The Chicago Gallery scene is often overlooked – it shouldn’t be

art market

Brian P. Kelly

Several cities come to mind when discussing America’s contemporary art galleries: Los Angeles, with its recent influx of East Coast spaces opening up West Coast outposts. Palm Beach’s growing population and support for the scene have turned seasonal locations into year-round businesses. New York, always omnipresent. But Chicago seems eternally overlooked.

Yet galleries in the Second City are thriving and distinct from their coastal counterparts. Chicago galleries are more aware of the city’s enduring commitment to art, primarily through its world-class museums. “Chicago has a history of great collections,” gallery owner Rhona Hoffman told Artsy. “The Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionist Collection were gifts from Chicago collectors who came back from Europe and brought the Impressionist paintings.”

A figurehead on the city’s scene — a dealer called her “the Grand Dame of Chicago art” — Hoffman founded her eponymous space in 1976. She has focused on socio-political art and was one of the first gallery owners to leading female artists, including Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Sylvia Plimack Mangold and Cindy Sherman. Today, she showcases works by big names such as Derrick Adams, Sol LeWitt and Gordon Parks, and is also closely associated with the local scene, representing Chicago-based artists Julia Fish, Judy Ledgerwood and Michael Rakowitz, among others.

This local focus—a sense of community that every gallery owner I spoke to for this piece emphasized time and time again—is key to the Chicago scene. “In New York, it’s a much larger population and place … and everyone usually stays in their corner,” Hoffman said. “But Chicago is more collegial. We eat together.”

Installation view of Derrick Adams’ show “The Last Resort” at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

Emanuel Aguilar, founder and director of PATRON, wholeheartedly agreed. “Many gallerists who are not in Chicago are surprised to learn that everyone in Chicago is nice and friendly with each other,” he said. “Even when we disagree on a lot of things, we find ways to work together and coordinate and benefit the community as a whole rather than alone.” This includes attending each other’s openings, introducing collectors to each other, and celebrating the victories of other spaces in the city. “We’re all in this together,” Aguilar explained. “I think everyone feels that success for one is success for everyone.”

This support network is especially strong among the city’s West Side galleries, located in neighborhoods such as the heavily refurbished West Loop and hipster mainstay Wicker Park. A stretch of Chicago Avenue, where both Hoffman and Aguilar have their locations, has turned into a gallery row of sorts as Volume, Catherine Edelman, Andrew Rafacz and others have filled the floors of the increasingly trendy brick buildings. The rental prices here are favorable and the area is easily accessible by car. “We have all the necessary components of the ecosystem to thrive here,” Rafacz said, “but there is a generosity among the participants.”

This recent westbound push includes both established and emerging galleries. Established in 1963, the upscale Richard Gray Gallery — which has a New York outpost and represents artists like David Hockney, Alex Katz and McArthur Binion — opened a 5,000-square-foot warehouse location there in 2017. Mariane Ibrahim moved her gallery from Seattle to a location in West Town in 2019.

When moving, Ibrahim also thought of other cities. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should go to New York,'” she said. She ultimately chose Chicago because she was stunned by the sense of camaraderie. “I was not used to it. You get a little aggressive and competitive and it’s, okay, drop that [here]’ said Ibrahim. “We’re not New York, we’re not LA. This is who we are and we work together in this system.” She has helped organize shows for artists she does not represent and organized parties and events for other galleries.

Installation view Carmen Winant’s exhibition “The Making and Unmaking of the World” in September 2021 at PATRON Gallery. Photo by Evan Jenkins. Courtesy of the artist and PATRON Gallery, Chicago.

But precisely because the Chicago scene is less aggressive than the one on the coast, it is no less ambitious. Chicago “offers a certain kind of ease in displaying some kind of art, in bringing new stories,” Ibrahim said, meaning “we [are] be challenging and bring really high quality works.” Ibrahim’s program focuses on emerging international and Afro-descendants. She exhibited, among others, Amoako Boafo, Ayana V. Jackson and Ian Mwesiga. Several of her artists, such as Sergio Lucena, have their sole representation in the American gallery in Chicago. The city has embraced its program, she said, thanks to a “refinement in the” [city’s] art scene.”

