An Interview with a Dealer: Hannah Litvan
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 Hannah Litvan, director of Ice House Gallery.
Name: Hannah Litvan
Current Position: Gallery Owner and Director
Hometown: I grew up in Wilmette, but my home is Evanston!
Previous Occupation(s): My first job was at a Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria all through high school. I was a Writer and Features Editor for my college paper the Albion Pleiad. While living in Jackson Michigan I was a historic guide and gallery attendant for the Ella Sharp Museum. I also helped with the start up for their Prison Museum Cell Block 7.
After graduation I took a job as a historic tour guide for the Richard H. Driehaus Museum and did some volunteering for the Field Museum as a bone picker for their Ornithology department. I briefly worked last holiday season at an Evanston chocolate shop, Belgian Chocolatier Piron, which was fun. Starting in high school, I would clean houses for extra cash. Once I decided to embark on opening the gallery, I quit the museums and went to cleaning as my main job as the scheduling was easy so I could work on the gallery and didn’t have a daily job taking up my time.
5 favorites from the past week
Restaurant: Kuni’s, a great family-owned Japanese place in Evanston
Shop: This week my sister and I went to Not Just Thee Fish Bowl, which is a pet shop, they have the most wonderful little ferrets, bunnies and guniea pigs you can play with. It’s always fun.
Read: I just started “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss and I dig it so far. I’m a big fan of manga so this is the first all-words book I’ve read in a while!
Neighborhood: Evanston always! Beautiful houses and an awesome coastline, with a cool view of the big city. My fiancé, Chris, and I go on walks all the time just to look around.
Music: Music is a tough one. I’m really into RADWIMPS and Superfly right now, but Blink-182 and Breaking Benjamin are always favorites.
Tell us about your background and how your work with Ice House Gallery came to be?
I've had interest in making and appreciating art my whole life, but became serious about becoming an artist when I was around 12 years old. My biggest inspiration definitely came from cartoons and anime I watched, and still watch, constantly. I attended Albion College where I had a double major in English Creative Writing and Art with a Sculpture focus. Growing up and even in early adulthood, I never quite knew what job I wanted. After graduation I cast a huge net over any loosely artistic job I was qualified for. Hundreds of applications and tediously-written cover letters were sent into the digital abyss to never return. I managed to get a part-timer to support my independence, but it was not fulfilling.
The decision to quit and pursue opening a gallery was difficult. Who was I to do something like that? No one will take me seriously right? Thoughts of "it’s too big a change" and "it won’t come to fruition" were frequent. So many excuses floated in my head. Ultimately my mom and I found a building that would be perfect, and signing onto the lease solidified moving forward. I held pitch meetings at Evanston Public Library to find local artists and hear their thoughts on my idea. I searched the Evanston art community with the opportunity to meet many strong artists, business owners and art supporters to pick their brains and build connections.
The build-out for the space was a retrospectively enjoyable nightmare. What was projected to be a three month build-out turned into 13 months! Old warehouses seem to have their way and not want to be changed. My building manager and I wanted to highlight the integrity of the building while bringing it up to code. I found the build-out itself was simple, but city codes are another animal. Ice House was supposed to open in March 2017, but it did not happen. It was then supposed to open in June 2017, but again, could not happen. We took part in Evanston Made in June, a city-wide event to promote locally made art and products. We put on a sidewalk sale because we thought we were going to be open, and didn't want all our ads and excitement to go to waste! It was a good day for us!
My friends and family helped tremendously when we eventually got to move into the space with setting up the studios, painting and hanging everything. We finally opened in October 2017, and it was a blast! Looking back, all the extra time caused by delays ended up allowing us to grow public interest in Ice House and learn more about who we were and who we want to be when it it was time to finally open our doors.
Share a typical day in the life.
Just now I'm settling into a routine as we’ve been open for about a month. I work at the gallery most days, going through emails and posting on our social media. Often artists come in to chat and show me their work. I am always thinking of the next show, feature and performances so I look up and save local artists I think may be a good fit with Ice House. It’s fun to get into a planning groove. We try to focus on marketing plans to get our new name out there as well. When everything is good-to-go, I will read or draw at the desk waiting for potential art buyers to make their way in. Basic business stuff I suppose, but it being my business makes it fun! A couple nights a week I still go clean an office building in Evanston, but I always come home to my fiancé, cat and friends for wine and videogames.
Is there a particularly favorite memory in the process of opening the space?
While in the build-out process I was also still deciding on my public image for the gallery. I found art people in Evanston to talk to and they were amazing. They listened to me, supported my idea and told me about their ideas and experiences. Most of these strong, caring people were women so that was very inspiring to me. It was so cool to ask a stranger for input and advice, and have them open up to me. The Evanston art community is very uplifting for those wishing to join and expand it.
Share some successes as well as challenges this year.
