Chicago’s 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 West Coast outposts. Palm Beach, as the growing population and scene support have turned seasonal spots into year-round ventures. New York, always omnipresent. But Chicago seems to be constantly overlooked.

Still, galleries in the Second City are thriving and setting themselves apart from their coastal counterparts. Chicago gallery owners are uniquely aware of the city’s ongoing commitment to the arts, most notably 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 was a gift from Chicago collectors who came back from Europe and brought the Impressionist paintings with them.”

A figurehead on the city’s scene — one 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 gallerists to exhibit leading artists, including Jenny Holzer, Barbara Krüger, Sylvia Plimack Mangold and Cindy Sherman. Today, she features work by the likes of Derrick Adams, Sol LeWitt, and Gordon Parks, and has strong ties to the local scene, representing Chicago-based artists Julia Fish, Judy Ledgerwood, and Michael Rakowitz, among others.

That local focus—a sense of community that every gallery owner I spoke to for this piece consistently emphasized—is key to the Chicago scene. “In New York, the population and the place is much bigger… and everyone mostly stays in their corner,” Hoffman said. “But Chicago is more collegial. We eat dinner together.”

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

Emanuel Aguilar, founder and director of PATRON, can only agree. “A lot of gallery owners who aren’t in Chicago are surprised to hear that everyone in Chicago is pretty cooperative and friendly with one another,” he said. “Even though we don’t agree on many things, we find ways to work together and coordinate and benefit the community as a whole rather than just for ourselves.” This includes attending each other’s openings, introducing collectors to each other and the To celebrate wins 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 all.”

This support network is particularly strong among the city’s West Side galleries, located in neighborhoods like the heavily gentrified West Loop and hipster location Wicker Park. A stretch of Chicago Avenue where both Hoffman and Aguilar are based has morphed into a gallery of sorts as Volume, Catherine Edelman, Andrew Rafacz and others have filled the floors of the increasingly trendy neighborhood’s handsome brick buildings. Rental prices are cheap here and the town is easily accessible by car. “We have all the necessary ecosystem components to thrive here,” Rafacz said, “but the participants are generous.”

This recent westward foray has included both established and up-and-coming galleries. The upscale Richard Gray Gallery — which was founded in 1963, has an outpost in New York, and represents artists like David Hockney, Alex Katz, and McArthur Binion — opened a 5,000-square-foot location in a warehouse there in 2017. Mariane Ibrahim relocated her gallery from Seattle to a location in West Town in 2019.

When thinking about this move, Ibrahim also thought about other cities. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should go to New York,'” she said. She eventually chose Chicago because she was amazed by the camaraderie. “I wasn’t used to it. You get kind of aggressive and competitive and it’s, OK, let it go [here]’ said Ibrahim. “We’re not New York, we’re not LA. That’s us and we work together in that system.” She has helped organize shows for artists she does not represent and has hosted parties and events for other galleries.

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

But just because the Chicago scene is less aggressive than that on the coast, it doesn’t make it any less ambitious. Chicago “offers a certain kind of ease of showing a kind of art, of bringing new narratives,” Ibrahim said, meaning “that we [are] able to be challenging and deliver really high quality work.” Ibrahim’s program focuses on emerging international and Afro-born artists. She has exhibited among others Amoako Boafo, Ayana V. Jackson and Ian Mwesiga. Some of their artists, like Sergio Lucena, have their only US gallery representation in Chicago. The city embraced her program, she said, thanks to a “sophistication in the [city’s] art scene”.

This sophistication is driven by Chicago’s collector base, which is primarily drawn from the city or the surrounding Midwest region (including cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and especially Kansas City). There are fewer big local collectors than in the past — “in the ’80s we had the Manilows, we had the Dittmars, we had the Bergmans,” Hoffman recalled — but the typical buyers are different from those on the coasts. “You’re not afraid to take a risk,” Ibrahim said. She also emphasized that the collectors are just as strongly connected to their city as the galleries. “They supported local artists before they came onto the global stage. They collected Rashid Johnson early, 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, art-savvy, and uninterested in chasing fads. “Chicago energy isn’t ‘hurry up 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 are often “not seduced by the buzz of trends and speculation as often as one would experience elsewhere.” Ibrahim echoed the sentiment: “They are not impulsive, compulsive buyers; They’re very methodical,” she said. That sometimes means forgoing works to observe an artist’s career, even if collecting will be more expensive in the future.

At the same time, the openness of the city’s galleries makes collecting more accessible. “Collecting, for younger collectors or newer collectors or beginning collectors, can be intimidating and an anxious process,” said PATRON Director Briana Pickens. “I think the atmosphere in Chicago makes people more comfortable because of the pace and also because of the warmth.” Unsurprisingly, unlike some of the more flashy art cities, many of the contemporary collectors here prefer to fly under the radar and keep a fairly low profile to keep.

While the core collectors for many Chicago galleries are regional, fairs remain important in gaining access to widely dispersed collectors. The most important of these is EXPO, the annual trade show held on the shores of Lake Michigan, which returned this year after a hiatus caused by COVID-19. “EXPO serves as a gathering place to bring the art world to Chicago to see what we have here,” said Kate Sierzputowski, the show’s program director. That visibility, Ibrahim said, is “vital to connect the collectors and the institutions and the galleries.”

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

For example, last year there were seven Chicago-based exhibitors at Art Basel in Miami Beach, a fair that Hoffman says is particularly important to her gallery’s financial viability. While that number may seem small, it’s quite an impressive showing considering 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 are getting creative as they expand their reach. Ibrahim has just opened a new outpost in Paris; and selling online was key for Hoffman, who said that “without it we wouldn’t survive”. She suggested that most of her non-local collectors now buy online.

Aside from the galleries, Chicago has a lot to offer. Institutionally, the Art Institute of Chicago remains a world-class museum. Local gallery owners cited others, such as MCA Chicago and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, as an integral part of the city’s landscape. There are also a number 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 art history, nurturing pioneering chroniclers of black life such as Charles White and Archibald J. Motley Jr.; Fostering exploration of new technologies in the creative practices of Trevor Paglen and Katherine Behar; and to offer a proving ground for the social practice of Dread Scott and the car crash sculptures of John Chamberlain.

EXPO Chicago’s Sierzputowski was particularly gushing about the “unique and strange art experiences you can have and maybe even encounter” across the city – from an evolving art installation hidden in a supermarket to a historic one Bank bought by Theaster Gates was now partly used to hold an archive of house music.

And while every gallerist would like more eyes on their projects, none in Chicago plan to change their vision for the sake of attention. “I’m not interested in following any trends,” Ibrahim said. “What’s happening in and around Chicago is fulfilling enough.”

Brian P. Kelly

Brian P. Kelly is the Art Market Editor at Artsy.

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