Carrie Secrist Turns 25: Chicago Gallerist Makes the Old School New Again



Walking through the glass door into Carrie Secrist’s eponymous gallery on a summer afternoon, the calm inside is a welcome respite from the frenzy that has encroached on the West Loop, an arts district that used to feel more removed from the traditional heart of the city, but which is now booming with new restaurants, hotels and condos on nearly every available corner. The gallery offers open space that is in short supply these days. At least 70 of Dannielle Tegeder’s framed, abstract works are hung salon-style, filling the west wall with various colors and shapes that invite closer viewing – an unconventional arrangement and an appealing style indicative of Secrist’s lively program, which she has honed over 25 years.

Seated at a large table in an office area filled with art books, Secrist looks at once like a laidback farmer, clad in a pair of overalls she loves to wear while gardening, as well as like the bright and chic art dealer she is, donning her signature short blond hair and a wide grin.

25 years in the gallery business have flown by. Secrist got her first job after college while wandering through the Whitney Museum in New York. After chatting up a curator, she was offered a position, on the spot, in the museum’s education department. That encounter was a serendipitous start to her career, one that would be filled with connections, as well as risks, in the pursuit of art.

After a short time in New York, once she experienced the challenges of surviving in Manhattan on an intern’s salary, Secrist’s path led back to her hometown of Chicago, where she soon found herself directing a gallery when she was just 23. Secrist had been charting a professional art course since before she started college, when she and her parents discussed the importance of balancing her focus on art and business. In Chicago she was introduced to Natalie van Straaten – then publisher of Chicago Gallery News and Executive Director of the Chicago Art Dealers Association – who connected her with Steve Berkowitz and Kathy Cottong at the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA). They hired Secrist as an art handler, a role which remains to this day her favorite part of her job. She says, “Actually hanging exhibitions and working with the artists is what I like best.” 

From there, she says, she quickly ascended the ranks to become the assistant director at CCA, only to see the gallery close its doors in the early 1990s. Soon, her next opportunity knocked when collectors she had met through CCA wanted to open a new space, and they asked Secrist to be the director. She recalls, “I was 23 and naïve, so I said, ‘Yes! I can do that!’” The space, known initially as Gallery A, launched in River North in November 1992. Within a year Secrist found that she and the gallery owners wanted to pursue different directions for the program, and her family ended up buying the gallery outright. She says, “At that time that basically meant buying the office computer. Everything kind of went from there.”

Secrist was fortunate to receive valuable advice from a group of dealers who helped her understand fundamentals about operating a gallery, from using transparencies to the importance of sending hand written letters. She says, “I owe a great deal to people like Rhona Hoffman, Paul Gray of Richard Gray, Donald Young, and River North neighbors such as Phyllis Kind, Roberta Lieberman of Zolla/Lieberman, Catherine Edelman, and Ann and Roy Boyd.” Secrist was the youngest of the dealers at that time, and she was grateful for the support for her program early on. Prominent collectors, including Susan and Lew Manilow, Donna and Howard Stone, and Linda and Paul Gottskind, also took interest in the burgeoning program. Secrist admits she still does many things the old school way, a trait she owes to the group that mentored her when she got started.

Continuing to learn from colleagues, Secrist had settled into a routine of running the gallery when she realized she was ready to change the name from Gallery A to Carrie Secrist Gallery. She explains, “For a long time I wasn’t ready to put my name on the door, and so many galleries, especially in Chicago, start with a name that is not their own. The transition from being a person with a name to having that name become a physical place remains, to this day, strange for me.”

Many changes have taken place during Secrist’s 25 years running a gallery, including a relocation to her current space in the West Loop at 835 W. Washington in 2003, but she cites two shifts that are universally acknowledged among those in the gallery world, “There are two truly double-edged swords: the Internet and art fairs. Art fairs are now where I begin relationships with new collectors – probably 80 percent or potentially more, and it begins a relationship that we really count on.” By keeping up with the art fairs, Secrist says she also has the chance to connect with colleagues from all around the world and stay abreast of what everyone is doing, despite the expense of participating in and shipping to the fairs.

The downside of the art fair frenzy can be laborious as well as expensive. Secrist shares, “I might have an impressive, monumental sculpture that I know this collector will love and want, and they live maybe 20 minutes from the gallery. I urge them to come in, but they’ll say, ‘We’ll see it in Miami!’”

