July 15, 2013  |  Intern Chronicles
A Community Affair: Exploring Contemporary Art in Chicago

When I set out for a week in Chicago I thought I would be able to leave with a comprehensive, fully formed picture of the city’s contemporary art scene. Instead, I found myself exploring only the tip of a very large iceberg. From a handful of boisterous alternative art spaces to the Brave New Art World gallery crawl to the venerable Museum of Contemporary Art and beyond, I saw a huge range of non-traditional models for producing, exhibiting, and funding contemporary art. I also met with a number of the people whose commitment, enthusiasm, and innovative ideas have helped to make the art scene in Chicago the vibrant network that it is.

A beautiful old Vandercook letterpress at Spudnik Press Cooperative.

A beautiful old Vandercook letterpress at Spudnik Press Cooperative

My first visit was to Spudnik Press Cooperative on Chicago’s West Side. Angee Lennard launched Spudnik several years ago with weekly studio sessions in her one-bedroom apartment. Now, the co-op inhabits an expansive loft space with a classroom, a gallery, and facilities for screenprinting, intaglio, lithography, and letterpress printmaking. Angee showed me around the space and talked about how and why the cooperative model works at Spudnik. The Press offers a wide range of services to members and non-members alike; they rent studio space, host classes, administer a residency and, of course, offer the use of their printmaking equipment at an affordable rate. Equally important, though, is Spudnik’s function as a hub for members of Chicago’s printmaking community to come together and share skills and knowledge. As any printmaker knows, printmaking works best as a collaborative process; even the most seasoned practitioner can learn new techniques from other printers, or at least benefit from having a pair of clean hands around to pull pristine sheets of paper from the press bed. The importance of a local community coming together to produce and support art would prove to be a recurring theme throughout my time in Chicago.

My next visit was with Bryce Dwyer, Managing Editor of the Chicago-based Contemporary Art Daily and a co-founder of InCUBATE (Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and the Everyday). InCUBATE was born in 2007 out of conversations between a group of students in the Arts Administration program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who were itching to put what they were learning in the classrooms into practice. “Our core organizational principle,” reads their website, “is to treat art administration as a creative practice.” Their projects have included organizing traveling exhibitions, administering an artist residency, and developing a grassroots funding model called Sunday Soup. The “basic formula” of Sunday Soup “is that a group of people come together to share a meal and that meal is sold for an affordable price [usually between $5 and $15].” Organizations or individuals are invited to submit a grant application before the meal, and then everyone in attendance votes on which project should be funded; all of the income from the meal, then, goes directly to the local creative project chosen by the guests. InCUBATE has made a point of making the Sunday Soup concept “open source”—anyone interested in the model is encouraged to adapt it to fit their own unique context or needs. The Sunday Soup website even includes a guide to starting your own event and provides space for organizers and participants to keep in touch; the concept has spread to dozens of towns and cities across the world.

Next, I visited the nonprofit gallery threewalls. It was a busy day in the sprawling West Loop loft; the staff was preparing for a gala celebrating the gallery’s 10-year anniversary, Marissa Lee Benedict was installing her solo exhibition Multiplices, and Marc Couroux and Juliana Pivato were arriving to begin an eight-week residency. I spoke with Program Director Abigail Satinsky (along with Bryce, one of InCUBATE’s co-founders) about how threewalls operates as an exhibition space for emerging and established artists and as a hub of local arts activity. One of the most intriguing programs implemented by threewalls is known as Community Supported Art (CSA). The idea comes from the CSA program developed by St. Paul’s Springboard for the Arts which, in turn, was adapted from the “farm share” model (aka Community Supported Agriculture). In the words of threewalls, CSA is “a yearly art subscription service of locally produced art. Much like Community Supported Agriculture, in which shareholders invest in a local farm and receive a monthly payout of fruits and vegetables, CSA Chicago asks shareholders to invest directly in the arts community with a ‘buy local’ mentality. The program offers a reasonably priced way to support Chicago and regional artists and receive limited edition contemporary artist projects in return.” With the CSA model, threewalls is able to accomplish three important things: commissioning new work from local artists, raising funds to support the gallery’s programming, and allowing art lovers to build collections for a modest price.

At the Read/Write Library, stacks and a vitrine featuring a volunteer-curated selection of materials from the collection.

At the Read/Write Library, stacks and a vitrine featuring a volunteer-curated selection of materials from the collection

One of my favorite finds at the Read/Write LIbrary: a stack of zines testifying to art’s ability to change the world, the result of a school project by local eighth graders.

One of my favorite finds at the Read/Write Library was a stack of zines testifying to art’s ability to change the world, the result of a school project by local eighth graders.

My final visit was to the volunteer-run Read/Write Library, where I met with founder and Executive Director Nell Taylor. In an earlier incarnation, the Library shared a storefront space with InCUBATE—a telling indicator of how tightly knit the Chicago arts scene is. Now, the Library has its own inviting space in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, with bright turquoise walls and tightly packed bookshelves. The Read/Write Library is a “new model for open, location-specific archiving of independent and small press media.” From artists’ books and self-published zines to books of poetry and alternative weekly newspapers, they accept donations of any print media from or related to Chicago. The Library’s collection paints a nuanced portrait of the city’s history, as told by the people who lived and shaped it. If you’re not a native Chicagoan and you wish your hometown had a similar archive, don’t despair—the Read/Write Library’s website includes a warm invitation for visitors to “ask us how to start your own”!

I was struck by how often I heard variations on this theme during my trip. It seems that contemporary art in Chicago thrives because of a willingness to take risks and think far outside of the box in search of new templates for arts organizations, and also in part because of an eagerness to exchange ideas, knowledge, and resources. Despite its formidable size, the contemporary arts community in Chicago feels small—in all the best ways.