REPORT: Chicago

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Although Chicago boasts a robust commercial gallery scene, one could argue the city’s creative lifeblood can truly be found in its nonprofit, artist-run and DIY spaces. In a city with more talented art school grads than spaces on gallery rosters, artists and arts workers have established a robust, noncommercial scene where the notion of an artistic community is not only highly valued in itself, but is an indispensable component of launching local artists’ careers. Choosing amongst these spaces for a few to highlight is no simple task, but there’s no denying that Threewalls, Roots & Culture, and The Franklin are among the leading noncommercial programs in city. If you take a good look at the CVs of Chicago artists with major gallery and museum shows, there’s a very likely chance that one of these three spaces appears on those lists of past exhibitions.

When Jeffreen Hayes came on as Executive Director of Threewalls one year ago, she inherited the 13-year-old institution’s respected reputation as well as its financial issues. Hayes and Threewalls’ board quickly restructured the organization, and left behind their West Loop address. Currently an itinerant presentation space, Threewalls remains on track with their programming, including recent exhibitions and additional events at a multifunctional art space, Rational Park; and continuing their six-year partnership with University of Illinois-Chicago’s Gallery 400 in awarding Propeller Fund grants to Chicago’s artists who create projects that engage the public.

But, Threewalls’ changes aren’t just structural. “We are changing what it means to be a presenting organization that not only considers artists and their artistic practice but also considers our place in Chicago, a city rife with physical and psychological boundaries when it comes to contemporary art, artists and its residents,” says Hayes of the revamped curatorial perspective. Recently, Threewalls announced a pair of programs designed to do much more than insert art into the public space. Artist Maria Gaspar, and art collectives Balas & Wax and Black Athena Collective will spend a year starting 2017 in the Research and Development Lab (RaD Lab) consulting with residents, building owners and aldermen in Edgewater, North and South Lawndale, and possibly the South Loop or South Side. The work done at RaD Lab will inform pieces that will be manifested in the community-based art project: Outside the Walls.

When Founder and Executive Director Eric May opened Roots & Culture in 2006, he intended for the space to address one of the Chicago art community’s pervading issues, what he describes as “brain drain,” the tendency for young artists from the city’s many top arts programs leave for New York and Los Angeles upon graduation. “I wanted to at least slow that down, by adding another CV bullet to aspire to in Chicago,” May explains. In the inaugural year, May did most of the programming himself, drawing upon friends and MFA thesis shows, though soon the open submission program was put in place that Roots & Culture uses to this day. Now, artist proposals sent to Roots & Culture are reviewed by a robust panel of jurors, which has included such high-profile arts professionals as Gallery 400 Director Lorelei Stewart, neuropsychologist-collector-curator Scott Hunter, and artists Tyson Reeder, Kelly Kaczynski and Eric Fleischauer.

A majority of Roots & Culture’s exhibitions take the form of two-person exhibitions in their “Double Exposure” series; a public art component called “Yr It!” in their windows facing busy Milwaukee Avenue in Noble Square; and “CONNECT”: a three-month curatorial residency that brings outside curators to Chicago to conduct studio visits and create an exhibition from the work of local artists. “Overall, I’d say our community has expanded as our program has become more competitive,” says May. “It’s exciting to receive proposals from artists I don’t know and then to work with them.” In “Best Dream Success,” on display through November 12, artists Adam Farcus and Allison Yasukawa question authorship and identity through a range of media including appropriated imagery, video and installation.

Artist Edra Soto didn’t initially set out to create an alternative exhibition space at her Garfield Park home. In 2012, the multidisciplinary artist mounted an exhibition called “LIVING by Example,” referencing the DIY ethos of Martha Stewart Living Magazine. Soto built a structure in her backyard, filling it with works she owns made by other artists, many of which were collected through trades with like-minded colleagues over the years. Since then, Soto and her husband Dan Sullivan (who owns a local fabrication studio) continue to facilitate rotating exhibitions in that same wooden structure. As Soto explains, the idea for The Franklin didn’t originate in a vacuum. The Chicago art community’s DIY spirit has long been a binding force among the city’s makers, as have apartment galleries and other domestic exhibition spaces (such as Sabina Ott’s Terrain Exhibitions and Michelle Grabner’s The Suburban, which recently relocated to Milwaukee). “My goal was to create a model that through its components felt like a contribution to the current scene rather than another apartment gallery,” says Soto of distinguishing The Franklin from the many other such DIY spaces that are often short-lived ventures.

These days, Soto and Sullivan are famous for their ability to bring Chicago creatives together, and The Franklin is as much a gathering place as it is a cutting-edge exhibition space. And as Soto knows, the gathering of artists is more than just a social experience. “The visibility that the artists-run spaces provided for me led to my solo show at the MCA Chicago,” says Soto. “Visibility gave me a career in the arts, so I greatly value the power of visibility.”

Above image:
“Modular Structure, Proposition I (Chicago)”
2016, Black Athena Collective
Repurposed wood, metal, video
Photo: Installation view at EXPO Chicago 2016.
Courtesy: Threewalls