Some Notes on Hosting

December 10, 2009 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Jennifer Breckner

Some Notes on Hosting

Brian O’Doherty, in his seminal 1976 book, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, takes the traditional gallery space to task, critiquing the manner in which its white walls became the de facto authority that conferred the status of art upon any object that resided within its space. Serving as a template, the white cube format—white walls, rectangular or square shape, wooden floors, and lit from the ceiling—may be utilized anywhere and continues to be implemented widely, including in most of Chicago’s beloved apartment galleries.  What are some tactics for moving beyond this model in these types of smaller domestic environments so that a more equitable space may be envisioned?[1]

Presented as neutral but being far from it, the sanitized, white-walled space came into being during Modernism and quietly claimed more and more power over time so that eventually it became more important than the art that was displayed within.  “We have now reached a point where we see not the art but the space first,” asserts O’Doherty. [2]  The white-cube model continues to be the premier method for the display of art within institutions such as the formidable museum, blue chip commercial gallery, and even the not-for-profit “alternative” gallery.  Its structure conveys knowledge and authority; it asks of the viewer a quiet, almost religious-like devotion.  While it often is a useful background for artwork to be seen on, the white-walled gallery may also be a place of exclusion and judgment where privilege, breeding, economic status, educational background, and social cache allow various stages of access and exclusion. It is a space of contention, often leaving visitors in the precarious position of questioning their right to be there.

If this type of space is rife with anxiety and power, then shouldn’t the apartment gallery be an antidote to this situation since the power within these spaces resides with individuals who have broader latitude and more autonomy—because the stakes are not as high as the commercial gallery or museum—to experiment with setup?  Yet most Chicago apartment gallerists seem interested in perpetuating the white cube and all its inherent structure and exclusions, even if the directors are not consciously aware that they are doing this.  In large part, the use of this modernist template is due to the fact that most apartment gallery owners are renting the space that they live in and serious changes to the infrastructure of their domestic space could have a negative effect on their lease. Or perhaps they do not see the gallery space as elitist and find it useful to follow the professional set-up.  More importantly, though, the institutionalization of exhibition methods has infiltrated even the tiniest self-produced endeavor and carries such weight that many individuals see their apartment gallery as a calling card to gain entrance to the realm of more professional institutions.

There are many of these self-initiated exhibition venues that do away with the materials of everyday life and gravitate towards the white cube blueprint.  An article on Chicago’s apartment galleries mentions an owner who was pleased that the exhibition part of her living space resembled a commercial venue and that all of the evidence of people living there had been removed out of sight.[3] This kind of approach is a mistake for how can one’s living space compete with the likes of a commercial gallery?  Instead of the domestic space striving to be more commercial and always falling short of the pristine effect and voice of authority that the museum or formal gallery embodies, the focus should be on finding inventive and innovative strategies of display that mingle art with living materials.[4]

The reasons for organizing an apartment gallery are varied. For many individuals, this kind of gesture allows them the autonomy to participate in the art world as they dictate.  In a competitive field, and in a city populated with too many artists, curators, and art historians, running an apartment gallery is a resume builder and enhances one’s cultural capital.  It provides hands-on experience and a creative outlet for individuals who have little opportunity to exhibit, curate, or write in Chicago.  The importance of this cannot be overlooked.  In addition, these spaces provide a social outlet for Chicago’s cultural producers and provide inspiration to many to take on the task of organizing their own initiatives. More often than not they may serve as a party space where the art takes a backseat.  This, depending on one’s viewpoint, may not be a negative quality.  Sometimes, as in the case of 65Grand, work is sold and rent is paid,[5] but for many individuals who hope to enter the factory-line of cultural production, the spaces that make money are few and far between.

I am often perplexed by the expectations that some individuals have as to the value of their initiatives beyond their own experience.  For example, a student in a class that I was taking had an interesting idea for a roving gallery.  She mentioned to me that she was planning on raising $25,000 in one year so that this new gallery could be self-sustaining.  Even prior to the recent economic collapse in the United States, fundraising for experimental initiatives was difficult, but I am unsure from where these kinds of funds would materialize. I was at once in awe of this person’s determination to have high goals that seemed a bit naive, and dismayed that their expectations were set on such a professional level.  This example made me think of comments made by artist Nan Goldin in a 2006 lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago in which she talked about quitting her teaching position at an ivy league school because the students there were more focused on obtaining gallery representation and being mentioned in Artforum than on making good art.  Has the business of art encroached too much upon the apartment gallery and stifled creativity?