This sophistication is driven by Chicago’s collection base, which comes primarily from the city or the surrounding Midwest region (including cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Kansas City in particular). There are fewer large collectors locally than in the past – “in the ’80s we had the Manilows, we had the Dittmars, we had the Bergmans,” Hoffman recalled, but typical buyers are unique from those on the coasts. “They are not afraid to take any risk,” Ibrahim said. She also emphasized that just as the galleries are hyper-connected to their city, so are the collectors. “They supported the artists locally before they got on the global stage. They collected early Rashid Johnson, they collected Theaster Gates early, they collected Nick Cave early,” she explained, citing three artists who have become synonymous with the city’s contemporary scene.

Aguilar also pointed out that his usual collectors are patient, knowledgeable about art, and not interested in chasing fads. “The Chicago energy isn’t this ‘rush and buy before the trend is over’; it’s what makes sense or feels right for a particular collection,” he said. He explained that Chicago collectors often “are not tempted by the buzz of trends and speculation as often as one might experience elsewhere.” Ibrahim echoed the sentiment: “They are not impulsive, compulsive buyers; they are very methodical,” she said. That sometimes means forgoing works to watch an artist’s career develop, even if collecting them could be more expensive in the future.

At the same time, the open nature of the city’s galleries makes collecting more accessible. “Collecting, for younger collectors or newer collectors or novice collectors, can be intimidating and a terrifying process,” said PATRON Director Briana Pickens. “I think the Chicago vibe makes people more comfortable because of the pace, and also because of the heat.” Unsurprisingly, unlike in some flashier art cities, many of today’s collectors here prefer to fly under the radar and keep quite a low profile.

While the main collectors for many Chicago galleries are regional, fairs remain important for access to distant collectors. Chief among these is EXPO, the annual Lake Michigan shoreline fair, which returned this year after a COVID-19-induced hiatus. “EXPO acts as a gathering moment to get the art world to Chicago to see what we have here,” said Kate Sierzputowski, program director of the fair. This visibility, Ibrahim said, is “vital to connect the collectors and the institutions and the galleries.”

And while tourism in the state has seen continued growth — ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois had nine straight years of record-breaking tourist numbers — out-of-town fairs are also critical to these spaces. “Chicago isn’t going to be the big city everyone wants to fly to to buy art,” Hoffman said. “But,” she continued, “they do buy art from us because Chicago galleries go to art fairs.”

Last year, for example, there were seven Chicago-based exhibitors at Art Basel in Miami Beach, a trade show that Hoffman says is particularly important to the financial viability of her gallery. While that number may seem small, it’s quite an impressive display as there were only six exhibitors from Palm Beach, three from Miami, one from Houston, and none from Atlanta, Seattle, Austin, Philadelphia, or Denver.

And while people may not physically travel to Chicago to collect, these galleries get creative as they expand their reach. Ibrahim just opened a new outpost in Paris; and selling online has been key for Hoffman, who said “we wouldn’t survive” without it. She suggested that most of her non-local collectors now buy online.

Besides the galleries, Chicago has a lot to offer. Institutionally, the Art Institute of Chicago remains a world-class museum. Local gallerists cited others, such as MCA Chicago and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, as an integral part of the cityscape. There is also a range of prestigious schools – both arts-oriented and more traditional – in the area. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago has been a major influence on the city’s artistic history, and has featured pioneering chroniclers of black life such as Charles White and Archibald J. Motley Jr. spawned; encouraging the exploration of new technologies in the creative practices of Trevor Paglen and Katherine Behar; and offering a testing site for Dread Scott’s social practice and John Chamberlain’s car accident sculptures.

Sierzputowski, of EXPO Chicago, was especially effusive about the “unique and weird art experiences you have and might even come across” in the city — from an evolving art installation tucked into a grocery store to a historic bank bought by Theaster Gates that’s now partly used to keep an archive of house music.

And while every gallery owner would like to have more eyes on their projects, no one in Chicago plans to change their view for the sake of attention. “I’m not interested in following a trend,” Ibrahim said. “What’s happening in Chicago and the surrounding area is satisfying enough.”

Brian P. Kelly

Brian P. Kelly is Artsy’s Art Market Editor.

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