Tiger Strikes Asteroid: Anna Kunz & Michelle Wasson on Artist-Run Spaces



Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago is an artist-run space founded by Anna Kunz and Michelle Wasson. The pair operate the gallery with the support of their members: Robert Burnier, Holly Cahill, Zachary Cahill, Meg Duguid, Esau McGhee, Josue Pellot, Olivia Schreiner, Teresa Silva and Justin Witte. Since opening, they have organized a number of exhibitions that feature local, national and international artists. I visited Anna and Michelle at their space in the Albany Carroll Arts Building in the East Garfield Park neighborhood and spoke to them about the history of the Tiger Strikes Asteroid network, their ambitious programming schedule and what they envision for the future of their space.

Chicago Gallery News: When did Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago officially open?

Michelle Wasson: October of 2016.

Anna Kunz: Sashay With and Without History is our sixth show.

MW: Every six weeks we present exhibitions by one of our members who span a variety of artistic interests.

AK: The way we chose our members had nothing to do with knowing each other. We wanted to gather a group of artists who had a reputation of giving. Plus, they were promising artists but might not be represented by a commercial gallery. They also have a wide set of skills because many of them also work in administrative roles or in cultural institutions. 

CGN: Your gallery is part of a network of artist-run spaces in Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles and now Chicago. How did you get involved with the Tiger Strikes Asteroid (TSA) organization and develop your own branch?

AK: TSA started in 2009. The founding member is an artist named Alex Paik. He was based in Philadelphia at the time and modeled TSA after spaces like Vox Populi. Alex organized an ambitious group of artists who have been able to maintain their branch in Philly since 2009. They’re coming up on 10 years.

Alex relocated to New York in 2010 and started a branch of TSA there in 2012. In New York, it’s a different infrastructure and situation, where there are not enough spaces for artists to show their work. The branch started to generate a lot of momentum in terms of press and critical reviews. Vince Como, an artist and New York member, mentioned the idea of starting a Chicago branch to me.

But as far as the identity of each branch, we all do our own thing. We do come together for meetings and we’re working through Alex, especially now because we’re a 501(c)(3). I don’t think I would do this unless I had Michelle and our members and the support of all of the other branches.

CGN: There are many other artist-run spaces in Chicago. What motivated you to start your own?

AK: We knew that it was an established way to create a platform for artists we believe in.

MW: Anna was really taken by how TSA operated and the generosity of the members. When she was living in New York, they included her work in an art fair in Madrid.

AK: They could have exhibited any number of people in New York, but they invited me. That showed me that they were serious about generosity.

MW: What’s alluring is that our artist members take time out of their studio practices, investing their own money, because they believe it is worthwhile. And the other members and locations already have a great deal of momentum.

AK: You can think of the TSA as a network. We are into the idea of being a conduit. I personally am always interested in that. I think artists should be helping artists.

CGN: What role do your members play?

MW: We have an exhibition cycle that’s roughly a year and a half long, and members take their turn curating or organizing a show in that timeframe. The other members support them in that. Everyone brings their unique skills to the table. We have people who are great writers, preparators. No one judges—it’s all completely open. It’s really a pure platform. We have the power to do what we wish without gatekeepers or any institutional constraints. We empower each other.

AK: We all help to publish press releases, clean up, host guests and create supplementary programming, because we also have salons, readings and performances. We all pitch in, and we’re starting to get our rhythm. Because of our members’ communities, we draw visitors from different cultural institutions including the University of Chicgo, Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern University, School of the Art Institute of Chicago and University of Illinois at Chicago. We’re really trying to create an inclusive community.

CGN: What other spaces were models for TSA Chicago?

MW: In Chicago, Devening Projects has been in the Albany Caroll Arts Building for a long time, so Dan Devening was the pioneer, in terms of artist-run spaces, here. Julius Caesar has been in Chicago almost 10 years. Also, of course, Sabina Ott’s Terrain in Oak Park. Goldfinch, organized by Claudine Isé, started out around the same time we did, which has created a nice buddy system.

AK: A visitor could make an afternoon of coming to discover the artist-run spaces in this neighborhood. They can get one, two, three, four, maybe five or six diverse experiences in one Saturday. Parking here is no problem.

CGN: How are you supported financially?

