THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Bruce Thorn
The two most prominent art districts of the last three decades, River North and the West Loop, have witnessed a substantial decline in galleries over the last five years. The plunge in both neighborhoods was widely acknowledged to be due to skyrocketing rents and real estate prices.
River North still boasts the presence of longtime stalwarts including Carl Hammer, Zolla/Lieberman, Jean Albano and ZG galleries. The West Loop has also kept some longtime favorites like Thomas McCormick, Kavi Gupta, Carrie Secrist and Andrew Rafacz.
The River North and West Loop scenes had a long run. In the beginning, rents were affordable, and one could even find street parking. Unfortunately, art districts become victims of their own success every time.
Galleries traditionally clustered together in specific areas. This has not been the case in recent years, as some chose stand-alone locations. What’s been fueling this dynamic? Is a gallery district still important?
While rents were squeezing art businesses out of River North and West Loop, in the last few years, and particularly since 2017, a gradual but growing concentration of galleries has migrated to West Town on West Chicago Avenue and pushing into Ukrainian Village toward Western Avenue.
First, Richard Gray Gallery opened Gray Warehouse on West Carroll Street. Then, Western Exhibitions decamped for a Chicago Avenue location. DOCUMENT, Volume and Paris London Hong Kong followed. Chicago Artists Coalition found a new home on West Fulton Street and Monique Meloche relocated from Division Street to a stand-alone on North Paulina Street.
The exodus gained added momentum this year with major openings by Corbett vs Dempsey (near CAC on Fulton) in January, Rhona Hoffman Gallery in April and Catherine Edelman in May.
At the moment, Chicago looks to be abandoning the art district model for a destination identity.
I visited four galleries located in newer territories—Shane Campbell, Monique Meloche, Catherine Edelman, and Matthew Rachman—to find out what's going on
I started at Matthew Rachman Gallery and asked Matthew about his experience as owner of the longest- running gallery in the West Town neighborhood.
In 2014, when he opened a gallery at 1659 W. Chicago Ave., there wasn’t much of an art presence in West Town. Maxwell Colette Gallery was on Ashland Avenue, and The Mission was a little further east. The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art was west on Chicago Avenue, and Corbett vs. Dempsey was a half-mile north on Ashland.
Matthew landed the location by chance, helping friends move items into a pop-up space that he subsequently helped run. When the pop-up ended six months later, he kept the corner storefront and opened a gallery. “Then, the first coffee shop in the neighborhood opened next door.”
“We have people come in from all over. The location is not too congested and offers relatively easy parking. It’s close to public transportation, even though most people drive. The majority of our clients are not in Chicago, but we’re getting Chicago clients now that we didn’t expect before this growth. Each gallery has a unique personality, methods and focus. We’re all different, so we’re not really in direct competition. Most of our business is over the internet. We don’t do art fairs yet.”
Rachman thinks that the West Town art district will continue to expand. He also expects growth in other areas on the north and south sides of the city. “Chicago is pretty big and has room for several arts districts.”
Will galleries be priced out of West Town? “Ukrainian Village is one of the hottest urban real estate markets in the country right now,” says Rachman. “I now have a long term lease.”
By December of 2018, the Catherine Edelman Gallery had reopened just a few steps from Matthew Rachman, settling into a bi-level, 4,200 square foot space at 1637 W. Chicago Ave.
The gallery had originally opened in River North in 1987, Edelman recalls. “The 1989 River North fire completely changed the energy of the gallery market in Chicago. River North is no longer a vibrant gallery destination. The building I was in for 31 years was sold to a group from New York who did not care about the tenants.”
Edelman chose West Town because she wanted “to be among established and new galleries, in the hopes of creating a destination neighborhood, similar to what River North was in the late 1980s before the fire. I definitely wanted to be among other galleries.”
She wanted “an open floor plan to host dinners, lectures and workshops. I also wanted a dedicated video room, and offices for the director, the gallery manager and myself.”
Edelman estimates that 90% of her business is off location, via the internet or at art fairs, and only 10% of her business involves local clients. “The economy has also been quite difficult for many galleries. It is my hope that a more focused area, like West Town, will revitalize the gallery scene, and more Chicagoans will visit.“
For Edelman, necessity demands a brick and mortar location: “With the internet taking over a great deal of the art business, people ask why is it important to have a physical gallery space?
“First, it gives the artist a space to see their work presented, outside the confines of their studio. Our new space also allows artists to experiment with presentation, utilizing numerous exhibition spaces within the bi-level gallery. Secondly, I need a physical space in order to attract the artists I want to work with. All artists want to see their work on a wall. It also gives local folks the opportunity to see how an artist's vision is realized.”
