Several cities leap to mind when discussing contemporary art galleries in the U.S.: Los Angeles, with its recent influx of East Coast spaces opening West Coast outposts. Palm Beach, as growing populations and support for the scene have turned seasonal locales into year-round ventures. New York, always ubiquitous. But Chicago seems perennially overlooked.
Yet galleries in the Second City are thriving and distinguishing themselves from their coastal counterparts. Chicago gallerists are uniquely aware of the city’s lasting commitment to the arts, first and foremost though its world-class museums. “Chicago has a history of great collections,” gallerist Rhona Hoffman told Artsy. “The Art Institute of Chicago’s collection of Impressionists were gifts from Chicago collectors who came back from Europe and brought the Impressionist paintings.”
Hoffman is a figurehead in the city’s scene—one dealer called her “the Grand Dame of Chicago art”—and founded her eponymous space in 1976. She has focused on sociopolitical art and was one of the first gallerists to exhibit leading women artists including Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, and Cindy Sherman. Today she shows works by major names such as Derrick Adams, Sol LeWitt, and Gordon Parks, and is also deeply tied to the local scene: She represents Chicago-based artists Julia Fish, Judy Ledgerwood, and Michael Rakowitz, among others.
This local focus—a sense of community that every gallerist I spoke to for this piece emphasized again and again—is key to the Chicago scene. “In New York, it’s a much bigger population and place…and everyone mostly stays in their corner,” Hoffman said. “But Chicago is more collegial. We have dinner together.”
Emanuel Aguilar, founder and director of PATRON, couldn’t agree more. “A lot of gallerists who aren’t in Chicago are surprised to hear that everyone in Chicago is pretty collaborative and friendly with each other,” he said. “Even if we don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, we find ways to work together and coordinate and benefit the community at large instead of just on our own.” This includes attending each other’s openings, introducing collectors to one another, and celebrating the wins of other spaces in the city. “We’re all in this together,” Aguilar explained. “I think everyone feels that a success for one is a success for all.”
This support network is especially strong among the city’s West Side galleries, located in neighborhoods such as the heavily gentrified West Loop and the hipster mainstay Wicker Park. A stretch of Chicago Avenue, where both Hoffman and Aguilar have their locations, has turned into a sort of gallery row as Volume, Catherine Edelman, Andrew Rafacz, and others have filled the floors of the increasingly trendy area’s handsome brick buildings. Rental prices are favorable here, and the locale is easily accessible by car. “We have all of the necessary components of the ecosystem to thrive here,” Rafacz said, “but there’s a generosity among the participants.”
This recent westward push has included both established and emerging galleries. The upmarket Richard Gray Gallery—which was founded in 1963, has a New York outpost, and represents artists like David Hockney, Alex Katz, and McArthur Binion—opened a 5,000-square-foot location in a warehouse there in 2017. Mariane Ibrahim moved her gallery from Seattle to a West Town spot in 2019.
When considering that relocation, Ibrahim also thought about other cities. “I was like, ‘Maybe I should go to New York,’” she said. She ultimately decided on Chicago because she was stunned by its sense of camaraderie. “I was not used to it. You kind of become aggressive and competitive and it’s, OK, drop that [here],” Ibrahim said. “We’re not New York, we’re not L.A. This is who we are and we work together in this system.” She has helped organize shows for artists she doesn’t represent and hosted parties and events for other galleries.
But just because the Chicago scene is less aggressive than those on the coast, it’s no less ambitious. Chicago “offers a certain type of ease in showing a type of art, in bringing new narratives,” Ibrahim said, which means “that we [are] able to be challenging and bring really high-quality works.” Ibrahim’s program focuses on emerging international and Afro-descendant artists. She has exhibited Amoako Boafo, Ayana V. Jackson, and Ian Mwesiga, among others. Several of her artists, like Sergio Lucena, have their sole U.S. gallery representation in Chicago. The city has embraced her program, she said, thanks to a “sophistication in the [city’s] arts scene.”
