Studio Stories

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The Home Gallery Space, A Cautionary Tale

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Dan Zamudio and Julie Sulzen
Alternative Spaces: Turning your home into a gallery

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Vanessa Shinmoto: The Home Gallery Space, A Cautionary Tale

From 2001 to 2007, I lived in an old brownstone on Halsted Street in a part of Pilsen that currently calls itself the Chicago Arts District. Many independent artists live in the building. My 1500 square foot unit had no running water and no kitchen or bathroom facilities. With few exceptions, most dwellers shared a shower and, if they were lucky, two toilets.

Despite these shortcomings, turning my home into a gallery space appeared to be a viable opportunity. Here was a vibrant community of artists that were eager to sell work out of their studios and I began to collaborate with the major landlord to organize monthly neighborhood exhibitions. The idea of being able to bypass the gallery system and sell work directly to ordinary people appealed to me. I was already selling work and figured that being able to show works in progress would help me cultivate a clientele. And I could do this all without having to pay an additional rent since it was my home. I was making about $1500 monthly from part time gigs, which easily covered my monthly rent.

At first, things went smoothly. I officially opened in fall of 2002 during the annual East Pilsen Artwalk and managed to sell over $1000 of artwork that weekend. Considering that I'd spent a couple hundred dollars on postcard announcements and refreshments, the profit margin was decent. A normally shy type, I made a conscientious effort to greet everyone who entered my space and chat with people who expressed interest. Over a hundred people signed my mailing list and gave good feedback on my work.

The neighborhood momentum began to gather steam and artist-run galleries opened at a steady pace. Art sales were not as high as I had hoped but I received a lot of support from the artist community. I organized a small spring artwalk with several members of the community and occasionally hosted other artists in my studio. A DJ friend and his electronica band offered to provide free music and brought friends and fans. Opening night parties were vibrant with eclectic cross sections of artists, arts fans and occasional collectors.

But I was not completely prepared for the time and financial commitment involved. Opening one's home as a gallery requires a lot of planning and careful budgeting. Exhibition announcements, press releases and email blasts had to be made and sent out on a regular basis. Artwork had to be hung and rehung; same-day cleaning, decorating and set up could take several hours. Refreshments and the requisite art opening wine had to be purchased every month – all ending up being a huge expense. Balancing these tasks against creating artwork and working outside of my field to support myself became stressful.

Selling artwork on my own also proved more difficult than I initially thought. People who bought my artwork were looking for that one piece of artwork that would match their décor, not many would return to buy more artwork. In truth, most visitors are simply passersby looking for free amusement. The serious and wealthy art collectors very rarely attend artist-run open studio exhibits because they require art world validation for purchasing art. It seems to me that established, high-end galleries provide this validation for the unknown artists they represent.

Turning one's home into a gallery has to be a labor of love unless there is a steady clientele purchasing artwork on a regular basis (or an infusion of trust fund money for exhibition announcements and refreshments). I would not claim success but the experience was very worthwhile and informative for my artistic growth. I developed the technical and graphic design skills needed to create postcards and email newsletters. I learned how to write press releases and how to submit them to the right reporters. On several occasions, I obtained press coverage and even a very favorable review.

There are a number of successful examples. Recently, I attended Beckstorm Gallery's annual holiday party in what appeared to be the sculptor's home. I did not get a chance to chat with Jack Beckstorm but I could see the work he put into displaying his sculpture and the money he spent on a nice spread that included sushi and wine. He also had a bartender helper serving wine and food.

In the end, the main consideration for an artist thinking about opening their own home is whether that artist can financially and emotionally support hosting exhibitions. It becomes too easy to allow an opening to morph into a party. I would not deter any artist with lots energy and ambition from taking this step but would strongly caution them to make a budget, plan ahead and prepare for the lean times.

Vanessa Shinmoto is a self-taught artist who works in a variety of two-dimensional media, including oils, acrylics, and collage. Originally from the Los Angeles metro area, she moved to Chicago over 10 years ago, after falling in love with the city during a summer visit. For most of this time, Vanessa had a live/work studio she called MaladjustedArt where she exhibited artwork created with her nondominant left hand. She eventually self published an artist book featuring these images and the snide statements that inspired them.

This story appears on the Studio Chicago site courtesy of Chicago Artists Resource. See more Artists Stories on CAR