Half a mile south of Matthew Rachman and Catherine Edelman, Monique Meloche Gallery reopened at 451 N. Paulina St. in June 2018.
Meloche recounts her thinking behind the move. “We moved from the West Loop to Division Street in 2009, due to the economic downturn and a need to streamline our expenses. By 2015, we started talking about moving to a larger space, possibly buying a building.”
“We wanted to increase our square footage to accommodate our artist’s ambitious practices and to consolidate our gallery infrastructure under one roof. We doubled in size and Dirk Denison Architects helped us maximize our unique L-shaped space. We opened in June 2018. There was still construction being done between exhibitions through early 2019!”
“It was great that Rhona Hofmann and other galleries in the 1709 building on Chicago Ave., and Gray Warehouse, all opened up during the time we were looking for space. We signed a long-term lease at our new Paulina location in late fall of 2017. My husband and gallery partner, Evan Boris, is in commercial real estate so he put the landlords to task (in all my locations and this is my fourth) to include an allowance for building-out the space along with other concessions.”
“When I was on Peoria St., next door to Rhona for five years, it was good to be near other galleries but I often felt that folks would pop in to say hello and not spend as much time with the art, since they had a handful of other galleries in close proximity that they needed to visit.”
“It is great that Rhona et.al. are a five-minute walk; Corbett vs. Dempsey and Gray Warehouse are nearby too, though we are not next door to one another like we were in the West Loop.”
My colleague, Marianne Ibrahim, is moving her eponymous gallery from Seattle to Chicago and has been exclusively looking in our neighborhood.”
“We do most of our business in person at the gallery, at fairs, and during a lot of one-on-one visits with collectors and institutions. We have a lot of terrific local supporters and I think they make up around 25% of our sales. We have a very global client list.”
Shane Campbell Gallery left West Town for Motor Row in 2015. Campbell “needed more exhibition, storage, and office space, as well as natural light, and we wanted to own the building.” He’s been in the art business long enough to know what kind of building features facilitate the day-to-day work of running a successful gallery.
“Our goal was to show work in a clear-span space, flooded with natural light. We looked for a few years, primarily on the West Side of Chicago and found our current location at 2021 S. Wabash Ave. for sale on [Craigslist] in 2014. Initially, the South Loop was not on our radar but the space met everything we were looking for.”
“We were primarily looking for close proximity to public transit and availability of street parking. The South Loop reminds me of what the West Loop was like in the mid-'90s; lots of new housing stock but scarce on interesting retail, restaurants, or services.”
The neighborhood is mostly condos now and only a half-mile from Chinatown. The National Veterans Art Museum left Motor Row for Portage Park in 2012. Shane Campbell Gallery is definitely a destination location. The exhibition space is spectacular, among the best in town and well worth the visit.
“I’ve always preferred galleries that are destination spaces. I’d much rather someone make an effort to come to the gallery to specifically see the work that we show rather than just coming in to look at art in general. There really aren’t enough galleries in Chicago to create any substantive density.”
Campbell shared the nitty-gritty: “Approximately one-third of our business happens at art fairs and twenty percent of our business is with local collectors. Without a physical space, you would be hard pressed to call it a gallery. Clearly, the space serves as a platform for gallery and visiting artists to exhibit work and most of these practices are predicated on exhibiting in physical spaces where the work may or may not respond to the space.”
My conclusion from my visits is that affordable rent is not the only criterion for nurturing an art district, though it is near the top along with increased space.
Each urban neighborhood has its own evolving character that will suit different businesses and clientele and one size never fits all. A gallery that features large-scale works will have different needs from those of a photo gallery. Each gallery owner has to find what works best for them.
Some will benefit from the synergy of new clients spilling over from nearby galleries, while more established dealers like Gray, Gupta and Campbell might find those walk-ins to be an expensive distraction.
The art world is elitist and turned off by excessive commercialization, whether it’s in Soho or River North. The historic charm and pedestrian-friendly character of neighborhoods like West Town provide just the kind of vibe that suits the leisure time comfort zone of art denizens, who like to walk about between small talk and drinks. It’s still impossible to get around to all the art events going on throughout Chicago.
Galleries report that local clients account for less than 25% of business. How much of the budget should be allocated for an impressive showroom, when an affordable and functional warehouse space would do?
The major, underlying concerns are cultural: society values consumerism and shuns intellectualism. Accordingly, financial and political models feed on volatility. Galleries and artists get used like tools that spawn investment and force their own displacement.
Buy your real estate if you can and hold on for the ride.
Bruce Thorn is a Chicago-based painter and musician. He has degrees in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is a Contributing Editor with the New Art Examiner.
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