posted by Caroline Picard

I’ve been working on a collaboration with incuBAte and Harold Arts – Harold Arts is putting out a series of interviews that take place between different arts organizations. I was kindly asked to interview inCUBATE; Abigail Satinsky ended up sending me an article that we used as a starting point. I thought I would include some of that article here. In it, Walter Robison of Colab (Collabarotative Projects in NYC) presents an argument for how alternative artspaces are like rock collections and commercial spaces are more like pet rocks….

so. Here goes it–



A text read at the “Profit vs. Nonprofit” panel at the annual meeting of the National Association of Artists Organizations, Houston


Walter Robinson

The subject at hand here today reminds me of rock, particularly two ways my father, who sold explosives for DuPont, commended rocks to me–in that way adults have, hoping to relive certain excitements vicariously via their kids. When I was litte, my dad tried to get me to start a rock collection’ he brough pieces of quartz and mica and doloite and sandstone home from the quarries, and tried to get me to label them and keep them on a set of shelves he built me and things like that. I remember being particularly interested in the way you could cut translucent shavings from the mica (I think it was mica), and the way you could grind the soft sandstone into ersatz into arrowheads on the concrete, but that’s about all that came of my preadolescent rock collection.

Anyway, I think having a rock collection if like having an alternative space, and what’s like having a commercial gallery is inventing a pet roxk, which for those of you with more important things to think of was a little rock that came in a box with instructions as to its care and keeping, that was phenomenal gift fad a few years ago, making its devisor rich, and amazing many people, my father included, because it showed how a clever person with a clever idea could hit that just-right cultural reflex and basically spin with gold out of thin air. Sort of like the American dream, in a postmodernist information age.

So bear with me here, while I spin out this metaphor. A pet rock and a rock collections are obviously very much the same, both being rocks–just as commercial galleries and alternative spaces are both places with stuff you come and look at. But of course they’re very much different, and the difference has not to do with what a thing is but how it’s approached, its cultural context, the kind of social organization it engenders, and of course its relationship to economics, scholarship and esthetics.

Your rock collection is an ensemble, a group whose individuals make sense, take on meaning, as part of a whole; it’s multidimensional, any kind of rock can fit in; it’s open-ended, int’s nonexclusive, and it appeals to the ineffable, one could say spiritual side of life, almost like esthetic appreciation. It’s not really worth anything (though this may not be strictly true, you don’t read about big rock collection sales in the papers much). It’s not worth anything, but you can spend money on it. Its pleasures are of a higher sort. But tis’ outside of any rock-market mechanism, and has an equivocal relationship with the avant-garde of the rock world. Doesn’t this sound like your typical alternative space?

I should stop here and talk a little about Collaborative Projects (New York City), the alternative space I was involved in a coupdl of years ago, to show what I’m thinking of when I talk abou alternative spaces and artists’ groups and things like that. I sued to call Colab an alternative alternative space on grant appliations and in press releeases (not to suggest the two are in any way similar). Colab was (and is still) an all-artists group, we had no administrators per se, we thought up projects and raised money (or should I say the other way around) and spent it the way we wanted, and basically positioned ourselves in opposition not only to the commercial gallery system of alternative art showcases too. This is nothing personal, this bias against administration, only a result of rhetoric and the kind of insightful analysis of society artists are known for.


if you would like to continue reading this article, you can download a pdf here.0754_001


Okay, so the last bit I’ll post from my essay–I try to add some drama to the critical claims of my rather creative essay by problematizing apartment galleries, informed by my participation in the local art community.  I am cognizant of the potential pitfalls of my engagement with the very artworld I feel at odds with at times…still, exploring such issues are important to me, insofar as I’m a marginally socially engaged artist.


