In Chicago, Artist-Run Spaces Remain the Lifeblood of the Art Community

Kerry Cardoza
Mar 23, 2020 10:08PM

Installation view featuring Alberto Aguilar, Break Up, 2019; and Kahlil Irving, Are You Ready, 2018. Courtesy of The Franklin and Terrain Exhibitions.

Artist-run project spaces have been the lifeblood of Chicago’s art community for decades. They’ve mounted some of the city’s most exciting exhibitions and served as experimental staging grounds for artists and curators. Such spaces are where critic Jerry Saltz got his start, as co-founder of N.A.M.E. Gallery, as well as artist Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, who co-founded Julius Caesar. They’ve exhibited work by art-world elites like Luc Tuymans and Kay Rosen, and up-and-comers like David Leggett and Joshua Abelow. Artists from Wadsworth Jarrell to Michelle Grabner have founded spaces, helping to foster the careers of their colleagues and bolster the greater Chicago art community.

Yet due to the ephemeral and frequently short-lived nature of artist-run spaces—often housed in apartments, garages, bathrooms, and other non–white cube spaces—they are hard to seek out. And after they close, there’s often little to no record of them. “Artists Run Chicago 2.0,” an exhibition that was planned to open this April at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), seeks to fill that void by giving a platform to 50 contemporary artist-run spaces in Chicago. (HPAC is closed and its programming is postponed until further notice due to COVID-19.)

Organizers Noah Hanna and Allison Peters Quinn chose the artist-run spaces to include, but gave the gallerists free reign over what they would contribute. “We asked them to think about: How do you let an audience know what your space stands for?” Quinn explained.

Installation view of “Artists Run Chicago,” 2009. Courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center.


This will be the second time HPAC has hosted such an exhibition; the original iteration took place in 2009, representing almost 40 spaces. That first exhibition, “Artists Run Chicago,” came about as HPAC celebrated its 70th anniversary. Quinn, HPAC’s director of exhibitions and residency, thought it was important for the center to reflect on its founding in 1939 as an artist-run space. HPAC has now grown into a multifaceted community arts organization, staging over 15 exhibitions per year and serving more than 45,000 people through its K-8, teen, and adult arts education programs.

According to Quinn, one of the biggest successes of the 2009 show was an exhibition publication put out in partnership with local arts nonprofit Threewalls. “That’s now the only record of those spaces in that time,” she said. “I thought, we need that now, and the only way that’s going to exist is if we do it in the moment.” This time around, HPAC is partnering with local arts magazine Lumpen to make a more accessible print publication with wider distribution.

Of the spaces that participated in the 2009 exhibition, only six are still open: 65Grand, Co-Prosperity Sphere, Devening Projects, Julius Caesar, Roots & Culture, and The Suburban (which relocated to Milwaukee in 2015). All six are participating in the new exhibition.

Nereida Patricia, installation view of “Death Fantasy,” 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Prairie.

“One of the distinguishing features for Chicago is not its commercial prowess, but its relationship to schools and ideas, and a different kind of cultural center—a cultural center that is in the American interior,” said artist Michelle Grabner, who started the domestic gallery The Suburban in 1999 with her husband, Brad Killam. “Chicago’s a small town and ideas can emerge and manifest in physical spaces to continue that kind of thinking. I think that’s when they’re at their best.”

Bill Gross, who runs 65Grand, agrees that Chicago is unique in its alternative space culture. “Chicago’s always had a very vibrant alternative space [scene]—that’s really where the excitement’s been,” he said.

The alternative scene really got underway in the 1970s, when the National Endowment for the Arts began a new initiative to bring art to all Americans. The NEA doubled its budget in 1972, bringing it to $31.5 million; by 1975, it had more than doubled again, reaching $80 million. Before this period, there were few opportunities for artists to show their work in the city—outside of the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual “Chicago & Vicinity” exhibitions, which stopped in the mid-1980s. Wadsworth Jarrell’s WJ Studio and Gallery opened in 1968. N.A.M.E. Gallery opened in 1973, as did the feminist co-op art venues ARC and Artemisia. Randolph Street Gallery followed in 1979. By the ’80s, however, this generation of project spaces had mostly closed, significantly downsized, or changed structure.

John Henley, installation view of “Number Two,” 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Loo.

“When that funding dried up, that’s really when apartment spaces kind of exploded in Chicago,” Gross said.

A new generation of spaces popped up in the 1990s. Most notable among them were the so-called “Uncomfortable Spaces”—MWMWM Gallery, Tough Gallery, Ten in One Gallery, and Beret International Gallery. The Uncomfortable Spaces coordinated publicity and openings, and mounted exhibitions that were regularly reviewed in Artforum, Art in America, and the Chicago Tribune. All had shuttered by 2000.

In conceiving this exhibition, Quinn and Hanna wanted to help visualize how spaces have transformed over the decades. “We saw a big change in how galleries present themselves: less DIY, more polished white cube, but still very artist-run,” Hanna said. In some ways, these changes make sense. In recent years, art schools have leaned into the professionalization of the field, and arts administration programs have proliferated. The advent of social media has made it easier to communicate a particular aesthetic, making your project space look professional, even if in reality it exists in your kitchen. The curators are quick to note that though spaces in general have changed, there remains a diversity of approaches.

Thomas Kong, installation view of “Passing Time: Kim's Corner Food,” 2018. Courtesy of the artist and 062.

Chuquimarca, a project space in the Hermosa neighborhood that focuses on Native, Mexican, Caribbean, and Central and South American contemporary art and discourse, chose to use books from the HPAC library in these subject areas to create a library installation. It has also scripted a land acknowledgement for HPAC, asking the center to consider its occupation and relationship with Native land. The backyard gallery The Franklin decided to construct a full-size version of itself. Apparatus Projects, which used to be based in an apartment but is now nomadic, will display domestic objects from the home it occupied, while 062 will take over HPAC’s kitchen area with a mini bodega, paying homage to artist and convenient-store proprietor Thomas Kong. Julius Caesar will display a tiny version of its gallery, expanding on the idea behind its recent miniaturized art fair, Barely Fair.

“This is, to me, is where the heart of the city is, in these spaces, because it’s coming out of a pure need to have these spaces,” Quinn said. “Often, they’re not looking for profit. They’re driven through the necessity to make art and have a discussion with their peers or other artists. The purest form of experimentation can happen at these spaces. And in Chicago, I think experimentation is the name of the game.”

Installation view of “Artists Run Chicago,” 2009. Courtesy of Hyde Park Art Center.

Quinn hopes that young artists—many of whom have gone through HPAC’s teen programs—take inspiration from the variety of models these spaces represent.

“These people invented these models,” she said. “There’s no winning recipe or anything that’s going to make it definitely profitable or sustainable, that’s not the question. It’s more that just seeing that they can exist will hopefully give them some motivation.”

Quinn also hopes the exhibition can help foster more community and collaboration among these spaces, while spreading the word about them throughout the city. To that end, HPAC’s exhibition programming will include bike tours to neighborhoods where project spaces are clustered, including Pilsen and Garfield Park.

“I’m hoping that people feel comfortable in going to these spaces, because it’s such a generous network of practitioners and artists that want people there,” she said. “If we could get the word out, that’s part of the mission.”

Kerry Cardoza