In terms of the somatic relationship of the viewer to formal gallery space, O’Doherty articulates that minds are welcome but, as all obstacles such as furniture and miscellaneous debris are removed from the site, bodies seem intrusive.[6]  While there is a generosity in opening up one’s personal space for these kinds of events, and many of Chicago’s apartment gallery owners are a friendly lot, for a new visitor entering an apartment gallery that tries to mimic the pristine controlled exhibition space, the body feels doubly unwanted as one enters both a space for contemplation of art and a private, domestic arena that acts as a small, tightly packed social scene as well.  In addition, many apartment gallery owners fail to engage strangers in their space, and may seem indifferent to new visitors, encouraging the idea that these spaces are more for the cultural elite that exist at this ground level than for a variety of new people.  Lastly, sometimes the homeowners may be disdainful of new guests.  There is one owner of a now-defunct Chicago apartment gallery who was known for actually discouraging visitors from entering the apartment and seemed bothered by the people that were in his space.

Therefore, I would assert that one area where apartment gallery directors, and even those individuals interested in alternative forms of exhibition, display, and social space coordination could change things is in the realm of hosting.  The importance of being a gracious host is clear.  Now, I’m not referring to the realm of hosting via someone like Martha Stewart who sees this quality as being a result of good breeding and lineage, and where individuals are encouraged to attend to superfluous minutiae—I am not suggesting that apartment gallery directors begin to think about making their own crocheted garbage bags or the like.   What I am suggesting is that to be a good host means doing the difficult work of facilitating social interaction. Most people are more comfortable in their own groups than meeting strangers and social awkwardness is prevalent at art openings.

The apartment gallery director should take on the role of social director to create warm and open social spaces. They should introduce their self to strangers and then introduce guests to others to develop and enrich the social network that occurs within the space.[7]  Acknowledging and welcoming someone into this complicated space, may set the guest at ease and make them want to come back.  Someone skilled at hosting knows how to get different people talking and to be alert to those that are excluded.  This, I would hope, would open up the Chicago apartment gallery scene just a bit.  Food, beverage, and animals also help to break up the anxiety of these events but including these amenities really depends upon the budget and interests of the individual director.

For those apartment gallery directors who are serious in their endeavors to provide an alternative creative space that addresses local needs, it seems a shame that all of that hard work and monetary sacrifice could be negated in some fashion because a space seemed to resolve around a certain clique or seemed off putting.  The creation and maintenance of an engaging, open and creatively modified social space seems to be an overlooked gesture that could distinguish apartment galleries from the other institutional models prevalent within cultural production today.

[1] This version of the essay has been edited since appearing in the FLAT4 publication.

[2] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Santa Monica: Lapsis Press, 1986, c.1976), p. 14.
[3] Lauren Viera, “Artful Living in Alternative City Spaces,” Chicago Tribune August 23, 2009.

[4] Lucia Fabio, Director of minidutch, which is now sadly defunct, had an interesting series called Eating on the Cheap where she invited guests chefs, this author included, to cook inexpensive but flavorful food at her apartment during open gallery hours.  The idea was that visitors would sit around her kitchen table and discuss timely topics, such as food politics and the decline of the American economy, filling up her living space with bodies during the time that the gallery was open.  It was an attempt to activate the space and make it more social.  It would have been interesting to see the direction she would have taken this series if the gallery had remained open.

[5] Viera.
[6] O’Doherty, p.15
[7] While this may seem like an attempt at brown-nosing given that Erik Brown is one of the co-organizers of this publication, both he, and his wife, Catie Olson, are particularly conscious of being attentive hosts, both of them at Floor Length and Tux and Erik, as one of the co-organizers of COMA.  Their generosity was the impetus, for me, to write this essay.

Jennifer Breckner works in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago where she tries to incorporate Bartelby the Scrivener’s mantra of “I’d prefer not to” into the fabric of each workday.  She causes great exasperation to design students as an adjunct professor of modern and contemporary art history at Harrington College of Design.  For the past year she has co-organized, along with members of InCUBATE, Sunday Soup Brunch, a monthly meal that funds micro-grants for artists and that has just ended its run at the Orientation Center.  Jennifer will move forward independently with the project, hopefully facilitating it as a roving event.

Sunday Soup

Sunday Soup

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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 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.


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