Talking art with Chicago gallerist Monique Meloche is an exercise in keeping up. Walking me around her exhibition with Arvie Smith last fall, Meloche sped from one idea to the next, her thoughts tumbling out in quick succession. How she was “stopped in her tracks” by the eighty-four-year-old artist’s “beautiful, sexy paintings.” Her appreciation for his “explosive and electric use of color and luminosity.” Where she sees a hint of the “acid green glow” of Toulouse-Lautrec’s nightlife or some of the “vibe” of Robert Colescott, a Smith contemporary, in the work.
“She’s like a lightbulb,” says the Chicago-based artist Candida Alvarez, who has been friends with Meloche for over twenty years and joined her roster of artists a couple of years ago.
Tall, aided in part by her ubiquitous high heels, with an abundance of dark curly hair, her nails perfectly polished in sharp metallic hues and fingers ringed in gold, Meloche radiates energy. She has the physical presence and easy glamor of a former athlete who was, in fact, a cheerleader. A self-described overachiever, Meloche kept at it all through her elementary, middle and high school years, then on into college. She was serious and competitive, even traveling the country for five years as a professional coach, teaching others the sport.
Meloche, who describes her youthful attempts at art as “horrible,” found in cheerleading a space to exercise her imagination. “I made up the cheers, I made up the dance routines. There was always a creative element.”
While her background might seem unusual in the art world, a cheerleader’s ability to rally people around a shared sense of possibility is not unlike the tasks of a gallerist, whether coaxing artists to keep working through their doubts or inspiring potential collectors to make a purchase. It’s easy to picture Meloche cheering on the team from the sidelines. She has a knack for making curation, which can appear a remote and cloistered practice, feel warm and inclusive.
“Working with someone like her really makes you understand how important curation is, how fun it can be, how it too can be a form of expression,” says Lora Fosberg, the exhibition director at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City, who approached Meloche about collaborating. “I didn’t know what she’d be like. She’s such a big deal. But she was great: spontaneous, lively. She made me feel more enthusiastic about the curatorial process.”
Now, having rounded the corner on two decades of running her gallery, the art world in Chicago and beyond is rallying for Meloche. Alongside Alvarez, she was honored by the Chicago Artists Coalition last year. The curatorial partnership with Fosberg and the Lubeznik Center resulted in “moniquemeloche presents,” a twentieth-anniversary celebration and exhibition last fall featuring eleven of the artists she represents, including Ebony G. Patterson, Sheree Hovsepian and Sanford Biggers.
Her artists are also ascending anew. Hovsepian made her first appearance at the Venice Biennale in 2022, with a set of her spare, elegant collage pieces and Cheryl Pope’s latest show, “Variations on a Love Theme,” went straight from Meloche’s gallery to the Ulrich Museum of Art in Wichita (“unheard of for a commercial gallery show,” said Meloche with pride). Patterson and Alvarez both have work in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s current exhibition, “Forecast Form,” which explores contemporary art of the Caribbean diaspora. Later this year, Patterson will take over the New York Botanical Garden in a show Meloche predicts “will be a game-changer.”
Success hasn’t happened overnight for Meloche, who says it took about a decade for her gallery, officially opened in 2001, to become profitable. Though she had some heavy hitters in her corner from the start, from the late arts patron and philanthropist Lew Manilow (“He said you absolutely should do this”) to her husband and now-business-partner Evan Boris (“He must have been crazy in love with me”), Meloche herself was always her strongest supporter. “I thought I was pretty good from the moment I opened the gallery, frankly. I was so sure of my decision.” She recalls saying to herself, “I don’t understand why the rest of the world is not in step with me [but] it will come.”
Rhona Hoffman, who hired Meloche to be the director of her gallery in the late 1990s, describes her “as a very intelligent optimist. She’s upbeat. She doesn’t expect bad things to happen. She expects good things to come.”
That sense of optimism and determination was instilled in Meloche at an early age. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she moved to Michigan with her mother and stepfather while in middle school. Meloche says it was a “really good life.” Her stepfather was an industrial and graphic designer, her mother “a beauty queen, a seamstress, a lifelong model” who had her daughter modeling from a young age. “I got a lot of praise for things. They instilled a lot of confidence in me for whatever I was doing.”
She doesn’t remember going to galleries or museums as a kid, but her own lightbulb moment came in a darkened classroom, when her high-school humanities teacher showed slides of contemporary art and introduced her to the idea that art could be a way of exploring the world. The first in both her parent’s families to go to college, Meloche intended to major in law at the University of Michigan but after taking an introductory art-history course, shifted gears. “After the first semester I called my dad and said, ‘Will you still pay for my college education if I switch to art history? I love this and I want to be in these classes.’ Thankfully, he said yes.”
From Michigan, Meloche went on to amass a set of impeccable art-world credentials: a master’s degree from the School of the Art Institute followed by six years at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), rising from office temp to assistant curator. At first, the part-time gig in the registrar’s office was just another of the half-dozen odd jobs she was holding down to pay for school, from selling vintage posters to slinging drinks and cold-calling potential Art Institute members. But the mid-nineties MCA was an exciting and growing place and the museum proved to be an incubator for Meloche. Damien Hirst was there with his first international exhibition, “Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away” and Meloche accompanied him on a tour of Chicago galleries. Another time, though she wasn’t yet a curator, she proposed installing work by Sylvie Fleury on the exterior of the building, then at its location on Ontario Street, a project that became her “big claim to fame” when it morphed into an ongoing series of wall projects at the MCA.