Secrist credits early local support as critical to getting her start, but today she also values the unique and dynamic art community of dealers in Chicago such as Monique Meloche, Julie and Shane Campbell, John Corbett and Jim Dempsey of Corbett vs Dempsey, Scott Speh of Western Exhibitions, and 835 W. Washington neighbors Andrew Rafacz, Tom McCormick and Kavi Gupta among others. She says it’s also exciting to see the new generation coming up  – Regards, PATRON, Aspect/Ratio, and DOCUMENT – and she hopes to be supportive to them the way her colleagues were to her early on.

But keeping up with others does not mean following the crowd. Secrist says, “One thing that has remained constant for me is that I tend to show art that is a slow look. Work tends to have a very strong artist hand in it, and it can look very different in person than a quick in and out of a fair booth.” Secrist’s art fair booths tend towards the immersive and conceptual, so visitors are compelled to participate in her installations and spend more than a few seconds looking at it. She explains, “Especially over the last few years, every booth we’ve designed, and each gallery exhibition, we’ve tried to have the production value feel like a museum installation. We have also been doing more solo booths, where we give an artist a challenge, for instance, showing an entirely new medium, or creating a standout presentation that will linger. No matter how the actual sales go, it’s a curatorial experience that will make people stop and remember.”

I tend to show art that is a slow look. –Carrie Secrist

She acknowledges, “One reason why we do this has to do with the other biggest change to our business since I started – the Internet. It’s fantastic that people, every minute of every day, in every country, can look up online what our current exhibition is and see new work, but we don’t want them to stop there. People feel they have seen the exhibition online, but they haven’t. And pardon my French, so often what I show appears like shit online [laughs], and you can’t begin to get the nuances digitally.” Secrist confesses, and her staff concurs, that she is not technologically savvy, which may motivate her to try to impress visitors with what they can see in person rather than on a screen.

Secrist has seen the Chicago art scene boom and evolve over the years. She remembers, “When I opened there was really one contemporary art fair and that was Art Chicago. People anticipated it all year long, it was such an event. Now there are 2-3 significant fairs around the world every quarter.” The complexities of a strong market-focus, which has largely come out of the proliferation of art fairs, are apparent in a story she recalls about encountering a collector who once bought several works by an artist solely because they were told the value of the artist’s work would greatly multiply after it was part of a museum show. Secrist says her aim is to be able to help people understand and love art for many reasons that go beyond art market factors.

Secrist embraces art that is equally weighted between a visual experience and a richer conceptual connection, and she likes to reference the open atmosphere of early 19th century salons. The participatory productions she hosts at the gallery are designed to motivate people to show up and see art together, bringing a changing collective perspective to each show. Secrist explains, “We’ve done a lot of different performative things, like when artist Diana Guerrero-Macià, with her musician husband, Joe Adamik, created a series of artist made drum sets. Throughout the whole exhibition of her other work, which were mostly tapestries, we had a call and response session with other famous drummers. When we opened the show and held the sessions last fall, the week after the [presidential] election, all sorts of people – from children to seniors – came together to listen to the drums. It really felt like a gathering and an exchange.” Incorporating these performances and backdrops are a way to bring people into Secrist’s space to participate in art, and it’s a means to help artists expand their practice as well as their thinking.

Secrist is celebrating the gallery’s 25th anniversary in several ways. For the gallery’s EXPO CHICAGO booth (Sept 13-17) she explains, “We’re presenting a curated exhibition of select artists who will create work to commemorate this milestone. The comprehensive installation will include a wide range of media and each artist will be represented with art work that includes, or relates to, a metallic motif. We are also considering creating a reflective wall treatment in the booth to literally and figuratively include visitors within the experience. This offers a contemporary twist on a tradition, dating back to the Roman Empire, of exchanging symbolic elements for specific anniversaries. In this case, the element of silver will honor the interactions of the gallery, its artists and its audience in present time as well as over a quarter century of evolution.” There will be an expanded presentation of the fair booth concept in the gallery in November for the actual anniversary.

Though art is with her every waking hour, Secrist has one other passion she gravitates to often. She shares, “I am a crazy gardener. I paint with flowers. My husband and I acquired the property next door to us, and I’m turning it into a fantastic secret garden, and eventually a small artist residence.” Catching Secrist at an art fair in towering shoes and her unique couture choices is a chance to admire her sense of style, but she admits, “If I’m not in art clothes, I am basically in overalls. And sometimes I’m in both, because I have like 20 pairs, including the dress ones. Getting in the mud makes me happy.” 25 years after diving into gallery life, Secrist indeed has weathered the floods as well as the droughts, but she has found her calling as one who passionately tends to artists, as well as collectors, and helps them all thrive in her garden.


Top image: CARRIE SECRIST GALLERY BOOTH AT EXPO CHICAGO 2016, featuring an installation by Shannon Finley