September 24, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Britton Bertran
I was there in 2005 at the beginning of Bad at Sports (Episode 4!) and I hope I’m not there at the end. It was the year I opened my gallery, 40000. It was a good idea at the time. I was fed up with not seeing what I wanted to see and equally mesmerized by controlling my own destiny in a commercial sort of way. There were plenty of other interesting things happening and I figured – why the hell not.
The years 2005 and 2006 were ok years for Chicago Art. It seemed to be an upswing couple of years when apartment galleries and art interest were peaking. (These things come in waves – I’d put us in a upward motion now after reaching the bottom in 2011.) The MCA was showing interesting work (a Dan Flavin Retrospective, Deb Sokolow and William J. O’Brien had 12 x 12’s), blogs were percolating with critical activity (anyone remember panel-house.com or iconoduel.org?) and this new fandangled thing called a podcast had people sitting with their bulky desktops and REALLY listening.
I took a leap of art faith and quit my job, borrowed some money from my mom and with the help of a couple close friends including a now-deceased bartender from Phyllis’, rocked out a storefront space on Winchester and Augusta. A year and a half later, some guy bought the building and wanted to turn it in to a really small Italian restaurant. I moved the gallery in the summer of 2006 to the bustling 119 N. Peoria building (soon to be home to only one gallery in 2014.)
Like-minded nice folks like Corbett vs. Dempsey, The Green Lantern, 65GRAND, Fraction Workspace, Western Exhibitions, Lisa Boyle Gallery, Duchess and a couple of more spaces, were all blazing fiery paths outside the West Loop in WestTown (does anyone even know where this is now?). We even organized, set up a network, handed out flyer/maps and coordinated openings. It worked for the most part. I think.
There was no social media except for Friendster and then that thing called Myspace. My digital camera had something like 3 megapixels and took incredibly shitty pictures. It took a solid hour to update my clunky website. It was rough out there in a walking up the hill backwards in a snowstorm kind of way. But it was great. Lots of visitors – mostly artists – came, drank and stole beer during openings, I sold art here and there, got a few reviews in national art magazines, was invited to fancy pants museum openings, met not-so-nice individuals who essentially run the art world, shook hands with some artist heroes and even did the occasional art fair in and outside Chicago.
But mostly, having this gallery gave me some pretty solid insight into how artists work, what they think about and what really matters the most to them career-wise. Surprisingly, and thankfully for me, it wasn’t money. 40000 was definitely a failure in that regard and the main reason I closed in 2009. I was also unable, and did not want to, secure a sugar daddy/momma, which I slowly realized was the only way to sustainability. [A little secret – there is less than a handful of galleries in Chicago that don’t have one of these.]
I think it’s pretty telling that almost half of the original West Town Gallery Network is still in effect. Corbett vs. Dempsey just got admitted to the Main Fair of Art Basel Miami Beach (a big damn deal). Western Exhibitions is still cranking out shows with aplomb and has incredible dedication to it’s artists. 65GRAND (all caps no gaps, please) is run by one of the smartest and nicest gallerists in Chicago. Only one of these galleries is still in West Town – though it’s stretching it a bit. All of these spaces work so damn hard it’s difficult for me to even comprehend how they’re possibly doing it. Most of us are still here in Chicago, I think. Whether or not we are running galleries, we are all getting old, raising families, have “real” jobs, etcetera. I hope you won’t forget us.
The artists I worked with are for the most part pretty successful in their careers. One or two I never hear from, a couple of others I never want to hear from. Nonetheless, it gives me great pleasure to know that I have a place in Chicago art history. It’s funny though, I seriously often wonder what would have happened if I had at least a 10 megapixel camera back then.
A little addendum here: I was often asked, “What the hell does 40000 mean?” In fact a couple of months ago a collector emailed me out of the blue and straight up asked. So I told him. I named the gallery after Joe “40,000″ Murphy. “40,000” was a Chicago outsider artist and events usher in the 1950’s who either knew 40,000 famous people, or was renowned for saying “about…. 40,000 empty seats!” when asked how many people where coming to that day’s event. When people asked me, I made them guess. Nobody got it right.
Britton Bertran ran 40000 from 2005 to 2008. He currently is an Instructor at SAIC in the Arts Administration and Policy department and the Educational Programs Manager at Urban Gateways. An occasional guest-curator, he has organized exhibitions for the Hyde Park Art Center, the Loyola Museum of Art and several galleries. You can find him trying to be less cranky about the art world on twitter @br_tton. Stay tuned for a couple more guest posts where Britton will be discussing his tumblr-famous tumblr “Installator” and his take on what’s wrong with the Chicago art world circa 2013 – while thinking out loud about how to fix it.