This sophistication is driven by Chicago’s collector base, which is mostly from the city or the surrounding Midwest region (including cities such as Detroit, St. Louis, and Kansas City, in particular). There are fewer major collectors locally than there were in the past—“in the ’80s we had the Manilows, we had the Dittmars, we had the Bergmans,” Hoffman reminisced—but typical buyers are unique from those on the coasts. “They are not afraid to take any risk,” Ibrahim said. She also emphasized that, much as the galleries are hyper-connected to their city, so, too, are the collectors. “They have supported the artists locally before they came on the global stage. They early collected Rashid Johnson, they early collected Theaster Gates, they early collected Nick Cave,” she explained, citing three artists who have become synonymous with the city’s contemporary scene.
Aguilar also pointed out that his usual collectors are patient, deeply knowledgeable about art, and uninterested in chasing fads. “The Chicago energy is not this ‘hurry up and buy before the trend is over’; it’s what makes sense or feels right for a certain collection,” he said. He explained that Chicago collectors often are “not as seduced by the buzz of trends and speculation as often as one would experience elsewhere.” Ibrahim echoed the sentiment: “They’re not impulsive, compulsive buyers; they’re very methodical,” she said. That sometimes means forgoing works to watch an artist’s career develop, even if collecting them in the future may be more expensive.
At the same time, the open nature of the city’s galleries makes collecting feel more approachable. “Collecting, for younger collectors or newer collectors or starting collectors, can be intimidating and an anxiety-inducing process,” said PATRON director Briana Pickens. “I think the Chicago atmosphere makes people more comfortable because of the pace, and also because of the warmth.” Unsurprisingly, unlike in some flashier art cities, many of the contemporary collectors here prefer to fly under the radar and keep fairly low profiles.
While the core collectors for many Chicago galleries are regional, fairs remain important for accessing far-flung collectors. Key among these is EXPO, the annual fair on the coast of Lake Michigan, which returned this year after a COVID-19–induced hiatus. “EXPO acts as a convening moment to get the art world to Chicago to see what we have here,” said Kate Sierzputowski, the fair’s director of programming. This visibility, said Ibrahim, is “vital in connecting the collectors and the institutions and the galleries.”
And while tourism has enjoyed sustained growth in the state—prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Illinois experienced nine consecutive years of record-breaking tourist numbers—fairs outside of the city are also critically important to these spaces. “Chicago is not going to be the big city that everyone is going to want to fly to to buy art,” Hoffman said. “But,” she continued, “they do buy art from us because Chicago galleries go to art fairs.”
For example, there were seven Chicago-based exhibitors at last year’s Art Basel in Miami Beach, a fair that Hoffman said is particularly important for her gallery’s financial viability. While that number may seem small, it’s a fairly impressive showing considering there were only six exhibitors from Palm Beach, three from Miami, one from Houston, and none from Atlanta, Seattle, Austin, Philadelphia, or Denver.
And though people may not physically travel to Chicago to collect, these galleries are getting creative as they expand their reach. Ibrahim just opened a new outpost in Paris; and selling online has been key for Hoffman, who said “we wouldn’t survive” without it. She suggested that most of her non-local collectors are now buying online.
Beyond the galleries, Chicago has much to offer. Institutionally, the Art Institute of Chicago remains a world-class museum. Local gallerists cited others, such as MCA Chicago and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, as being integral to the city’s landscape. There’s also a panoply of prestigious schools—both art-focused and more traditional—in the area. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago has greatly influenced the city’s artistic history, nurturing seminal chroniclers of Black life like Charles White and Archibald J. Motley Jr.; encouraging the exploration of new technologies in the creative practices of Trevor Paglen and Katherine Behar; and offering a testing site for Dread Scott’s social practice and John Chamberlain’s car-crash sculptures.
Sierzputowski, of EXPO Chicago, was especially effusive about the “unique and weird art experiences you have and can maybe even stumble into” across the city—from an evolving art installation tucked into a convenience store, to a historic bank purchased by Theaster Gates that’s now used, in part, to hold an archive of house music.
And while every gallerist would love more eyes on their projects, none in Chicago are planning to alter their visions for the sake of attention. “I’m not interested in following any trend,” Ibrahim said. “What is going on in Chicago and its surroundings is fulfilling enough.”