An Interview with Jonathan Kinkley, Executive Director of VGA Gallery

Each week CGN interviews a local art-industry professional to discuss the ins and outs of running a space in the city of Chicago. This week we caught up with Jonathan Kinkley of VGA Gallery.


Age: 38

Current Positions: Executive Director and Co-Founder, VGA Gallery, and Philanthropic Advisor, Major Gifts, Art Institute of Chicago

Hometown: Wheaton and Chicago, IL

Previous Occupations: Director of Development at Museum of Contemporary Photography; Manager of Foundation and Government Relations, Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago

5 favorites from the past week: Logan Square has it all -- this past week I played games at Logan Arcade with friends, went jogging with my dog on the boulevard, and had delicious drinks and lunch at Lonesome Rose with my wife and daughter. I'm terrible at reading books in print so I have an audible subscription and am on a 2018 quest to read all of Hemingway (my favorite author). I just finished For Whom The Bell Tolls, can't get enough. I'm playing Battle Chef Brigade and Tumbleseed made by great local developers for the Nintendo Switch, and listening to Marlon Williams at a trusted friend's recommendation. Took a few listens but am now super into it.


CGN: Tell us a little bit about your background and your connection with VGA Gallery?

JK: I always had a lifelong passion for both the arts and video games. In recent years games have made leaps and bounds in artistic distinction and maturity as a medium. I also had years of professional experience working for art galleries and museums around the world and thought how great it would be if there were an art organization for games.  I called up a like-minded friend from grad school, Chaz Evans, who was into the idea, and we worked together to assemble our first exhibition and Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery was born. After three years, VGA is now a non-profit with a great, energetic staff and board, that serves over 10,000 people a year in exhibitions, events and other programming. Crazy growth this year included opening a physical space for VGA—a storefront gallery space off the blue line Western stop and the 606 with exhibitions, prints of art from video games, education programs, and a scholarly journal about video game art called the VGA Reader.


CGN: Give us a day in the life!

JK: During the day I have the incredible job of connecting some truly amazing philanthropists in the city with special exhibitions, and projects of significant scale that requires special support at the Art Institute. On nights and weekends I work with a cool group of people who are building Chicago's first dedicated space for video games and enjoy the city with my family and friends.


CGN: Most exciting exhibition you have worked on?

JK: For over a decade, I've been thinking about the ideas and work in the current VGA show that I curated, Gun Ballet: the Aestheticization of Violence in Video Games exhibition (through June 3rd, 2018). It's very satisfying to see it finally realized and sparking interesting and nuanced conversations with viewers of the show.. After Parkland, it has an added relevance with a national debate about gun violence, that includes video games. The show was always intended to be more about 'how' game artists represent violence than 'why' but some artists in show's work asks direct questions of violent games and question why we are drawn to them.  


CGN: Share some successes this year.

JK: The biggest deal for VGA this year will be our participation in Terra Foundation's major initiative, Art Design Chicago. For VGA, SAIC artist and professor Jon Cates is curating an exhibition and catalogue called Chicago New Media 1973-1992 in partnership with UIC's Gallery 400 and Electronic Visualization Lab. It's going to be incredible and the first time the full story of Chicago's history of video games and new media art will be told. I'm super excited.


CGN: When did you know this industry was a path you wanted to pursue?

JK: Ever since walking through the Art Institute as a kid and seeing the suits of armor from the Harding collection, I was enchanted with museums and galleries as places for beauty, ideas and history. I was hooked. The road was long though, I studied art history in undergrad and interned for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa Texas before getting a masters at UIC in art history in new media and the art and architecture of games and virtual worlds, before getting into the gallery and museum world in Chicago.


CGN: What do you want to tell a young person considering this business?

JK: I used to think I was terrible at finance and math and business and was initially interested in art and video games precisely because they seemed far from these fields, but man was I wrong. Now, I live in spreadsheets and budgets and have learned to appreciate the behind-the-scenes strategies for how arts organizations can not just function, but thrive.


CGN:What do you look for in an artwork? When searching for yourself, what speaks to you?

JK: For me, art I like in all media has got to have a great aesthetic and captivating ideas. Art that looks amazing but has no depth is not my cup of tea and neither is work that is all concept with no concern for its form or appearance. It’s definitely got to be interesting and not boring. I'm also a big civic booster and Chicago homegrown work is always an attractive quality in my book.


CGN: What should we expect to see from VGA Gallery in 2018?

JK: In the lead-up to Art Design Chicago we have a full schedule—next up will be a great summer exhibition of work by Hong Kong-based artists, and we're also working to kick off a game design educational program for middle and high schoolers.


Jonathan Kinkley is Executive Director of the VGA Gallery. For more information, please visit VGA Gallery.