“I’m not going to wait until I’m old or dead to be discovered,” artist Johnnie Johnson told the Chicago Tribune in 1974, “You have to know how to sell your work.” This sentiment helps explain why Johnson, along with fifteen fellow women artists, joined forces to found Artists, Residents of Chicago Gallery (ARC) the prior year. ARC opened in 1973 alongside several other alternative art spaces, including Artemisia Gallery and N.A.M.E., all of which sought to give emerging artists a venue to exhibit their work.
ARC and Artemisia stood out in the Chicago alternative landscape as feminist co-operatives, which in part meant they were not traditional, commercial art venues and they made decisions by consensus. Yet while Artemisia closed its doors in 2003, ARC is gearing up to celebrate its forty-fifth anniversary this fall. While much has changed during the course of the gallery’s run, its commitment to empowering women in the arts and providing a venue for emerging artists remains the same.
“The importance of the gallery, we believe, is that we are an alternative space and we offer a chance for people who are outside the gallery system to exhibit in a professional space,” says Cheri Reif Naselli, ARC Gallery’s president. “One of the founding members that I talked to said, ‘We wanted to do our own thing. We wanted to take control of our lives. There were like three choices for women if they went to college: to become a nurse, to become a secretary or become a teacher. Younger women realized how limiting that was.’”
Though ARC can now lay claim to being one of the last remaining women’s cooperative galleries in the country, it has not been without its own challenges. As with any long-running space, the cooperative has endured numerous leadership changes in addition to eight gallery moves, most often due to rising rents. ARC is, in fact, wrapping up their most recent move, a process that began in 2017 when the landlord of their 2156 North Damen location raised the rent twenty-five percent.
The new location includes up to four exhibition rooms, as well as a basement gallery known as a “raw” space, available for artists who work in installation to transform. It will also offer a gallery specifically dedicated to video and multimedia work.
ARC is in good company in their new West Town location, which is within walking distance to Western Exhibitions and Paris London Hong Kong. They christened the new locale with “Women Strong: New Space, New Work,” a group show that opened mid-September, which featured artworks from over fifty past and current ARC members. Included in that group was Iris Goldstein, who first joined ARC in the 1970s and later served as the gallery president.
“I was very aware of ARC from the very beginning,” Goldstein says. She attended one of the founding meetings but didn’t become a member until later on. “Maybe I was just too timid, I don’t know.”
Goldstein, who received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, recalls the energy and enthusiasm of the original members. “It was an exciting time,” she says. “More artists started staying around. Chicago started seeming like a place you could have a career. It was just slowly beginning that women were having a chance to do anything in the arts. You might say we haven’t gotten there yet.”
Reif Naselli agrees that the art world remains a place without gender parity. “Men still dominate the field, even though there are women curators and women galleries now,” she says. Statistics support her claim. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, work by women artists make up between three and five percent of major permanent collections in the United States and Europe. Commercial galleries don’t fare much better: only thirty percent of represented artists are women. Nor are women in the arts compensated equally. A National Endowment for the Arts report from 2010 found that although fifty-one percent of visual artists are women, they earn an average of eighty-one cents for every dollar made by their male peers.
This reality is why ARC remains committed to challenging the status quo, not only through their organizational structure but also through the shows they mount. The co-op has four group exhibitions per year, two of which are juried. And members make it a priority to produce shows with a political or feminist focus. In 2015, a group show titled “I Can’t Breathe” looked at police violence and institutionalized racism. The prior year they mounted “The ‘F’ Word: Feminism Now,” which encouraged artists to submit work examining what feminist art is and where it is going.
ARC is also unique as a feminist co-op in that it has shown work by men since its inception. “We’ve always been a women-only membership, but we show men’s work as well because we think it’s important to have a dialogue,” says Reif Naselli.
To that end, following the forty-fifth-anniversary show will be a solo exhibition by photographer Jason DeBose. Titled, “Presidential: Public Depictions Overseas of U.S. Leadership,” the work features images of graffiti from thirteen countries, all responding to or representing a world leader from a different nation. Displayed alongside the work will be wall texts offering historical information to contextualize the pieces.
Reif Naselli says that staging challenging, cutting-edge work is one of the most important goals of the gallery. “Some of those battles that we thought we’d fought and won, keep reemerging,” she says. “So I think it is important.”
Goldstein believes ARC offers unique opportunities for members to not only show their work but also to be a part of the city’s art community. For her, the experience has been particularly fulfilling. “ARC fit me very well,” she says. “It was just perfect for me.” Throughout her years at the gallery, she has worked in leadership and development, has curated and hung shows, and of course shown her own sculptural work. “It’s been a great experience for me, and I like to think I’ve contributed to other artists’ experiences, promoting a place that’s good for artists to show their work.”
Jason DeBose’s “Presidential: Public Depictions Overseas of U.S. Leadership” opens October 5 and shows through October 27; “Reinvention II: an Open Walls Exhibition” opens on October 31, at ARC Gallery, 1463 West Chicago.