Linda Warren Gallery turns 10 in 2013



Linda Warren’s past 10 years in Chicago have gone by quickly: the gallery will officially turn 10 this June. Thinking about how she got started, as well as what’s ahead, Warren was in a reflective mood when we spoke in the fall. Though she accidentally got into the art business when she was living in L.A. over a decade ago, nurturing artists’ careers came naturally to someone who lives for today. Her passion for nurturing artists’ careers has given her a personal framework with which to build a successful gallery program, and it has led to some new and surprising projects at home and around the country. -GV

When Linda Warren was working in production in the Los Angeles film industry in the 1990s, an artist friend asked her to store art in her home after being evicted from his studio. She was more than willing. When Warren started casually showing the artist’s work to film colleagues and selling it, she figured she was just helping everyone out. Soon, another artist asked if Warren would show his work as well. She recalls, “I would get excited and bring a painting to someone, just as a friend—I started out as a conduit from the artist to the buyer, and that really continues today.” Despite never feeling truly passionate about the film industry, she says it was a good living through which she made a lot of contacts. Transitioning from the film world to art didn’t happen overnight. Aware that a lot of the film people she worked with were counting on her for employment, Warren eventually converted her entire Silverlake Hills home to a gallery and began to balance her dual role. The result was what Warren remembers as an “apartment gallery on steroids,” filled with hundreds of people and crazy events. Looking back on the experience, she says she can’t believe she allowed it.

In the midst of managing her new profession, Warren reconnected with a man she had known when she was in law school nearly 20 years earlier. After seeking Warren’s advice on acquiring artwork for his home on the north shore of Chicago, the couple decided to reconnect for good. Warren closed the L.A. space and moved to Chicago to marry her former love as well as help raise his four young boys. She put new gallery plans on hold, but it was tough to wait: “I dropped an insanely different life and became a suburban housewife. When I finally opened the gallery here in 2003 I was just ready—I knew this was what I wanted.”

In L.A. Warren had reached out to artists and friends and was used to having people come to her. When seeking a space in Chicago she gravitated to the West Loop, where she says he liked living in her own little world. Linda Warren Gallery opened in 2003 and became a Fulton Market destination, showcasing art by a variety of media. She remembers, “When I first moved here Paula Henderson—she was my inaugural show here and I represented her in L.A.— introduced me to some collectors who quizzed me, ‘What are you going to specialize in?’ I just looked at them like, ‘What do you mean’? It’s my energy and money. Why would I constrain myself? I’m going to go with what resonates for me.’ People can take it or leave it.”

When working with artists, Warren wants to show quality, as well as what she responds to. She’s ambitious but realistic about the overwhelming volume of work out there, much of which is admittedly poor quality, but a great deal, she says, is also good but simply overlooked. She confesses, “I’m very open to looking at everyone’s art who submits. Maybe other people try, but I absolutely do look at everything; it’s exciting to me. I have a box under my desk of stuff I just like. If I can help an artist, I’ll do it, though this year I might have just 6 shows, and that makes it harder for an artist to have a show here. The ones I work with have to let me do what I do.”

Warren favors evolution versus planning in her life. She says, “I view my entire career in this as something that happened very naturally. I don’t plot. Setting just an exhibition schedule is even a struggle for me.” Her attitude is that hard work can make up for planning: “I quit law school to go to Israel, and there I became a citizen and became immersed in day to day life. You don’t think much about tomorrow there—that life sort of fit with me. If I’m alive tomorrow that’s great. I’m a hard worker and I’m passionate about what I do. That’s the key for anyone.”

Since moving to a larger gallery space around the corner on North Aberdeen in 2011 and becoming Linda Warren Projects, Warren says business has changed in surprising ways. The space accommodates two exhibition spaces now, Gallery X and Gallery Y, and outside the gallery Warren has taken on a handful of substantial corporate art consulting contracts. Warren is candid about the biggest difference between selling art out of the gallery and working on corporate collections—the financial reward gap is vast. Though she says she’s always been out of the mind-set that she loves the gallery business enough to lose money, now she’s pleased that the corporate work is feeding the business and supporting some overhead.

Warren’s current project has been taking her to Cleveland for the better part of two years, where she’s been working on a corporate collection for Eaton Corporation’s new world headquarters. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she says, “I got the call when I was out walking my dog. They showed me renderings of the building and they didn’t have a specific budget, but they asked me to come up with a contract based on several scenarios. They wanted it to be reflective or their business.” Warren’s own vision was what the company wanted. Tasked with curating the art for an 800,000 square foot space for 1,000 employees (there are 90,000 worldwide), Warren began with a PowerPoint presentation of 150 artists. When the back and forth began, she says, “They flipped out. They liked 100 out of 150. I didn’t really know what they were going to go with it—it was a crapshoot. We went from there to find out what they loved. A lot of work also had to be commissioned, since we were dealing with 50 and 30 foot walls. We’ve got great work from Emmett Kerrigan, Juan Angel Chavez, and Lora Fosberg, among many others. Warren is now close to the project’s final frontier and can finally see how things are shaping up. It is difficult to begin with just drawings, she admits, but it’s great when you realize it’s been two years and you’re already installing all that art.

Warren works hard to support her family as well as her artists. Whereas most dealers today say they have no choice but to travel and participate in art fairs, Warren says she usually does just one a year, though in 2012 she didn’t do any. Art fairs remind Warren of the film industry. She explains, “There’s this insane amount of work and exhausting energy required. You might just be talking to people that are not that interesting. It’s exhilarating if you’re selling, but if you’re not, it’s depressing. I know it’s important to artists. It’s just an energy that I cannot stand. The point of what I’m trying to do with my life is to help the art. How I do that might not be how everyone else would, but I want everyone to succeed. I guess it’s ‘please don’t rely on me only.’ I’m not going to be a slave to it either.  

Looking ahead, perhaps to the next 10 years, Warren still wonders how to balance her life with the gallery. She acknowledges, “The kids are more independent now, so everything’s going to change. What’s going to happen down the road? I don’t know. I envision doing thing much more internationally. I want the gallery to keep going, and it would be great if I could have one big project every couple years as well.”

Warren’s husband has always said the longer you’re in the business the more likely you’ll succeed. To Warren, “I know now that it’s true. It takes a lot of time to get it going in this business. I literally don’t have a strategy. It’s going to take time to understand my aesthetic and it’s changing like everyone else’s. That’s how it’s always going to be. It’s a ton of work and it can be a grind, but I just love it.”