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Catherine Edelman Gallery turns 25

Nan Goldin and Kelli Connell are among the photographers in the anniversary show “What I Was Thinking.”

Photograph: Courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery
Nan Goldin; J. and C.Z. in the Car, New York City; 1984.

“I don’t really live with regrets,” Catherine Edelman tells me by phone from Houston, where she was attending the Texas Contemporary art fair last month.

Edelman, 50, could have been talking about the way she founded her River North gallery in 1987. During her last semester studying photography in SAIC’s M.F.A. program, she had to undergo surgery for a disease that would eventually leave her blind in one eye. As she lay in bed recuperating, Edelman recalls, she decided she could no longer pursue a career as an artist. To the New York native, who had grown up gallery hopping, starting a gallery seemed like the next best alternative.

“My plan was to open up a contemporary photography gallery and then, in five years, shut it and go into museum work,” Edelman says.

On Friday 2, Catherine Edelman Gallery celebrates its 25th anniversary with the exhibition “What I Was Thinking.” The salon-style show crams more than 100 photographs by 75 artists from the gallery’s history into the same space at 300 West Superior Street that Edelman has occupied for 18 years, following a move from a smaller suite upstairs.

Edelman’s late mentor Robert Sobieszek, a photography curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, persuaded her not to give up her business at the end of five years. “I remember him saying that I had more autonomy doing what I was doing,” the gallerist explains. “In the museum world, they have an idea and two years later it might materialize. In a gallery, if you have an idea, you can just do it.”

At first, Edelman didn’t know how to pack and ship a photograph, much less which artists she wanted to exhibit; she only knew that she wanted to “shake up Chicago.” The gallery debuted with Nan Goldin’s provocative project The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which captures the romantic relationships of the artist’s friends in New York. “The first year, everything was about sex or politics,” Edelman says. “I was young, and I was angry and political.”

While the dealer describes herself as “older and quieter now,” she still tackles hot-button topics. She curated the 2003 exhibition “Killer Shots” in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In fall 2011, the gallery presented Kelli Connell’s series “Double Life,” the Chicago artist’s digitally altered portraits of what appears to be a lesbian relationship between identical women.

Connell credits Edelman with finding a publisher for her monograph and selling two photographs from “Double Life” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She says she admires the dealer’s “community outreach,” reflected in Edelman’s online-only gallery, the Chicago Project. (Its artists include “Shifting Domain” photographer Nate Mathews, see Review.) This initiative exposes local artists to a wider audience without requiring the gallery to cover insurance and other costs of conventional shows.

According to Edelman, “drastic” fluctuations in sales from year to year represent her biggest challenge; finding collectors, the second biggest. Art fairs “are the nature of the business now,” she says, noting that 95 percent of her sales are out of state. Meanwhile, issue-driven group shows like “Killer Shots” let her get her curatorial “ya-yas out.” “We have lost a client or two along the way,” Edelman says, “but my name’s on the door, so it allows me to take a stance.”

“What I Was Thinking” opens Friday 2.

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