Liz Nielsen on Chicago Apartment Galleries

December 14, 2009 · Print This Article

Editors’ Note: Liz Nielsen’s is the last post in our week-long series on Apartment Galleries in Chicago, all of which were originally written for Floor Length and Tux’s “Untitled Circus” event a few weeks ago. 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 posted some of them here on Bad at Sports as a way to extend the discussion. I’ll be posting some summarizing thoughts on this series later on, along with links to where you can find a .pdf file containing additional essays on Chicago’s Apartment Galleries written for the Untitled Circus event. 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 Erik at erik@ floorlengthandtux.com.

Guest Post by Liz Nielsen

A few thoughts

Erik Brown and Michael Thomas invited me to write down my thoughts regarding the recent spurt of apartment/domestic/project spaces in Chicago with the intent of pushing forth a few waves of constructive criticism that might consequently enable some of these spaces to re-calibrate their homegrown efforts. Now, I run my own space too, the Swimming Pool Project Space in Albany Park, and so I began by looking at my own reflection in the mirror and asking myself why I do what I do, and why I am where I am.

I am a Chicago artist. I have seen my reflection many times but this time I saw something, a stark reality, with more clarity than I had seen in the past.  Louder than ever before I heard a resonating sentence echoing inside my head: If Chicago’s art scene is second or third tier then naturally it produces second or third tier artists.

But if Chicago’s art scene is second or third tier, does it follow that it would naturally produce second or third tier artists? I am better than that.  I know that we are better than that.

So the question becomes: can Chicago raise the bar? Can it rise above the standards set by third tier expectations? Do we ourselves want honorable mentions, or gold medals? The artists who do make it into the top tier usually leave Chicago shortly before or immediately after their success starts to happen. So this leads me to wonder, if Chicago artists want to be gold medal-winners and recipients of national and international recognition, must we leave Chicago?

I’ve been running circles in my mind trying to figure out why we are where we are, and why we don’t, apparently, have the means to get the gold.  We obviously have the energy.  The innumerable independent spaces are one indication of this.  I have come up with several reasons but there is one that I continually spiral back to, and that is that Chicago has very few “parent galleries”, relative to the number of artists. At risk of being cutesy, parent galleries are the commercial venues that give us artist children shelter, that help us with our homework, hang our work on the refrigerator, talk us up like crazy, send us to art camps/residencies, and above all help us grow into the artists that we are capable of becoming. As it stands, hundreds of art students are pumped out of our schools in Chicago every year — and these are great schools — only to be orphaned with nowhere to show, nowhere to go.

So we parent ourselves.

We build our own tree-houses and clubhouses in the backyard or in our living rooms.  We start our own spaces and exhibit our own work. We share our own ideas and show our friends. But to a certain extent, the pragmatic facts of “being an orphan” wear us down: the fact that the challenge of making work increases when we’re also completely responsible for ourselves, for promoting our art, and paying the bills through other means. In the end, these tree-house projects, no matter how exciting and productive in certain instances, don’t bring in much money, and don’t get enough support from the city or its institutions, and eventually most of us run out of gas without even making it onto any sort of global art map.

This leads me to a second point, which might actually be more interesting — and even beautiful in its own way. Money is not the driving force of many of these independent spaces. That outcome has already deemed itself improbable and maybe isn’t even a goal at all. So what is the driving force? For me, the driving force is manifesting a vision, taking risks, and making marks, all in attempt to understand what art is NOW. Part of that is asking, what’s the conversation that’s being had? (And there’s also the question of who’s shaping the conversation — and the related issues of cultural capital, as recent commentators like Anthony Elms have noted.) As an artist, I’m always trying to locate myself in the larger continuum of contemporary art. I do this in a lot of ways, one of which is my experiments at the Swimming Pool. I don’t see them as separate from my own practice as an artist. They are facets of artistic research.

Small spaces often shift their tone from exhibition to exhibition providing more mystery than larger galleries by the mere fact that it is quite difficult to know what to expect. Perhaps they also provide a greater risk of failure. I can’t imagine having a show like Swimming Pool Project Space’s DOGCAT or GroupSolo in a traditional environment. But the taking of risks in these places can help people to shift in their practice and grow in their work. By putting people in different roles, whether as curator or collaborator, it allows them new perspectives on their own work potentially enhancing it.  And in fact, these spaces can be idea generators for any number of people.

But we don’t just want to talk to ourselves. We do want to be part of a larger conversation. So how do we make this happen? How do we artists get the support to bolster us up, to lift us to the next level? I have a few ideas, although each of them involve overcoming certain (smaller) hurdles… I’m just going to throw them out to start the brainstorm.

What does Chicago have? Space. Cheap space. But many of the current gallery spaces are decentralized; other than the West Loop spaces, these small galleries are all over the city. There’s the problem of getting from one to the other. There’s no art shuttle to help us gallery hop.  Even getting from Pilsen to Logan Square in one evening is not easy to do. How can we fix this, or at least accommodate this?

We also need to make art of more value in the minds of many Chicagoans. How do we create a desire for art and identify new collectors? There are plenty of people in Chicago with a lot of money who do not collect art or go to art exhibits. How do we artists get on their radars? Beyond casual viewers, we need sponsorship, patrons, and media attention. Are there ways to foster longer-term relationships between artists and collectors beyond the few big names? Young collectors are a group that I’m really interested in. A lot of work that is shown in so many of these spaces is not expensive and many people could start buying it — people who may not realize they could be collectors at all. A few small sales can keep these spaces running.  Most of us just need a little support, not much.

I’m also interested in the possible unification of small spaces… not as a single unification, because we all know there are too many flavors for that, but a few unifications to create mini-unions that support each other and create change, propelling things forward. A few years ago, I saw a sculpture by Tim Hawkinson. It was made of gears linked together from small to large. When I entered the room, I could see the largest gear, sitting still and as I walked to the back of the room, each gear was connected to the next, all the way down to a tiny, tiny gear.  That gear was tirelessly spinning as fast as it could on high speed. As I was exiting the room, I could see that the big gear had moved.  That tiny gear moved it. What if project spaces were in the habit of working together? What would happen then?

Liz Nielsen is an artist and the director of Swimming Pool Project Space.

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