Meloche’s can-do attitude carried her into the job at Rhona Hoffman and a stint at Kavi Gupta’s gallery Vedanta before striking out on her own, at first in her home (until her husband said “Enough!”) and then in a proper gallery space in the West Loop. There she went big. Alongside the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, one where none of the work was for sale (“I wanted it to be a curatorial incubator for artists who aren’t quite ready to be recognized by museums”), Meloche put together “Disco,” a group show featuring a roster of international artists, including a piece by the Fluxus-inspired Swiss artist John Armleder. “For John’s installation I had to buy $5,000 worth of disco balls. Like, what the fuck? I don’t come from money. We had just spent every dollar we had on our wedding and our house. It was so crazy. But it was fantastic.”
Crazy, fantastic and timely. When the events of 9/11 shut down the inaugural Art Basel Miami, Meloche continued with her plans to bring “Disco” to a nearby satellite fair and it was a hit. The connections she’d made along the way and her by-then-well-honed ability to raise money quickly helped her see it through. They still do. She has an appetite for the business side of art and the “fun” of the hustle. “I’m always trying to work different angles,” she says. “I don’t wait for curators to come in. I’m very happy to say ‘Hey, I have this show you might want.’” At one point, she tells me about her old-school habit of keeping paper invoices and how she loves observing how the stack has grown since 2001, saying with a grin, “It gives me such ridiculous joy.”
She takes the same joy in the artists she represents, in both the ideas and the materials that animate them. She seeks out work that is fresh, that she hasn’t seen before and notes that they “all have a very hands-on craft mentality I’ve always been drawn to. It always reveals itself to me.” Over twenty years, her visual instincts and acumen have helped her to assemble a remarkable group, many of whom have been with her for a decade or longer, people like Rashid Johnson, Ebony G. Patterson or Carla Arocha, who left Hoffman to work with Meloche in 2001.
Rhona Hoffman says Meloche “picks people who are very serious. Even if they are younger, she can see the potential they have. There’s a real vision and passion that substantiates the work, to believe in you, create a marketplace and get your work into museums. She’s really good at it.” In her typically blunt fashion, Meloche says her track record also results from what she calls her “no-asshole policy,” saying, “There are a lot of artists who are not nice people. I might like their work but if I don’t like working with them, there’s no way.” She has no patience for galleries “who train their staff to be rude to everybody” or foster an intimidating atmosphere.
What she does like to cultivate is the artistic process. One of the reasons she made the move from an academic to a more commercial curatorial path was the chance to work with artists over time, to track and even guide the course of their development. “I try not to tell artists what to make. A lot of time they need to work through something that isn’t going to work, to get through to the other side. So, you have to understand that. You have to be patient.”
Patience also means not being afraid to have tough conversations, to tell artists when their work—or they themselves—aren’t ready for exhibition. She started working with Rashid Johnson when he was only twenty-one. She recalls he got a lot of attention right after graduating college and “kind of thought he was everything.” So she told him to go to grad school, thinking it might “kick his ass a bit.” Johnson eventually dropped out but Meloche worked to get him an honorary degree from SAIC and still sounds like a proud mentor. “To see how he’s matured into this incredible, multi-talented artist, filmmaker, philanthropist…it’s really fulfilling.”
Sometimes though, her artists grow away, like in 2018 when the international mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth signed Amy Sherald, just after the American painter’s fame-making portrait of Michelle Obama was unveiled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Noting that the same gallery also signed Johnson, Meloche remarks dryly that she’s clearly a “good farm team” for the mega-galleries, describing them as “department stores but for really good art.” She didn’t just miss the chance to keep representing Sherald as the artist hit it big. “I lost a friend,” she says. “And that’s not fun.”
While she describes her current relationship with Sherald as “pretty amicable,” it is understandable why the loss still stings. Meloche and Boris didn’t want nor do they have kids. Instead, they consider their artists family. While people often make that claim about their workplace or colleagues, many Meloche artists I spoke with spontaneously used the same word to characterize not only their relationship with her, but the ties she cultivates amongst all the artists on her roster, encouraging them to show up for each other. Candida Alvarez says Meloche got “very emotional” when they were honored together last year, a side of the gallerist she’d never seen before, adding, “She’s a good human being. That’s what makes her so wonderful to be around. [The art world] is a market, a business and it’s not everybody you can go have dinner with.”
The last time I spoke with Meloche was over dinner at her house, after an opening featuring two of the gallery’s newer artists, Kajahl and Layo Bright. Instead of a formal sit-down, people gathered in and around the kitchen. Collectors, artists, and some of her oldest friends mingled, alongside people who’d found their way there through happenstance and appeared stunned by all the beautiful art on the walls. Meloche was still excited by a recent trip to check out Art Basel Paris, which she plans to participate in next year. It struck me that even as she enters increasingly rarefied circles, she still has that vibrant energy that first led her to launch a gallery in her house, over two decades ago. And why not? Meloche points to her mentor Rhona Hoffman, who is still going strong at eighty-seven. “That’s the nice thing about the art business,” she says. “If you want to, you can do it forever.”