Catherine Edelman: 30 Years of Using Art to Drive Change
By GINNY VAN ALYEA
Catherine Edelman was one of the very first art dealers I met, when I started working at the Chicago Art Dealers Association and Chicago Gallery News in 2002. She was, in fact, my office neighbor, since the CGN office and Catherine Edelman Gallery occupied the same building and connected via a back hallway. Edelman would regularly stop in to talk with CGN publisher Natalie van Straaten about the CADA, the art market and generally catch up. At the time I already had an interest in photography, and I came to admire how Cathy was to the point, knowledgeable, and successful, with her finger on the pulse of the art business.
Having marked the gallery’s 30th anniversary in 2017, and with a major relocation – the gallery’s first – coming up at the end of this year, Cathy sat down with me in the viewing room of her eponymous River North gallery to talk about how she started the business and what her plans are for the gallery and beyond.
Ginny / CGN: I’ve known you a long time. Did you really decide to open the gallery when you were graduating from SAIC?
Catherine Edelman: There’s a little more. When I was an undergraduate, I had a major surgery on my back. I missed the last few months of school, but they let me graduate. I didn’t really know what to do.
CGN: Where were you in school?
CE: I was at the Philadelphia College of Art, and a friend of mine, whom I’d met at PCA, was here at the Art Institute and said, ‘You should come to Chicago.’ SAIC was the only graduate school I applied to. I flew out to meet the people who were teaching at the time. That was the winter of ‘84. For reasons unbeknownst to me, because I remember it was 30° below zero, I still decided to come. I almost froze, and thought, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’
CGN: You didn’t have snow in New York or Philadelphia?
CE: I think it was one of the coldest winters in Chicago. It was brutal.
CGN: But it worked out.
CE: Thankfully I got in, because I don’t know what would have happened had I not.
CGN: Did you come to SAIC to be a photographer?
CE: I came to study photography, and knew I would get my Master’s degree somewhere. It was simply to keep my education going. I figured two more years would buy time to figure out what I was going to do.
And, as many people know, I was born with a disease in my right eye, and I was going blind. I had my first surgery while in grad school, and that put me back physically and emotionally. I was a mess. We were sitting around – I think there were 8 to 10 of us in our program – and it came up, ‘What are you going to do?’
I remember talking to my mom about my surgeries and discussing that being a photographer might not be the right path. I didn’t have any passion for it. I was very good at getting by and at printing and constructing, but I didn’t have shit to say, and I knew that. I was all angry, and feminist, as many of us were then.
Back then I wanted to go into museum work, but I was very tired of school. I thought that if I started and ran a gallery for five years, that would give me credibility, instead of needing a PhD. Many of my friends ran businesses, so I just went around asking people, ‘How do you start a business?’
CGN: You were going to get business cred by starting your own business rather than work for someone else?
CE: Oh absolutely. I never really thought about going to work for somebody else. I guess I know myself better now than when I was 25, but I’m a leader not a follower, for better or for worse. Nobody has ever brought that up. I just thought I could start a gallery, since there was only one photography gallery here at the time, Edwynn Houk, and he didn’t specialize in living artists.
CGN: What happened at the start?
CE: It was 1987. The stock market crashed two weeks after I signed the lease. Then we had the First Gulf War, and the Second Gulf War, and the ‘92 recession. It was a miserable time to be in business.
CGN: And the River North fire.
CE: Yes. On April 15, 1989. It was a whole series of shit. Just one disaster after another. In the meantime, I was going back and forth to LA, learning as much as I could from Robert Sobieszek, Director of Photography at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I met Bob before I opened the gallery, and he taught me a terrific amount about business, passion, and how to see. It was then that I decided I wanted to work for him, but when the job was announced for a position as his assistant, he said ‘You’re not going to do this’ and refused to let me apply.
CGN: Because he thought you were already on your way and he didn’t want you to jump ship.
CE: Yes. He had gotten to know me and said I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the museum world, since there was greater autonomy in what I was doing. He said if I could get through it financially (I was living on Rice-A-Roni), I’d be happier.
CGN: So you stuck it out.
CE: It moved so slowly, and then something just turned around. After the ‘89 fire we lost a lot of galleries. After the recessions in 91’ and 92’ I think 16 galleries closed. There was nobody here. I was on the second floor, and
Susan Sazama was down where I am now. We were the only two here [at 300 W. Superior].
