CGN Interview Series, Michelle Graves of Agitator Co-operative 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 Michelle Graves, Chair of Agitator Co-operative Gallery.


Age: 38

Current Position: Chair of Agitator Co-operative Gallery

Hometown: Lafayette, IN -> Bloomington, IN -> NYC -> Chicago resident since 2004

Current other occupations: Director of State of the Art; Adobe (Certified Expert) Instructor at Digital Bootcamp, Ascend Training and Columbia College Chicago


5 favorites from the past week:

Restaurant: Feed - Quarter dark chicken with mashed potatoes/gravy and fried okra!

Shop: Savvy Seconds and 1sts - best resale shop in town. I frequented Christin’s shop so much, we became each other’s ride-or-die and now travel internationally together.

Read: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli - a fascinating read on time and how it relates to physical heat and the human perspective.

Neighborhood: I currently live in the beautiful Humboldt Park area, 5 minutes from my art studio in East Garfield Park and 10 minutes from Agitator in Wicker Park/West Town.

Music: I grew up on garage punk/rock, watching bands play in basements, but my current taste is eclectic. Some current favorites across the genres are Shannon and the Clams, L.A. Witch, The Spits, Future Islands, and Motor City Drum Ensemble.


CGN: Tell us a little bit about your background and the journey that has led you to work with Agitator Co-operative Gallery?

MG: My entire background involves fine art. I was always involved with art organizations in and outside of academia. Through the years, I slowly began to gain confidence as an artist and embraced leadership skills as well as interest in business that I was surprised to possess.

I credit the Chicago Outfit Roller Derby team with giving me major leadership and business knowledge; I was a co-founding member and original Marketing Manager for them, and building this team, brand and organization (not to mention learning to strategize and compromise with a variety of personalities) has given me a vast amount of interpersonal experience that I use frequently.  

In my art practice, I have applied to numerous calls for art, some of which have accepted me and of course some have not. To fulfill the desire of exhibiting my artwork and colleagues work, I have been involved with putting on many “alternative space” or non-gallery exhibits dating back to my undergraduate and BFA photography program and James Nakagawa. This kind of exhibit gave me the start-to-finish experience of putting on a show that includes curation, marketing, reception logistics, and quality control of the display.

In early 2017 I was inspired by the recent presidential election to do something positive and maintain some sort of integrity in my life. I attempted to build a monthly meet-up community at my art studio that was inclusive, encouraged important discourse and was meant to be a safe space where people could belong.  

In the meantime, while submitting applications for art calls, I came across a call for an art co-operative led by Larry Kamphausen and Gretchen Hasse.  My application was accepted and we had our first meeting in April 2017. Our beginning meetings discussed what we wanted out of our co-operative. I brought up a quote referencing political turmoil having two forms of underground from Tom Robbin’s book Still Life with Woodpecker. “There’s the underground involved in political resistance and the underground involved in preserving beauty and fun - which is to say, preserving the human spirit.” This preservation resonated with everyone and our mission statement included this tone. We came to a consensus on our name, Agitator Co-operative Gallery, and I was nominated Chair. We found a perfect storefront that has been open to the public, exhibiting under-represented artists and generating discourse on important topics since September 2017.


CGN: Give us a day in the life!

MG: A day in my life is not consistent. Sometimes I wake up and teach a six-hour long Advanced Adobe workshop. Sometimes early on a Saturday I meet my business partner, Keith Skogstrom, downtown for an art install through our art subscription company, State of the Art. Sometimes Agitator has an opening and I help install and tidy the gallery beforehand. Or I might do yoga, go for a jog, sit in my apartment bay window on a sunny day, respond to emails, or do some marketing for the gallery and State of the Art. When I have my own art exhibit deadlines approaching I force myself to be at my studio by a certain time. Occasionally I travel to other cities to bench coach the Chicago Outfit Roller Derby team, or I have epic adventures in other countries. Other times I listen and stare at the sky, or moving cars, or an ant crawling by and contemplate existence.


CGN: How would you sum up your experience with Agitator Co-operative Gallery?  

MG: Through being a member of Agitator I have deepened my experience in communicating, planning, building and balancing the dynamic of a group of creative people.  I have also really come to appreciate working with a variety of personalities and love finding the commonalities that bring people together.


CGN: Do you have a favorite recent exhibition you worked on? 

MG: I have a huge affinity for physics/science theory and use this research in my art. My recent favorite event held at Agitator was an Art of Science lecture series led by Yoav Kashiv.  The lecturer was Ritoban Basu Thakur who spoke on CMB and the Early Universe and encouraged questions/challenges during the lecture. There was a great turnout of both artists and physics researchers. The conversation was awe inspiring and I was excited to understand the material and participate in the discussion. This inspiration will definitely influence the work on display at my solo show at Morpho Gallery in August, 2018.


CGN: What are some successes you have had this year? What about challenges?

MG: The term “success” has changed for me in the past six months.  At the end of our roller derby team chant, right before we go on the track, I like to say, “Success feels great!” In this frame success does not mean winning according to the score; there are many successes throughout the game. These small (or large) successes throughout a journey are motivators. The challenges are the various tasks we face, and the successes are borne from overcoming, or continuing to push the self through, the challenge.


CGN: Favorite cultural pursuit outside of the art world?

MG: My favorite cultural pursuit outside of making art and Agitator Gallery is the pursuit of travel. Traveling has opened my eyes and my mind to an amazingly beautiful planet that contains our humanity, which is full of very interesting individual people.


CGN: What’s coming up next at Agitator?

MG: Agitator Co-operative Gallery has a different exhibit once per month, curated by one of it’s members.  Our current active members are Larry Kamphausen, Gretchen Hasse, Luna Rail, Andrea Kaspryk, Karmen Elaine, Emilio Nadales and myself. The next exhibit is coming up on July 14 with work by Daphne Walsh and Danielle Owensby curated by Luna Rail. Our exhibit opening receptions are typically held on the second Saturday of every month from 6–10pm.  We are located at 1112 N. Ashland, just south of Division in Chicago.  Other events throughout the month can be found on and current updates can be found on Facebook and Instagram. Feel free to follow us and become one of the regulars at our fun, inspiring events!


Michelle Graves is the Chair of Agitator Co-operative Gallery

Photo Credit: Brenda Hernandez