Though Medicine Cabinet, a project space housed in a Bridgeport bathroom, is on hiatus, “alternative” galleries—many only slightly less bizarre—thrive in Chicago, and have for several years. Often run by artists, these galleries range from extra bedrooms one noise complaint away from a police shutdown to legitimate live/work spaces. While their missions differ, these venues tend to support avant-garde art that’s harder to sell than conventional gallery fare—and several were founded by students.
“There’d be no way I could do this in New York,” SAIC student Vincent Uribe told me earlier this year, when I visited him at LVL3 (1542 N Milwaukee Ave, third floor; 312-469-0333). The Los Angeles native opened the Wicker Park gallery in 2009, just after he finished his freshman year. A roommate had been hosting exhibitions in the live/work space; when he moved out, Uribe took over, spending two months installing adequate lighting and painting it a standard white. Now aided by associate director Allison Kilberg, a classmate, Uribe has maintained a regular schedule of group shows ever since, and exhibited at Chicago’s NEXT and MDW art fairs.
Uribe and Kilberg want LVL3 to maintain professional standards. Rather than showing work by their friends—a common pitfall—they make sure to highlight artists from outside Chicago, some of whom they find online. “I take a lot of arts administration classes,” Uribe tells me. “We do proper agreement forms. I do [publicity] postcards.” Because he funded the gallery alone for a long time, budgeting was his biggest headache. Sometimes he had to decide whether to advertise shows or buy groceries.
SAIC alum Robin Juan, who cofounded Logan Square’s HungryMan Gallery (2135 N Rockwell St) when she was a student in 2008, experienced similar conundrums. “I’d buy snacks for the gallery on my food stamps,” she admits, “but it’s not like that any more.”
HungryMan has done well enough to allow Juan to open a sister gallery in her hometown, San Francisco. But “when we first started, it was really an experiment,” she recalls. At first, Juan says, HungryMan’s staff would simply tell artists, “Oh, you want to have a show? Cool.” Now, the gallery’s management does extensive research and preparation before every exhibition, conducting two studio visits. It always had a clear mission, however: “We wanted to create a space that…gave artists a lot of freedom. We also thought this would be a great way to create community.”
A desire for community also inspires Robin Kang, who opened Carousel Space Project (1310 N Hoyne Ave) in Wicker Park when she moved to Chicago from Brooklyn earlier this year to pursue an M.F.A. at SAIC. “I thought it would be a great way to meet other students, and begin a dialogue across different media and departments at my school,” says Kang, who encourages her classmates to propose exhibitions. “The first opening had some performance art, and there was a sound installation in the shower.”
Alternative galleries don’t have to last forever. Kang, who wants to focus on her own artistic practice, isn’t sure running Carousel will ever be her primary job. But Juan’s and Uribe’s ventures are shaping their careers. Uribe recommends Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber’s book ART/WORK: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) As You Pursue Your Art Career (Free Press, $16.95) to would-be gallerists. “It goes through really basic things from consigning works to pricing to studio visits,” he says. Still, “There’s a lot of things you have to learn by doing: paperwork, getting artists to ship you things, and dealing with customs.… Having to get something shipped from Canada without being stopped by the border patrol. That was a weird challenge.”