with some tenure in this city has watched half of their friends inevitably leave for the coasts. Do these spaces create collectors? I’ve seen some evidence of this. I think there is a moment when spaces “grow up” and stray from the pack-em-in free beer party scene and start to function like business professionals. It takes a lot of work to court someone with an interest in art and can afford it, but might not necessarily know what they are looking at. My strategy is to throw the right kind of parties where folks like these will feel comfortable to view art, have conversation, and hopefully buy something- and sometimes it works. Maybe I’m not ready to grow up yet, but grown up parties can be fun (and more productive), too.

Eric May is an artist and the director of Roots and Culture gallery.

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Editors’ Note: All this week we’re running some of the essays written for Floor Length and Tux’s “Untitled Circus” event this past weekend. A number of essays on Chicago’s thriving domestic/apartment gallery art space scene were solicited from local writers/artists/curators involved in the running of such spaces, and we’re posting some of them here on Bad at Sports as a way to extend the discussion. Please feel free to email us with your comments at mail@badatsports.com, or if you’d like to contact the folks at FLAT directly, you can email EC Brown at erik@ floorlengthandtux.com.

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