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Eye Exam: Open House: Art Collectors as Curators

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"Living Room" at Swimming Pool Project Space

By Jason Foumberg

A new breed of curator is emerging: the art collector. It’s almost standard practice for private collections to make their way into public museums by way of vanity exhibitions, even if they sometimes cause controversy, such as the Greek entrepreneur Dakis Joannou’s current collection show at New York’s New Museum. More often than not, though, such shows barely register on the critical radar even though they (seemingly) violate some ethical boundary of public trust.

In Chicago, the city of alternatives, private exhibition spaces in domestic settings abound. This is the reverse of the Joannou conflict—inviting the public into private spaces—but it may mark a relaxing of those taut and fraught lines of art ownership.

On the grand scale, there’s The Richard H. Driehaus Museum in a River North mansion that houses its namesake’s decorative arts collection. On a smaller scale, but more profuse, are the dozens of citywide temporary art spaces found in apartments and homes. A couple of surprising new art spaces, in collectors’ homes, opens the door to a deeper understanding of the collector as curator.

Dan Berger is a medical doctor who specializes in HIV treatment, and a collector of contemporary art. The focus of his collection is threefold, he explains: artists who have or had an artistic relationship with Chicago, gay artists and African-American artists. His Rogers Park home is filled with art, and Berger is ecstatic to tell the tales behind his favorite works by Rashid Johnson and Mr. Imagination, but guests to his new gallery space, called Iceberg, which opens on May 15, will enter through the back gate, not the house where his collection is displayed. The 450-square-foot room was once, astonishingly, a storage shed; it is now a pristine show space that also reflects Berger’s personal taste. The floor is steel tile and heated from below, skylights drench the space with natural light, and wood and brick details make this anything but a white cube gallery.

In Iceberg, Berger will exhibit the work of local artists who will benefit from an exhibition in an intimate and professional setting, but it is a non-commercial space—“no bureaucracy, no strings,” says Berger, who will not be selling the art, and will take no commission from any sales that the artists negotiate—although he does have first dibs on purchasing the art exhibited there. For the inaugural show, artist Robert MacNeill will exhibit his sculptures, and Berger has already bought one piece for his front yard; MacNeill is also the architect responsible for renovating the shed into a gallery, and Berger’s longtime friend. Two classic S&M photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe from Berger’s personal collection will be hung in MacNeill’s exhibition as a way to bridge the deeply personal relationship Berger feels with the artists he collects. MacNeill agreed to Mapplethorpe’s inclusion in his solo show.

Chuck Thurow in his home, with installation by Mia Ruyter

Across town, in Hyde Park, Chuck Thurow’s home is sometimes called Pall Mall, when he hosts one-night exhibitions there. The former director of the Hyde Park Art Center (he retired, after twelve years, at the end of 2009) welcomes artists and the public into his home, not on a regular exhibition schedule, but only as needed. So far, that has been three times. On the first occasion, Thurow created a domestic gallery by accident. The artist Jacob Hammes needed to know what a sperm whale’s heart looked like, as research for a sculptural project. Hammes turned to the Field Museum of Natural History, but they weren’t initially interested in making their whale hearts available for public perusal, so Thurow invited the museum’s curators to his home for a dinner party, where he displayed Hammes’ sculptures to convince them of the artist’s serious inquiry into whale anatomy. The networking event turned into an ad hoc gallery situated among Thurow’s collection of ethnographic artifacts and contemporary Chicago art, and he has since hosted events featuring art by Pat Swanson and Mia Ruyter. For Ruyter’s exhibition, Thurow’s living-room art came off the walls to make way for the artist’s designed wallpaper.

With Pall Mall, says Thurow, he’s creating a support system for artists, just as he enabled artists at the Hyde Park Art Center. “It’s a random walk,” he says, of the way that artists receive exhibitions and notoriety in the art world. He’s trying to make it a little less random by encouraging artists to embark on the potential he sees in their work. This is accomplished by providing an intimate venue with a select audience in attendance. He calls it a “stealth gallery,” in that people are invited by word of mouth, and especially if they can help the work of art come into being, either by way of expertise or participatory performance.

The New Museum controversy sparked another reactive exhibition here, called “Living Room,” staged this past April at the Swimming Pool Project Space, a storefront alternative gallery on Montrose Avenue. There, gallery owner Liz Nielsen invited four collectors to exhibit an artwork of their choice from their private collections in the gallery, all installed around a turquoise sectional couch named Miami (a painting hung over the sofa, and video art played on a television placed there). Even though the event was a satire, it was also an opportunity to view some great art normally hidden in the homes of private collections. The slackening of the rules represents, hopefully, the opening of greater opportunities for artists and viewers.

Iceberg opens on May 15, 6-9pm, at 7714 North Sheridan.

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