Apartment Galleries in Chicago: At the Intersection of Art and Domestic Habitat

September 10, 2008

This is a draft of an article due out for publication this fall in The Chicago Art Journal Review


Installation view of "Useless Weapon" at The Green Lantern Gallery 2008

Installation view of



Apartment Galleries in Chicago: At the Intersection of Art and Domestic Habitat


There is a long-standing tradition of peculiar art spaces in Chicago. These spaces are difficult to categorize, idiosyncratic and fleeting.  Yet they are one of the primary exhibition opportunities for young emerging artists, or for experimental projects commercial art venues have difficulty marketing.  In Chicago, due to relatively moderate living costs, the availability of space and a healthy cultural community spawned by some of the city’s academic institutions, encourage and support these humble venues. One of the most common is the “apartment gallery,” or apartment space– a domestic space regularly opened up to a public audience for art exhibitions.  In apartment spaces there is a varying tension between public and private spheres often dictated by the architecture of a given space. All of these spaces rely on intersecting personalities, lives, neighborhoods, and cultures.            

Apartment spaces do not try to convince the audience of an inherent and as-yet-undiscovered market value for the work on display. If anything, they are proud of a Do-It-Yourself aesthetic, and, to varying degrees, reject the classifications prescribed by the dominant culture. They generally reject terms like “gallery” or “alternative art space” and classify themselves as a “project space,” “community space,” “experimental space,” or “neighborhood space.” These ‘apartment spaces,’ (for the sake of consistency), are fueled by the energy and enthusiasm of people interested in operating, at least for a time, outside of the market. vonZweck, Old Gold, Roots & Culture, 65 Grand, The Suburban and COMA are all unique exhibition venues in which domestic space has an influence on the exhibited work. There are innumerable others, only some of which have been mentioned, but these six offer a varied range of sites. Some commercial spaces begin as apartment spaces (Shane Campbell Gallery, for instance) and then launch into permanent commercial fixtures. More often than not, however, these spaces begin as ‘projects’ in which artists pool resources and construct exhibition venues for the community. Directors of apartment galleries do not anticipate the financial support of that audience. While the work is often for sale, it is hardly ever sold. These environments are personable—at times frumpy, instead of sterile and cold; the audience generally comes to support the artists as friends or colleagues, not as collectors.

            Because apartment galleries are not dependent on the art market, they are the roughest, most experimental venues for exhibition. Whether by some irony or not, the titles within these organizations often resemble the titles of institutions.  There are a plethora of Directors: Founding Director, Executive Director, Assistant Director, Curatorial Director, Director of Communications, Director of Programming.  In a staff of three, each person may hold the title of director. These titles, while in one sense arbitrary, nevertheless demonstrate an underlying desire for legitimacy, suggesting that the people who manage these apartment spaces take their job very seriously. In order to seem credible, members must assume titles that a conventional audience will understand. The character of each space is defined not only by a floor plan, but also by the unique set of collaborations determined by the inhabitants of the apartment space, the different roles those residents play, the amount of liberty granted each artist, and the character of the friendships that lend additional help. A friend might build a wall, offer to paint, offer to create a website or even apply for grants. Above all, collaboration is the dialogue surrounding these material exercises, and the final product, or art opening, is the transference of these processes. Many unpaid hands are involved in the creation of an apartment space, and this kind of collaborative curatorship often produces unpredictable results: clip lights hang from the ceiling in a hairy mess of cords while cheap canned beer sweats alongside dust bunnies, a mess of dirty laundry, and a note reading: Warning, Cats Do Not Open DO NOT LET OUT.  Despite everything, these apartment galleries provide the most dynamic, intimate, and critical presentations of contemporary works of art.

            This form of enterprise is affordable precisely because the directors have married their living expenses with exhibition costs—presenting art as the dominant focus in a field of vitality, mess, and the banal inelegance that takes place in any life.  For example, Philip vonZweck runs VONZWECK Gallery, a one-bedroom apartment that has hosted monthly art openings in the living room since 2005. “My criterion is pretty simple,” vonZweck wrote, “I invite friends, people I trust with keys to my apartment, to put up shows of their own work for me to live with. I don’t curate the shows and I don’t really tell people what to show.” vonZweck has generated a venue that has shown, among others, …among others, the works of Mike Wolf and Deb Sokolow at relatively little cost. Mike Wolf installed the first part of a three part show, “TITLE,” in which he expunged the objects he kept in an apartment, and installing a selection of these in vonZweck’s space. Wolf installed a collection of his favorite books, a box of paint chips, a series of stripped and empty cans, and among other things, a display around the television. The television featured a video game called “TITLE” where the main character is a prince who goes rolls around the world picking up things, like a snowball rolling down the hill. “The whole project is done on less than a shoestring budget,” vonZweck continued, “I already pay rent, I buy about a gallon of paint a year for touching up walls and I buy beer for openings…Not including time my expenses are around 30 dollars a show and the time really doesn’t feel like an expense because it is spent with friends working on and talking about art.”