Though in some instances apartment galleries seem to accelerate their own demise, others can achieve sustainability.  Through continued positive reception of art exhibitions by an art-viewing public, an apartment gallery’s profile may rise, and through the expansion of its audience and exposure to art administrators (who wield the power of gatekeepers of the art world), an apartment gallery that was previously perceived as “alternative” can exchange that label for that of the “avant-garde,” thereby taking a legitimized place in the art world.  An example of an apartment gallery that has risen to a position of greater visibility and power in Chicago’s art world is Green Lantern Gallery & Press.
Green Lantern Gallery & Press started out as an apartment gallery and is now a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in the Wicker park neighborhood of Chicago.  It is divided in half; the street-side front is the exhibition space, and the back end was originally the living space of Caroline Picard, who started the apartment gallery in 2005.   Green Lantern went from hosting monthly art exhibitions to publishing literature and incorporating music and performance events.  In 2007 it started a monthly literary reading series, broadcast on the Internet as a widely available podcast.  As a result of the growth of the organization, Picard moved out of the space in the summer of 2008; during that time the space was renovated:  the gallery walls were pushed farther back, and the apartment portion was hidden more effectively.  The former apartment portion of the space now functions as a common area and office space.
Green Lantern was able to evade the common fate of apartment galleries’ demise in the face of gentrification by undergoing a rebirth as a non-profit organization and receiving state grants.  Though it initially presented itself as an alternative to established institutions, it has now gained a position of power within the local art world, through engaging a large and diverse audience via various mediums.  This raises the question: once an alternative art space like Green Lantern becomes a “legitimate” venue in the art world, does it become complicit in perpetuating the same issues of socioeconomic inequality in the art world, wherein artistic experience (education and exposure) is deemed necessary for the viewing of art–and adjudicates quality and success?  This tension is crystallized in Green Lantern’s recent release of the second annual national directory of alternative art spaces, PHONEBOOK.   In addition to providing a guide of alternative art spaces and potentially opening insular alternative art communities, PHONEBOOK can also be seen as a means of positioning alternative art spaces for cooption into the mainstream art world.
Perhaps this is an indication of the blurring distinctions between “alternative” culture and the “mainstream” art world.  So-called “alternative” art spaces have the potential to bridge communities and influence shifts in institutional hierarchies within the art world, which brings contention to the perceived distinction of apartment galleries as “alternative.”  The history of alternative discourses of dissention suggests that these discourses will continue to reinvent themselves concurrent with the cyclical reforms of institutional powers.  Thus, this process of reinvention belies the ideological flaws of an individual alternative art space at a particular moment.
Alternative or mainstream, non-commercial or commercial, the display of art remains a social and economic practice rooted in capitalist society.  Isolationist practices that reject the spectator and commerce also reject art’s social agency.  Apartment galleries play a role in the development of new art markets and socio-political-cultural markets alike.  Apartment galleries contribute to the greater art world, insofar as they exist within the same economic systems of the display, patronage, and commodification of art.

–Young Joon

posted by Caroline Picard

For those of you who don’t know about what “PHONEBOOK 2008/2009 annual directory of {insert adjective here} art spaces” is about, let me give you a little window. First of all, we’ve added Canada, which means there are about 100 additional spaces. Secondly, whereas last year we collected essays by art-space-directors here in Chicago, this year, we’ve asked for essays from people across the country. We thought it would be a good way to sample different aesthetics and goings-on, straight from the horses mouth, so to speak. At any rate, I posted one of those essays a while back about Portland. I’m about to post an essay about Philadelphia (you see how broad our sights) by Andew Suggs.

Phonebook is set for release in just a few weeks! The release party will be held at ThreeWalls (119 N Peoria St., in Chicago’s West Loop). Check out their website for details, or scroll back on our blog (I posted an announcement about it). If you’re interested in pre-ordering a copy, you can do so. Just email Nick Sarno: The cover price is $15, if you order now we can sell you a copy for $12 (includes shipping & handling).

Here is yet another essay of foreshadowing….

The Alternative, or The Underground

by Andrew Suggs

The founders of “alternative” art spaces may now look to well established models.  The degree of creativity, experimentation, and risk that may have once inhibited would-be startups no longer exists.  Alternative spaces are ubiquitous, especially in major cities, and some have been around for more than twenty-five years.  Traditionally, alternative spaces have served as incubators for artists’ careers; the ideal trajectory has been a move from alternative space to commercial gallery to museum.  In our current moment, though, this scenario has become much less exact, as have the distinctions among the kinds of art spaces that exist.  Think of that behemoth alternative/museum space on Houston in New York that regularly showcases unheard-of twenty-somethings alongside blue-chip artists, within a moneyed and well-connected institutional setting, or of recent Whitney Biennials and their youth-obsessed scouting of cities far and near for obscure “talent.”  Mid-career artists are finding themselves drawn to show in alternative spaces if it suits their practice more than traditional settings.  Artists whose concepts were once more en vogue are now pushed to show in smaller, less-traveled venues, as the speed with which art trends come and go increases.  “Alternative” space and programming is increasingly hard to define.