At the time I had some friends who were my “go to” people – my mentor, Bob [Sobieszek], and a dear friend, Warren Shifferd. He was in international banking and helped me with financial issues. When he said I should move downstairs to expand, I worried about taking on double the rent. So he explained that the worst that can happen is bankruptcy. I was 30. I had never heard somebody say it that way, that I could fail and still, as a person, be whole.
CGN: You had to acknowledge a big risk and face it.
CE: Yes. But I’m a good negotiator and didn’t have to pay anything for the buildout.
CGN: How did your program start?
CE: The programming was specific. When I started, I was with somebody who was one of the biggest PR people in Chicago, and we had a plan. The first year was all about publicity. The second year was about trying to make some sales. And the third year was supposed to bring the publicity and sales together in the hopes of breaking even. Of course, I didn’t bank on losing all the money that I had in the stock market crash. Even though I had this five-year plan, it did not go accordingly. I did get an incredible amount of publicity, but back then the Tribune had a photography section, so they covered every show, mostly because I was 25 and this anomaly.
CGN: What was your first show?
CE: We started with Nan Goldin, apparently her first solo exhibition. People in Chicago didn’t know what The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was. We opened in February of ‘88 with her show. It was an extremely difficult beginning.
CGN: But there was a lot of publicity.
CE: A ridiculous amount of publicity. We tried to show the Ballad three times in Chicago. I think we were successful twice. Nan sort of didn’t make it to the showing one time.
Then we had a show called Men on Men: A Look at Male Sexuality. The third show was Formaldehyde Etc. We did shows about sex and death – anything to get people in the door.
CGN: How did you first talk to Nan Goldin and other artists you wanted to have as part of the program? You were 25, and you had never even worked in a gallery.
CE: The summer after I graduated, I went around and introduced myself to some of the major players in the museum world. I probably looked like I was 17. It was a more generous time then. And the curators were only 10 years older than me. We were all learning together, and there was no Internet. We’d share things because that’s how it was then. I introduced myself to various curators, who then vouched for me.
CGN: You must have wanted to do it all.
CE: I used to be programmed a year or two ahead of time, because there was so much I wanted to show.
CGN: Photography has changed since then.
CE: I remember who my first clients were – they’re still clients today. And the first sale was a Michael Kenna, who I found out about because an arrogant guy came into the gallery early on and said to me, ‘What do you know? I bet you don’t even know who Michael Kenna is.’ And I didn’t. I quickly wrote down the name, and somehow I found out who Michael was, and I reached out to Stephen Wirtz, who had the exclusive on him. I said, ‘I want to show him,’ and boom. Thank God that pompous guy came into the gallery and challenged me, because this became the gallery that Michael built. We’ve had 19 very successful shows of his work. That sustained me and allowed me to bring in an artist like Joel Peter Witkin.
CGN: His work doesn’t fly out the door.
CE: I say we show everything from Kenna to Witkin. That encompasses almost all of photography.
CGN: The gallery has been a business success, despite your initial plan to abandon it for museum work.
CE: When I realized I was not going to be a curator, it was really drastic. I was 34 and thought, this must be my midlife crisis. I couldn’t get off the couch.
CGN: What did you do?
CE: Up until my 25th anniversary, I was convinced every year that I would close, because I never really embraced it. My oldest friend said, ‘You’re successful and you’re complaining, and I don’t want to hear this anymore.’ I had to turn it around and get my head in the game. I went to a life coach who helped me with clarity and focus. And there’s no reason the gallery should close. I have a great staff and if things work out the way I expect, they should have no problems taking over. Now the gallery has been here over 30 years, and I plan on being here for the 35th anniversary.
CGN: Soon you’re moving the gallery to West Town after three decades in River North.
CE: When this lease was coming up, I looked at the numbers.
I know I am going to retire at 60, but retiring doesn’t mean I won’t do something else.
CGN: So what’s your new 5-year plan?
CE: I want to physically be at CEG for the 35th anniversary, which will be four years after we move. But yes, I started a non-profit this year with Anette Skuggedal, a dear friend from Oslo, called CASE Art Fund. I hope to work on CASE full-time in a few years, and then transition the gallery over to my staff. I made a promise to myself that I would not do CASE if it was ever a burden. It’s something I want to do. And I want to give back. I think what I’ve done is great, but it’s not fulfilling my soul anymore.
