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An Interview with a Dealer: Scott Speh

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Each week, CGN interviews a local art dealer to discuss the ins and outs of running a gallery in the city of Chicago. This week we caught up with Scott Speh of Western Exhibitions.

Gallery: Western Exhibitions
Name: Scott Speh
Age: 46
Previous occupations: Artist, various day-jobs
Hometown: Oxford, Ohio

Chicago Gallery News: Please describe your gallery’s program in one sentence.

Scott Speh: Western Exhibitions shows thought-provoking, visually innovative artists who work across most media, with an emphasis on LGBTQ artists, personal narrative, works on paper and artist books.

CGN: How did you become an art dealer? 

SS: I moved to Chicago 15 years ago after two years in Brooklyn and became frustrated that friends of mine who I thought were great artists weren’t getting the recognition they deserved, so I decided to open a gallery. I was still an artist then and had no experience with such a thing. I did co-run the exhibition program at a small non-profit in lower Manhattan in the early aughts but it was decidedly non-commercial. I learn something new every day on the job, and I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years.

CGN: What's the first thing you do each morning when you get to the gallery? 

SS: Make a pot of green or chamomile tea.

CGN: Thumbs up or down on art fairs?

SS: In the middle!

CGN: Artists you admire but don't represent?

SS: Kerry James Marshall, Nick Cave, Jessica Campbell, Daniel Rios Rodriguez, Erin Washington, Cary Leibowitz, Elizabeth Atterbury, Barbara Rossi, Faith Wilding, Judy Ledgerwood, Suzanne Treister, Hermonie Only, Ebecho Muslimova, Tyson Reeder, Katie Halton, Steve Reinke, Leah Mackin, Tony Tasset, Julia Fish, Tony Lewis, Gladys Nilsson and about a thousand more.

CGN: Best sale you ever had?

SS: Placing a beautiful but elaborate and logistically challenging Stan Shellabarger print (really an installation) into both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Baltimore Museum of Art collections was pretty cool.

CGN: What advice would you share with new or young collectors?

SS: Spend. Spend. Spend! Just kidding (sort of). But seriously, go the distance with artists you love and admire. Support their mercurial shifts in tone/materials/subject matter/aesthetics; artists don’t want to make the same thing all the time. Basically, trust artists! Follow their instincts wherever it might lead.

CGN: What’s coming up next at your gallery?

SS: A group show opening in July with a ridiculously specific conceit: the image of a fabric/textile sagging between two upraised points, titled A Sag, Harbored. Artists include Michelle Grabner, Tanya Aguiñiga, Nicholas Frank, Rachel Niffenegger, Holt Quentel, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya. In the fall we’ll show animations, drawings and ceramic sculptures by Lilli Carré (opening in September) and two bodies of work by pioneering feminist artist Faith Wilding: a seminal series from the early 1980s in Gallery 1 and work fresh out of the studio in Gallery 2 (opening in November).

CGN: What major successes have you had this year? What about challenges?

SS: Opening in our new location on Chicago Avenue counts a major success, I think. It’s our fifth space in Chicago and the first one we were able to design from scratch. Every day running a small business is a challenge.

CGN: How do you view working as an art dealer in Chicago?

SS: I love living in Chicago. I’m incredibly grateful that I live and work here. No lie though, it is challenging in that we don’t have the density of art enthusiasts that, say, NYC does, but, and this is a big but, we do not have to suffer the overhead that NYC galleries do. I also love the camaraderie amongst dealers in this town. I share a building with three other galleries, and we all get along famously, sharing resources and working together for the greater good. And with the great art programs in Chicagoland, there are always interesting artists in this city.

CGN: What is your favorite interest outside of the art world?

SS: I know that I’m getting older, as I seem to care a lot more about baseball than I used to.

CGN: What is your favorite work of public art in Chicago?           

SS: Batcolumn by Claes Oldenburg.

CGN: What are the top five exhibitions you’ve seen in the past year?

SS:

  1. Jessica Campbell (Bria) at THE SUB-MISSION, Chicago, IL
  2. Rei Kawakubo (Art of the In-Between) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
  3. Raymond Thunder-Sky (Demolition Man: Selected Works from the Raymond Thunder-Sky Archives) at The Carnegie, Covington, KY
  4. William Weege (Peace is Patriotic) at Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, IL
  5. Sylvia Fragoso at The Good Luck Gallery, Los Angeles, CA

Scott Speh is the owner of Western Exhibitions located in the Ukrainian Village. For more information about his gallery visit: Western Exhibitions.