By Kelly Reaves
In a historic and charmingly dilapidated mansion in Edgewater, Tricia Van Eck has been bringing creative people together since 2011. In the beginning, she invited writers, art critics and artists to discuss new ideas over dinners around a giant dining table in her first-floor living room. The brainstorms that ensued have mushroomed into a sprawling, intermittent series of installations and performances that emphasize experimentation in art. After its street address, Van Eck calls this place 6018NORTH.
About five years earlier, Eric May was purchasing a hairpin storefront in Noble Square to fill a gap he saw in Chicago’s art world between up-and-coming, struggling art students and the established, commercial gallery system. In its very name, Roots & Culture embodies the spirit of cultivating the supportive conditions that artists need to grow their practices and thrive in Chicago.
EM: I wanted to create an incubator space or a first step for artists who were coming out of degree programs to have an opportunity that would hopefully lead to careers in Chicago, in order to make Chicago a more sustainable place to launch a career and live.
TVE: At my dinners I was starting to really see the needs. And because I had worked with artists from all different fields, including performance, it really seemed like that was also a need to bring dancers, musicians to really be a space that could actually connect people from all different disciplines.
EM: Chicago has a really strong tradition and scene in performing arts—music, theater and dance.
TVE: The visual arts were kind of separate, although not so much anymore. Anytime people collaborate or work together, things happen that you couldn’t plan for. It enriches everything.
EM: I also think it’s a great opportunity to crossover audiences. With the food events at Roots & Culture, we are connecting audiences that might not otherwise come to the space to see our exhibitions. [They] are more interested in the culinary program. There’s always a dialogue and I get new names on the mailing list. It’s important to connect the dots, and I think that people who appreciate culture and humanities are generally a pretty open audience to other types of experiences—they are able to expand their horizons. We’re all on board for the enterprise of engaging the public and civic life and enriching it with art. That’s the altruistic approach that we all have, or I believe should have.
TVE: That’s why I’m in Edgewater. I’m from Chicago; it’s extremely segregated here, but my neighborhood is pretty diverse. It’s home to people who have settled here from all over the world. When you think of audience, a lot of times people think of peers, but who are we really talking to? If it’s just MFA students you might as well just stay in school. Activists and performers have different ways of approaching the world. So your work can be much more dynamic according to who’s looking at it, their responses, and then what happens in between. It opens all the possibilities of making the work stronger. I too think altruistically about making the world and certainly making Chicago a more vibrant and interesting place. I think I approach needs and issues like holes or gaps. Where can we fill? Who isn’t doing that show? 6018NORTH’s EXPO programming, for example, always addresses EXPO, it’s always responding to that particular environment. We look for interactive art, audience-engaged art or art that’s challenging—challenging, for example, what narrative painting might be as a category of art. Ultimately, we strive to open possibilities, so someone’s like “How the hell?” or “Is this art? And, if so, how?” We’re always looking for artists who are really taking risks and maybe don’t have the resources. I try to give them the confidence and the platform.
EM: We’re mostly interested in practices that don’t fall squarely within market ideals. We’re here to support emerging voices but we’re also here to support progressive practices that might have a harder time finding venues at more commercially driven spaces. We seek more conceptual projects that are, if not socially engaged, still addressing social themes. But I still love beautiful paintings and we’re gonna have a beautiful painting and textile show in November. It’s important for us to have a breadth and scope of what’s happening in the art world, but always with an eye on more unconventional practices.
TVE: Although I too am a sucker for pretty paintings, I prefer when they have social content in them. We’re living in a world that is in crisis in many areas, so we cannot pretend we’re in a bubble. We have Iraqis across the street, Bosnians… people from all over. For instance, 6018North just had what was essentially a block party that closed up the whole street with this table of food, a bouncy house, face painting, as well as performance art. We think of audience as such a broad category. A lot of what we strive for is to fight against individualism and self-interest and to really think about what is the community ethos and how to live responsibly within the community. Artists get sucked into that “my work” mentality, but artists usually become successful when a group of them—like the Impressionists, for example—become successful together rather than as individuals. I think that’s the real strength behind Chicago. This city has a kindness and a willingness that you don’t see elsewhere in the arts.
EM: We’ve been able to create a community of folks that want to give at the level they can, so it’s kind of this “it takes a village” mentality. There are people who give us fifty dollars at the end of the year, every year. We’ve been able to survive, I think, just by being a warm, welcoming place.