Especially in Philadelphia, where the commercial sector of the art market is mostly irrelevant and far smaller than the alternative art scene (because of a lack of collectors?), one begins to wonder: to what do alternative spaces stand in juxtaposition?  They are multifarious here and, as elsewhere, upset the categorization alternative space/commercial gallery/museum: Vox Populi, Bobo’s, Space 1026, PIFAS, Print Liberation, Fleisher-Ollman, and Little Berlin represent alternative practices, commercial models, museum-like settings, collaborative efforts, and/or experimentation in varying degrees.

When I moved to Philadelphia two and half years ago, I found myself scoping out a niche within this scene.  Circumstance and internet luck led me to intern at Vox Populi; I then became an artist/member and Exhibitions Coordinator.  Vox, like many alternative spaces, follows a museum model: there is a white cube for display and other signs of aspiring professionalism; members hope for career advancement and recognition/visibility.  There are announcement cards, (low budget) publications, invited accomplished speakers, etc.  This is not to be disparaged, of course.  It is no small achievement for a small artist/member-run organization to function successfully without the financial and organizational resources of institutions with wealthy boards and immense private funding.

I have come to realize, though, that while my involvement with Vox is rewarding (I enjoy the community, the “game” of running a space, the opportunity for frank discussion of my artwork and my peers’), my penchant for the alternative is not being totally satiated.  What I want is an underground.  I want to feel as if my challenge to accepted practices is more subversive, and more tangible.

My longing leads me into basements and warehouse spaces with loud music, sloppy painting, and raunchy, challenging performance art. Here the experience blends with rivers of booze, ending in nights of debauchery and communal cursing of the system.  In such venues I have found the queer artists whom I had initially thought were totally absent from Philadelphia’s landscape; they are my neighbors in South Philadelphia where they party, make artwork, and support themselves with part-time and odd jobs.  Their challenge to authority – to accepted structures – and their ingenuity to create effective and personal work/play/exhibition structures (outside the more mainstream “alternative”) astound me.

Philadelphia’s underbelly exists, if even on a small scale and in cloudy clash with nostalgia-for-bygone-counter-cultural scenes – but it is strangely disconnected from my experience with an established alternative space.  A conundrum, then: reject the more established alternative as staid and unexciting or try to use the resources of a twenty-one-year-old alternative space to suit my desires to bring truly challenging ideas to a public outside my circle of friends.

Spaces like Vox are not rare.  In fact, most alternative spaces, which you probably frequent or to which you are more intimately connected, follow a similar model.  The model is effective in many ways: artists are given a chance to show their work in a respectable situation with a variety of visitors—an opportunity they might not otherwise have. Communities develop around the space (if not enough among spaces), and ingenuity and hard work end in tangible results.  Artists are able to become more visible within the gallery/museum framework, and their ideas reach a greater audience.  If underground culture’s aim, though, is to in some way rupture the fabric of the status quo, and if we (as champions of the “alternative”) espouse these aims, to what ends are our efforts directed?

My concern and my charge is this: in following what we must admit is a now-standard framework for founding and maintaining alternative spaces we must not compromise the timbre of our programming.  An alternative space that supports unchallenging output is not fulfilling its function.  Our output – the work we make and show, the music we promote, the performance for which we provide venue, the discourse created by our events and associations – should remain dangerous, toothy, aesthetically bold and strange.  Our organizational/business model may mimic a museum or gallery (even if our little money comes from different sources), but we must take care that our programming and our relationships do not mimic those systems.  The stable aspects of institutions allow us a framework in which to function.  But our success within this framework can be redefined.  Administrative practices that enable sustainability should allow our output to be more challenging.  We should be as subversive as commercial ventures that infiltrate and appropriate DIY/underground/alternative cultures for their own ends in our infiltration of institutions to exploit our messages.

If our goal is to show work that would otherwise remain unseen, we should pursue this mission with vigor.  The statement itself lends some direction.  Why would work remain unseen?  Part of this answer has to do with means, of course.  Exhibiting work requires some money and space.  However, as is evident in Philadelphia, even living room galleries that require almost no resources for startup can quickly become hotspot destinations.  There is no shortage of alternative space.  Rather, work remains unseen because its concept is difficult, its aesthetic unpopular, its message peripheral.  But the reason we visit alternative spaces, the reason we pour our energy into maintaining them – is to provide a home for this work.  Let’s remember that vague concept, “the underground,” and its aims.  Let’s mine it, foster it, and realize it.

Andrew Suggs is an artist who lives and works in Philadelphia.  He is the Exhibitions Coordinator of Vox Populi and an occasional writer, critic, and curator.