            The relationship between home and art space, public and private, gives rise to a reconfigured relationship between the viewer, the work of art, and the exhibition space.  In apartment galleries the audience is invited as guests in someone’s home. The hosts assume that the public will recognize the intimacy of the situation. Each apartment space is also a home, with a unique feeling about it, whether furniture is worn in or not, whether pets are underfoot, whether it is a place with real bedrooms or a loft space with twelve inhabitants: the lifestyle choices of each inhabitant come across in the environment and the audience is expected to intuit and comply with the rituals, or inarticulated rules, of that environment. A simple example might be whether or not smoking is permitted indoors, whether people speak with exuberant casualness, exhibiting intoxication, or whether they behave as though they are at a formal cocktail party with professionals: in either case, the hosts anticipate a certain behavior of their audience; each member of the audience is not simply a member of the public, but a guest.  The existence of such a subtle dynamic enforces a peculiar experience with the art on display, in as much as the intuitive experience of an apartment impacts the experience of art. In other words, the home, the exhibition and the people interacting create a single impression that is often difficult to parse. Above all else, it is personal.

            Each apartment space is distinct and their idiosyncratic tendencies set them apart from others. At Old Gold, an apartment space in Humboldt Park run by Caleb Lyons and Katy Scanlin, the exhibition is inseparable from its basement environment.  With its dark wood paneling, built-in bar and room for a pool table, the basement looks like an old rumpus room. Old Gold is not a neutral space; rather it is a space with distinct character. The venue is unapologetic, and forces artists to incorporate the space into their exhibition. Old Gold had a group show about America, in which each artist was an expatriate, born elsewhere and living in the States. On view in what feels like a proto-typical American fantasy, there was an ironic complement between the setting and the artwork and like the artists themselves, living and working in a foreign country in an effort to achieve a place in the United States, the work wanted to insert itself in the environment. By creating a venue in which the work has no choice but to accept its architectural setting, Old Gold reinforces the notion that art is essentially rooted, as we are, in its contemporary time (and with all of the socio-economic or political issues therein).

            Old Gold raises significant questions: why do art displays often separate art from the physical experience of a unique space? The museum environment provides an aura of immortality and authority, showcasing work that has endured. There is a natural vested interest in the endurance and celebration of that work, work that has survived disease, war, disaster, mildew, et al. The survival of these Great Works is evidence that something remains beyond the mortal bounds of its human maker, promising each of us that something lives on even after death. While a commercial gallery wants to mimic the authority of the museum’s timelessness, underscoring the investment value of the work, apartment galleries are inherently focused on the present.

            The architecture of each space: the way it is organized, the furnishings, the orientation of the exhibition within the architecture — all these details — deserve to be taken seriously. The distinct architecture and domestic aesthetic of each space influences the experience of an art show, even if it is by accident. This influence can be seen at Roots & Culture, a space that hosts group shows on Milwaukee Avenue. Director Eric May has said,  “The architecture of our space is consistently an issue that has to be addressed, one that I sometimes lose sleep over. A.) The building is triangular- very few right angles B.) The building is over one hundred years old and part of a condo association that monitors the historical precedent of the building’s exterior appearance C.) Half of the wall space is consumed by ten-foot tall windows D.) The space was most previously a real estate office which was subdivided into cubicles and we worked with part of the existing floor plan, thus the lower case d shaped project room and perpendicular wall. The space is a great challenge for the artists and has to be risen up to by installation artists and sculptors.” Except for a prominent kitchen with an industrial stove, the art space bears no signs of being a residence. The rest of the apartment is above the exhibition venue. At a Roots & Culture opening the audience orbits around the kitchen, moving in and out of the space to take another drink, get some food, or use the washroom, before returning to the main exhibition room.  Among other things, art creates an opportunity to congregate and spend time together, affording the pretext for community. Traditionally food affords a similar function, and at Roots & Culture the two are conjoined, creating a watering hole around which people gather. The emphasis on these two aspects of life make Roots & Culture a unique space, where the meaning of food and art is somehow inextricable.

65 Grand is another apartment space, in the West Town neighborhood. Local painter Bill Gross lives there and like Roots & Culture, the kitchen plays an essential role for the public; it is the room in which exhibitions take place—about 200 square feet with a temporary wall placed in front of the kitchen window. Even though Gross has a white wooden countertop that covers the stove, and although he moves the fridge into the doorway of another room leaving only the sink undisguised, the audience and artists alike cannot forget that they are in someone’s kitchen, consuming art instead of produce.  The stairwell of Gross’ third story walk-up functions as a satellite installation site, secondary to the kitchen.  Doug Shaffer, for instance, installed three collages in the stairwell, one of which he hung seven feet above the floor, in the eaves of a skylight. Shaffer works with book materials, and in this case had collaged a series of intuitive compositions on the front of vintage, hardcover books. The intended function of these areas: the stairwell or the kitchen, while impossible to transcend entirely, are incorporated into the exhibition. The delicacy of Shaffer’s work is more pronounced by its strange installation; his work activated an otherwise overlooked space, one that had previously been dedicated to the passage of strangers.