AK: We don’t profit from artists’ work. The exchange happens purely and directly between the artist and patron. We just request a donation. Some artists decide to give proceeds to other organizations. Gary Noland, for instance, donated all proceeds from his exhibition here to the ACLU. It was wonderful to see that.

MW: Our program is almost fully supported by our members. We’re launching a flat file program this fall and hope proceeds will provde us additional revenue for future needs.

Alex Paik in Brooklyn organized a fundraiser right after we received not-for-profit status so that provided additional financial support. But because we are artist-run and artist-supported, we have the freedom to do what we want.

AK: There’s something nice about that because once people start giving you money, they can also start telling you what to do.

MW: We don’t like that [laughs].

CGN: Can you tell me more about your flat file program?

AK: Each TSA member invited three to five artists from anywhere—local, national and international. We’re really proud of the artists that have accepted the invitation including David X Levine, Rosalyn Schwartz, Rhonda Wheatley and Peter Skvara. The roster will rotate and grow organically as we progress.

The program is modeled on a space in New York called Pierogi 2000. Joe Amrhein, when he started the program, had binders with tiny pictures and names of every artist and a big pile of white gloves. You could go and help yourself though the drawers. I can’t tell you how many wedding gifts I’ve bought through Pierogi. That’s where we got the idea. Our program is affordable, too – $200 to $1,000 is where we cap it.

CGN: What strategies are you using to bring the public into your space?

MW: We would like to become more involved in the Garfield Park neighborhood association. This neighborhood is extremely well organized and is blooming right now.  We’ve also started a mentor internship program.

AK: Two young artists are interning in the gallery tasked with typical duties, but we each also schedule them for different mini-courses, so they are exposed to a variety of skill sets and ways that we work individually. Plus, we offer critiques of their work, as they’re both getting ready to launch their career or get into a graduate program.

MW: One thing that I’ve been thinking about is the After School Matters program. Students that want to participate are turned away, because there is not enough funding or programming. That is one way we can work with youth in the neighborhood. But we’re not at that point yet. What we do have going for us is our physical space, which is street-level and prominently encased by large windows. Our receptions and related events are intended to be approachable and welcoming.

AK: We’re visible.

MW: Yes, we are visible and want to engage with the community. I’ve been working in this neighborhood for a long time, and it’s a very comfortable, happy place for me. I don’t want it to be an exclusive art club.

AK: I know that I talked about the institutional draw, however, if you ever come to an opening here you’ll see a really diverse group of people of all ages. Every member’s Facebook social network, including their Aunt Rose and Uncle Bob, are invited to come in.

MW: And they come!

AK: We all have discussed ways to breakdown the intimidation factor for somebody that has some curiosity and might not be so well versed in contemporary art. When we talk about engaging the public, we really mean engaging the public. We don’t mean just those institutional publics.

CGN: What are you planning for the fall?

MW: Josue Pellot and Robin Dluzen are co-curating an exhibition on vanning culture titled Ass Grass or Gas that addresses wider ideas about taste, the vernacular and the psychedelic.

AK: It’s engaging in a subculture—people that completely deck out their vans and are very proud to show them as these movable art objects. We have plans for the vans to be parked outside the gallery. This will happen at the same time as EXPO. Inside the gallery will be renderings and information about the vans. We’re also planning on hosting a music program that will run one or two afternoons concurrently with our space and Goldfinch. You have to be here for that, it’s going to be awesome.

CGN: You are coming up on a year. What do you see for the next year? What is your vision for your space?

MW: Our vision is to be unpredictable. We will learn from failures and surprise ourselves with happy accidents. That’s what is exhilarating about the journey.

AK: We want people to come here and know that they might discover something.

Along with our mentorship program, we have high hopes for a residency program. We’re already scheduled out through 2019, and we are planning an exchange at Alpineum Produzentengalerie in Lucerne, Switzerland in the future, which is really exciting. We have several discussions going on right now for scheduling in New Orleans, Los Angeles and other national spaces.

Tiger Strikes Asteroid is located at 319 N Albany. Their fall exhibition Ass Grass or Gas opens September 9, 2017.

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Installation view of Sara Black and Amber Ginsburg’s Witness Tree (2017) in Sashay With and Without History at Tiger Strikes Asteroid Chicago