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Confessions of a renegade gallerist

TOC's Madeline Nusser recalls the sacrifices of running an unlicensed art space.


A friend recently told me one of her indelible college memories was watching me, sloppy drunk, get carried out of the 1R Gallery in the arms of one of the directors.

What makes it even worse: I codirected 1R Gallery and was in the middle of an opening attended by every art-world VIP I admired from afar, including a bigwig Chicago curator—who allegedly uttered to my codirector, “Who’s your drunk assistant?”

But let’s back up a bit. In 2002, as a sophomore at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I directed the school’s Student Union Galleries, two rooms that hosted mediocre student work. A senior, Van Harrison, told me he started a gallery in his Pilsen apartment—cleverly named Apt 1R Gallery—with fellow student Marc LeBlanc. They wanted to know if I could help run the space. It’s what’s called an apartment gallery—and although it lacked a few proper licenses, the city was, at the time, more lenient on artist-run spaces. Like most artistic undertakings, it was a true labor of love. Sales, which occurred rarely, paid for necessities like wall paint and rent.

In no time, we received attention. A small rag called Chicago Journal splashed one of our first exhibition announcements—which featured our little empty gallery space and the title “Variations: a minimalist show”—across a page. Below it, rightful criticism: “The gallery shot appears to be an exhibition space in perfectly uncluttered repose. What could be less than nothing? Ha! Good question.” The show featured a handful of artworks, including Heather Mekkelson’s eloquent compressed soil and beeswax squares and conceptual artist Pedro Velez’s hilarious “curated” refrigerator door covered with exhibit postcards.

Announcement image aside, it was probably our best exhibit. It pinpointed a pervasive trend—a clean, sculptural aesthetic heavy on concept. And although apartment galleries are a dime a dozen these days, ours was somewhat of a rarity in the early aughties. Along with a few others—including David Roman’s Standard Gallery, Scott Speh’s roaming Western Exhibitions—it was well run. We didn’t exclusively show our friends’ work (although some people disputed that, mercilessly criticizing us for running a clique instead of a gallery). Plus, Harrison kept the space sparkling; the only lived-in hint was the faint smell of kitty litter.

Later, former SAIC student Silas Dilworth—a font producer by day—joined the crew to design our promo materials. We divvied up the work per our skills—for the most part, Harrison dealt with sales, LeBlanc handled installation, Dilworth designed advertisements, and I drew up contracts and press releases. We cleaned, built walls, contacted artists, called collectors, kept the books and dealt with winos swiping free beer—we made it up as we went along, and it ran us ragged.

But we grew immensely popular. In winter 2002, we moved on up to a chic West Loop gallery district space zoned for live-work. During the Stray Show—an Art Chicago–like fair for emerging galleries—we sold thousands of dollars of glossy, groundbreaking digital artwork, and I fielded calls from W magazine and rebuffed professors looking to show at my gallery.

My schoolwork started suffering. I survived on peanuts from an internship at the Renaissance Society, a contemporary art nonprofit in Hyde Park. Every time I downed a Pabst at an opening, the small amount of canned food in my stomach told me it was a bad idea. A really bad idea. One cannot live on good press and Dinty Moore alone, and I discovered I could make decent money at a work-study job supplemented by writing art reviews. So, I quit.

Now, a few times a year someone still asks me, “Whatever happened to the great 1R?” I want to say how the West Loop space lacked spirit. How Dilworth and I fought mercilessly. How Harrison started keeping an iron grip on curation, which turned into a humdrum stream of one-person shows hung on white walls. I want to explain how, meanwhile, other alternative spaces wowed: In a museum-worthy installation, an alternative gallery called Suitable showed off the growing trend in psychedelic art with Sterling Ruby’s huge, fake hydroponic garden lodged in a dank garage.

But instead, I tell people this: Harrison molded 1R into New York City’s successful Van Harrison Gallery in Chelsea, which shuttered due to reported landlord issues before, rumor has it, he moved to Texas. The talented Dilworth relocated to L.A. and runs his own font company, TheTypeTrust. LeBlanc roams the world working on various art-related projects. As for a few others in the cast of characters: I recently celebrated the birth of Mekkelson and Roman’s firstborn; Speh’s Western Exhibitions, which shows Velez’s work, thrives as one of the big galleries; and the delightful Ruby—whom the New York Times called “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century,” sells his drug-inspired work for six figures.

As for me, I finished school in 2005 and dabbled in independent curating projects before turning my full attention to writing about art and culture. But I will always throw my support—moral and financial—to youngsters, especially women in the sea of men. And the aforementioned bigwig curator who mistook me for an assistant—and surely has no memory of her words—had a point: These days, you’ll never find me tipsy in public.

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