A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran a lengthy article profiling what writer Penelope Green described as “a new wave of gallerists who for a grab-bag of reasons-economic, philosophical and purely pragmatic-are turning their homes into art galleries” in New York City. Titled “Is it Art or Their Shoes?” the piece’s headline image featured Sarah Gavlak, one of the curators of such spaces, wearing a bright red mini-dress whilst sitting primly on her cream-colored bedspread, framed on either side by the artworks displayed on her bedroom walls.
Green goes on to note that Gavlak’s home is “stunningly spare”:
Ms. Gavlak’s personal effects are in one of two walk-in closets; artwork is in the other. Like a good saloniste, she eats breakfast on a tray in bed and then slides it underneath the dust ruffle. Her kitchen is as clean and uncluttered as that of a model apartment in a new condominium. (Home gallerists as a whole are not given to the display of random tchotchkes; further, they know how to hide their hair brushes and the Verizon bill).
This description made me laugh. Although no two apartment galleries are alike (therein lies the true beauty of the form), if you visit a domestic art space in Chicago you’re apt to see freely trafficking pets (and kids), overstuffed bookshelves, and cozy kitchens where something yummy-smelling always seems to be bubbling on the stove. Whereas Gavlak has transformed her entire home into an exactingly considered art installation (a tactic that I admittedly find compelling) many (though certainly not all) of the domestic art spaces I’ve visited in Chicago favor an alternative tactic: one that embraces the unabashedly lived-in. Read more
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?
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.  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. 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. Read more