Opening was definitely our biggest success, not only because we actually opened, but because of the support from our community. So many people came through all day and asked about us and our vision. It was amazing to speak with everyone and see all our hard work pay off.
A challenge we faced was more a series of small hills. Yes construction was arduous, but envisioning a business is a lot more complicated than one may realize. There were things I knew I wanted and didn’t want, but there were so many aspects I never even considered and making certain decisions was tough. I wrote a mission for us and made sure we stuck to it with every decision made.
How do you see Chicago’s art scene in comparison to other cities? What do you think makes it particularly unique?
The Chicago and outreaching art scene is unique because it has such a huge variety. You have local artists from all different backgrounds and walks of life producing and showing in many different forms like street art, formal galleries, fairs, and performances. Traditional as well as modern art thrive simultaneously here, creating a diverse art scene anyone can appreciate. I think art in its many forms (not just what you can hang on a wall) is important to the mood of the city and neighborhoods. We also have an international art influence mixing with the local which even further diversifies the artistic community in the Chicagoland area.
How have you seen technology directly affect/alter the art world?
You can be the most traditional artist ever, but in this modern world your art almost always has to have an online presence. Therefore you have to be tech savvy when showing your work to galleries or submit a portfolio. Most galleries or shows I’ve submitted to require a digital portfolio and when I meet with other artists we usually ask for a (well-designed) card with our artist website on it. So even artists who do not use digital mediums must have a digital profile. And typically more than just one to get your name out there.
What do you want to tell a young person considering this business?
Speaking as a young person, I say.. do it now! Dreaming of that “one day I will…” is time wasted. Opening a business of any kind is not a quick nor easy process, so why waste time at a job you don’t like wanting something more? Take action and never be apprehensive to ask your community for ideas, advice and help. It’s surprising who will invite you to their home, make you coffee, and talk dreams for hours! Ultimately, plans and timelines will mostly fly out the window, you’ll plan out way more than you initially realize, and you will have stumbles and hiccups. However it’s all part of the process. There will be days where you are not open yet, and it all seems a mess, you will want to quit. But birthing your brain-baby is so worth it. So stick to it!
One piece of advice you would send back to yourself when you started out?
Oh there is so much I would tell my year-ago-self. Patience and flexibility are the biggest lessons I have learned. I would tell myself to just breathe through the bad and the good is on its way.
Favorite cultural pursuit outside of the art world?
I’m a mega-lover of Japanese culture, modern and historical. I’ve been learning Japanese for about seven years, have studied in Kyoto, and am an avid reader on history and current culture. I enjoy many sides of Japanese culture relating to art and history (and have for quite a long time). Chris and I are honeymooning there and I plan to be in and out of Japan throughout my life.
Favorite work of public art in Chicago?
As a child I liked the Picasso because it’s a huge, mysterious beast. I would imagine it walking around the city at night. Now I’m not sure if I have a favorite lone-standing piece. I’m a big fan of Chicago’s architecture and history. I love stained glass and sculpted masonry, so I enjoy Chicago’s Architecture Tour.
Artists you admire most.
Hayao Miyazaki’s work touches my heart and shaped my artist-self growing up. Many manga writers have inspired and influenced my style such as Akira Toriyama, Hiromu Arakawa, Misashi Kishimoto and Satoshi Kon to name a few. Recently I traveled to Prague and had the opportunity to see a ton of Alphonse Mucha’s work and visit his grave. His work has also inspired and shaped my style for a long time.
What's coming up next at the gallery?
So much! We are new, and are currently trying to develop a strong program for shows as well as performances. We post on our website and social media all the details.
Our first performance which was a music and art collaboration show Friday November 17th, which was so fun and unique. Our turn-out was better than I thought it would be, and the music sounded amazing in our space.
Each month, on the first Saturday of that month, we have an opening reception for our monthly featured artist (always a local of course!) December 2nd was Evanston artist Jim Park’s “Bloomz” series opener and he will show through the end of the month.
Our December performance is a stage reading written and performed by two Evanston actors: Max Lusk and Meghan Bortle. Friday December 15th, at 7pm and Saturday December 16th at 2pm and 7pm
We try to be a part of Evanston’s involved sense of community so we are a part of “Small Business Saturday” 11/25 from 10am to 6pm and the “Warm Bevvy Walk” 12/7 from 5pm to 8pm
Our second floor is a bit of a different entity with Private Studios as well as a Cooperative artist workspace. These can be rented monthly or longer as a space for artists to create. We are building out a photo room too so artists can take photos of their work, models, headshots or whatever they need to take photos of. It’s such a neat space which has been popular so far. I hope it becomes a thriving little community, and I would love to have a studio show next year.
Hannah Litvan is the owner and director of Ice House Gallery in Evanston. For more information about the gallery please visit: Ice House Gallery