I have a terrific staff that is more than capable of moving the gallery forward, as I eventually move onto CASE.
I don’t want to be here today and gone tomorrow simply because my rent went up. I always said I’d rather close than move, but here we are.
CGN: A new address and configuration in January 2019.
CE: The new gallery will have three different exhibition spaces, a video area, and plenty of room for educational programming.
As you know, the art world has changed. Not one person has walked in since you’ve been here. It used to be very active. The new space allows for flexibility and engagement that this one doesn’t.
CGN: With what you know now, would you do this all again?
CE: Well, if my eyes and back were healthy, I think I would have gone to law school. I would’ve been a wicked lawyer.
CGN: 30 years later, what’s different from when you began?
CE: It’s obvious that the art world is having a massive shift right now. I’ve been talking about it with some of the top collectors in town, and we all see it.
CGN: The collector base that has sustained many is now as old as the dealers or older. Most of them are done spending money.
CE: And their kids are not interested. There’s a lack of understanding among the ‘dot commers,’ if you will, on the power of art to influence policy. They don’t understand it. In the 80’s and 90’s, when I was in Philadelphia, friends of mine were dying, before we even knew what AIDS was. We all learned together – ACT UP, what happened in the 80’s in the art world, it shook everything up, even if it was during the period of Jesse Helms. The art world single handedly spoke to the politics at the time.
Today, artists don’t seem as invested in what is happening, and the younger generation is disconnected from collecting art. It’s a serious issue everyone in the art world is discussing: How do we engage a younger generation in collecting?
CGN: There is so much that’s visual out there. It’s not that they don’t respond to images, but it’s superficial and brief.
CE: They’re just clicking for likes on Instagram.
CGN: Are people not compelled to own or invest in something the way previous generations of collectors once were?
CE: During the recent recession most people had to learn to live with less, and a lot of them did and enjoyed it, and I don’t blame them. I don’t believe that people need to own art to live. You need food, you need education, clothes and shelter. I remember another dealer who was adamant that you need art to live. And I think that’s a very privileged way of looking at it. A lot of people cannot afford clothes, let alone art. So we’re dealing with a specific demographic, and that’s never lost on me. Whether somebody buys a $500 piece or $50,000 piece it’s still money.
CGN: Tell me about your new non-profit.
CE: It is called CASE Art Fund. My business partner’s name is Anette Skuggedal. I took the first letters of our names, and all it became ‘case’. We’re dealing with things on a case-by-case basis. We will be handing out biannual grants to fine art photographers who are working on humanitarian issues. The first grant will deal with human rights that affect children.
CGN: This goes back to your point about how art in the 80’s made people understand in real time a current event.
CE: It’s full circle. This goes back to the fact that I believe wholeheartedly that photography can effect change, but recently it has lost that ability, because everybody now has a phone and is a photographer.
Now when we see images of death, we get outraged, but then we throw away the newspaper. I got fundamentally upset with the image of the bloody kid in the back of an ambulance in Aleppo. Everybody was outraged for 24 hours, and then nothing changed. Anette and I were talking about giving back and how we had to do something to get back to the basics. Photojournalists are no longer making images that separate them from anybody else. You see cellphone pictures that all look the same.
When I saw work by Omar Imam, a photographer from Syria, it all clicked. He creates fictional stories about real things, and he’s creating change through his photography.
CGN: This is what you want to help make happen.
CE: If you show images that are narrative in nature, without blood all over the place, people will look and ask questions, which offers an educational exchange. We will have a booth at EXPO Chicago this fall to share the concept – our goal is to erect a refugee tent on the floor that people can enter. Three of Omar’s pieces from Syrialism will be spotlit inside the tent, along with an amazing video he created. Other pieces from Live, Love, Refugee will be hung on the outside of the booth.
It is our hope that when viewers see the work in a non-traditional manner, they will stop, think, ask questions and act. That is one of our goals with CASE. We firmly believe photography can effect change.
Top image: Catherine Edelman Gallery staff toasts to moving to a new location at 1637 W. Chicago in January 2019. From left: Hannah, Tim, Cathy and Juli