2012 Gallery Milestones: Decades in the Art Business

What were you doing 40 years ago this fall? How about 30, or even 10? Were you even born? A sizeable number of our city's galleries are marking major milestones this fall, so we took some time to ask them about the kind of impact that longetivity and leadership have had in our neighborhoods and in our arts community. A multitude of developments have affected art businesses here and around the world, but when considering the many industry shifts, Chicago dealers have similar reponses: the internet and art fairs have turned things on their head when it comes to selling art, promoting artists and reaching collectors. With the benefit of hindsight, several dealers celebrating significant anniversaries this year offered reflections on all that has changed over the decades, as well as what thankfully remains the same. -GV

Artists and art dealers are often pioneers when it comes to seeking out new neighborhoods in which to live as well as run a business. The vitality and popularity of Chicago neighborhoods today, such as River North and the West Loop, versus 10 or 20 years ago is in part thaks to dealers and artists who blazed early trails. Such geographic changes have had long-rage effects on the gallery scene that are still evident. 

Prior to the 1980s the city's established galleries were centered around Michigan Avenue. A few stalwarts are still located there today, including Richard Gray Gallery, approaching its 50th anniversary in 2013, and R.S. Johnson Fine Art, in business for over 56 years. By the late '70s a few dealers addressed a need for space that was not available along the city's main retail corridor. Zolla/Lieberman Gallery moved to 368 West Huron in 1976. In 1979 Ann and Roy Boyd moved their gallery to West Superior to the second floor above Young Hoffman Gallery, with Jack Lemmon and Landfall Press. Ann Boyd remembers, "It was a ronderful time. There was hardly any activity during the day, but people who came to see us came for a purpose. We were all feeling pressure to have higher ceilings, more space for art, more elbowroom during openings. Some artists thouht we were crazy until their say the big spaces and recognized the sense of camraderie. Ou rinsurance when we started wa $1,500 a month because our agent though all of our windows would be smashed." By 1983 16 galleries had opened in what would soon be known as River North. 

Around the same time that galleries were begining to establish Chicago's first gallery district, in 1981 a new event on the city's art calendar would forever change the art business. Art Exposition launched on Navy Pier that year, and the resulting enegery and attention bouyed Chicago's reputation as an international art center; it also added fuel to the rapid local gallery growth. By the end of '80s, over 65 galleries filled River North, while more openered around the city, including in Wicker Park/Bucktown and beyond. 

Catherine Edelman launched her namesake gallery 25 years ago after graduating from the School of the Art Institute, opening her doors two weeks before the 1987 stock market crash. An April 1989 fire that devestated River North, along with the coinciding crash of the global art market, led to widespread votality well into the early '90s. Some dealers again sought larger spaces and lower rents, spurring a significant relocation to he West Loop. Edelman says, "I think the idea was that we'd all move, which at first seemed like a viable idea, but a lot of us decided to stay. I think that split hurt the power of the Chicago gallery scene. There never used to be a thought where else you'd go opening night." 

Art centers have continued to develop locally in all directions, such as in Pilsen and Bridgeport where distinct neighborhood personalities are evident. The ever-creative art scene now even includes pop-up galleries and installations, a timely result of a resourceful economy. Changes in the global business landscape have also aletered the way we all reach audiences beyond the ones at home. In the past 10 years, we've come to view websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook as critical. 

Douglas Dawson Gallery markes 30 years at the end of this year, and Dawson points to technology as being one of the most striking differences since his early days, though he admits that new channels maynot seem as jarring to those starting out. He says, "For older galleries, like ours, with an older clientele, and a long history of print, mailings, personal contact, the evolution of technology and the impetus to make it a valid tool of the business has been challenging." 

Social networking and the web aren't the only things making the art world smaller. Roy Boyd, who founded his gallery in 1972 in Westrn Springs before moving downtown near the original site of the MCA, says that compared to 40 years ago, "We all know art fairs have taken over. The scene isn't just local anymore." Dawson reiterated Boyd's point: "the changes I've seen in the art business in Chicago mirror changes nationally. When I opened in the early 1980's there was tremendous, self-sustaining energy in the art community. Today our business is predicated on participating in important art fairs. We depend on the clients we meet at those fairs who, if they do not purchase at the show, often will when they visit us in Chicago. 

Valerie Crberry, who opened her gallery 10 years ago in the John Hancock Center, says though many see striking changes over the years, and art now reaches many via the internet, up close and in-person can't be beat: "What has not changed is that the quality of experience for the casual vistor or the experience collector is never better than in the gallery itself, where the directors, staff, and artists are available to share their expertise and enthusiasm in a comfortable space. This experience endures alongside the many and now vital platforms for art viewing, such as online or at art fairs, and proves the value of a basic pleasure." 

Running a gallery is a marathon, certainly not a sprint. Dawson says, "I think the most important issue for an older gallery, as for an older individual, is how to remain vital, relevant, and able to bring energized perspectives to one's activities. Chicago is a wonderful and receptive city to explore those challenges." 10 years ago the Boyds hosted an intimate party for their 30th anniversary. "This fall," Roy says, "we're going to just have a group show for our 40th anniversary. We're letting our artists subit their favorite old work, or they can submit something new. We just wanted to recognize the people we've worked so well with."