CGN Art Dealer Q & A: Scott Speh, Western Exhibitions
Name of gallery: Western Exhibitions
Number of years in business: 16
How did you begin your career?
I was an artist working a stultifying day job, working for the admissions office of an art school. I’d be on the road 5 days of week (at least!) from fall into the early spring, and when I’d get home I had no desire to coop myself up in the studio. I needed to be around people, especially other artists, leading me to meet up with them in their studios or in bars, discussing their work and the art issues of the day.
This day job also led me to pack as much as I could into a day off. When I lived in New York, a day off might be a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and I’d spend the entire day in a different gallery district, going to see everything.
What inspired you to open a gallery?
Looking back at both the gallery hopping and studio visiting, I can see now I was developing my eye and my empathy for artists’ needs, while at the same time growing less and less interested in my own artistic practice. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Chicago had a robust apartment gallery scene and I watched my artist friends exhaust their opportunities at all these spaces without getting a sniff from commercial galleries, so eventually I thought I’d open a space to show their work, despite the fact that I ZERO experience with galleries.
I never showed with a commercial space, never interned nor worked for one, I didn’t have an art history or arts administration degree, nor did I have a wealthy benefactor. But I did have an eye. And being an artist myself, I knew of their travails, needs and concerns. So when I was offered a raw space to open a bricks-and-mortar gallery (after putting on shows nomadically for two years) for $350 a month, I thought “I don’t have $350 extra a month, but there is no way to get a space for cheaper than this.” I took the leap in 2004.
Is there a unifying element in your program or artist representation?
Personal narratives, unique cosmologies and world views; LGBTQ artists and issues; Feminist art/fighting the patriarchy; pattern, decoration and surface concerns; works on paper (especially drawing); and artist books.
How are you connecting with collectors and artists right now? Have you added to or increased your digital outreach?
Shelter-in-place has been a sensitive time, and most people have had bigger concerns that buying art. That said, we do have rent and bills to pay and payroll to meet! So if collectors and curators do reach out to me (and thank God a few have), they will have my full attention.
We updated our Artsy page, hoping to attract those eyeballs, and have amped up our content on Instagram, offering in-depth stories each day about individual art works in our Miller & Shellabarger show. Upcoming shows will be featured too.
Which exhibitions did you have to postpone or adjust due to COVID-19?
We pushed back two shows:
Visionaries + Voices at Western Exhibitions was rescheduled for June 6–July 11, 2020, online and by appt. in the gallery.
New York in the 80s: Selections from the Barry Blinderman Collection has been pushed back to January 8, 2021.
What percentage of your sales have previously been online vs in person (including art fairs)?