            The Suburban in Oak Park hosts art exhibitions in two separate rooms adjacent to the house. There the environment is clean and detached. The rooms were built specifically to host contemporary art practices and to exhibit the results. The Suburban transforms an ordinary domestic space into a cultural destination: drawing people outside of the city for a cultural experience. The presence of the house is always at the fore, positioned above these two showrooms and casting a calm yellow light from the kitchen onto the lawn below. The exhibitions cannot help but function with the backdrop of middle-American family life.

            Unlike other spaces, The Suburban has managed to outlast most of its peers and has thus become a cornerstone in the Chicago art world. Most apartment galleries are organized by young people on the cusp of their careers. Achieving financial sustainability is a big challenge as a result the relationships that support the art spaces are typically transitional. This young system of support, however, is not burdened by other, personal responsibilities and thus provides non-traditional, free exchange of time, labor and non-monetary resources. There is a robust innocence to the majority of these apartment galleries, in which there is a feeling that fame might very well be around the corner. An invaluable chance at experience exists, both in developing professional skills, and in a personal way, where people discover their boundaries, their limits, how much they can give without burning themselves out.

            And certainly many do burn out. Located in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, The California Occidental Museum of Art (COMA) was a quintessential apartment space that only recently closed (April 2008.) First, it was an apartment with roommates and cats and plants and macramé. Artists and roommates E. C. Brown and Annika Seitz ran the space for a few years. COMA exhibitions functioned specifically within the apartment context; the art was inseparable from day-to-day human life.  COMA hosted group shows open by invitation, for which artists selected the work they wished to show. One-night exhibitions took place throughout the apartment with work in any number of places, hung by the artists in unpredictable groupings. At one particular show last spring, Seitz was cooking in the kitchen, while a live-feed video of the stove played in the living room.  An inexorable relationship between art and day-to-day life existed as one could either watch Seitz actually chopping bell peppers in the kitchen or one could watch the bell peppers frying on TV in the adjacent room.

Other spaces have recently closed, such as Fraction Workspace, a window space in Bucktown, which was open 24/7 for neighbors and passers-by. The apartment space Duchess in West Town also closed. Meanwhile others open. MiniDutch hosts monthly, process-oriented exhibitions. There is also All-Rise, a loft-style apartment space that hosts regular art exhibitions but makes ends meet as a hostel for travelers.  Country Club Gallery on Damen Ave., Fuck Mountain and Happy Dog both in Wicker Park, Alagon Gallery on Paulina and Cortez, The Brown Triangle in Pilsen, or the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, an artist owned/run building with the exhibition area on the street-level. Apartment galleries are a community with a short shelf life and little continuity. It is a community typically limited in means, quick to cut corners and as tireless as any ecological habitat.  The galleries teem with new energy, even as they suffer from cultural amnesia. With a focus trained on the present moment, dedicated to the current audience and the celebration of current work, they contribute to their own fleeting times.

 Apartment galleries are interesting social experiments.  They muddle through the present, while relying on the flexibility, generosity, and social grace of friends. As such, the founding members often tire from the demands of this fringe administrative work. Founding members are invested in an exchange of favors and reputations, which are then used to assume control of a space; creating new access points between artists, their publics and their art. Apartment galleries’ desire for legitimacy conflicts with the traditional hierarchies of power. The galleries ultimately desire what could be an impossible freedom: a contemporary art practice that achieves independence from the financial market.


-caroline picard



10 Responses to “Apartment Galleries in Chicago: At the Intersection of Art and Domestic Habitat”

  1. Great post. I will read your posts frequently. Added you to the RSS reader.

  2. Freeze-Dried Says:

    No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.FriedrichWilhelmNietzscheFriedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

  3. Gas Masks Says:

    If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.AlbertEinsteinAlbert Einstein

  4. Events of the past two years have virtually decreed that I shall wrestle with the literary muse for the rest of my days. And so, having tasted the poverty of one end of the scale, I have no choice but to direct my energies toward the acquisiton of fame and fortune. Frankly, I have no taste for either poverty or honest labor, so writing is the only recourse left for me.HunterS.ThompsonHunter S. Thompson, to Mr. Arch Gerhart, January 29, 1958

  5. […] posted an in-process essay discussing apartment galleries on the Green Lantern blog. “Apartment Galleries in Chicago: At the Intersection of Art and Domestic Habitat” mentions specific art spaces (including VONZWECK, Old Gold, Roots & Culture, 65GRAND, […]

  6. Anna Trier Says:

    I run an apartment Gallery and what I guess you could call an “apartment publication”, this is a great article, it highlights an important aspect of the Chicago art scene. Check us out at http://happycollaborationists.blogspot.com/

  7. Christina Says:

    Fascinating concept, innovative and inexpensive way to promote art and have a party.

  8. […] venue, a studio—a lab, if you will. Places like Load of Fun in Baltimore are exciting; Chicago’s apartment galleries are exciting; BCL’s space downtown this month is exciting; the forthcoming storefront […]

  9. […] Apartment galleries are constantly popping up in Chicago and their websites are popping up right with them.  Compared to stapling fliers to telephone poles, a quick and easy blog setup and minimal networking multiplies their audience tenfold. […]

  10. this is a good blog. will come back regularly to read more write up

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