As a child, Carolyn Bernstein fondly remembers her mother, artist Gerda Meyer Bernstein, planning a very significant project in their living room. Gerda was taking meetings with unofficial advisor Nancy Spero and fellow artists who came from diverse backgrounds, countries and visual mediums. She enjoyed the energy, the passion and the focus.
From those early talks sprung ARC (Artists, Residents of Chicago), founded in 1973 as one of the nation’s first nonprofit women-run cooperative galleries, with the goal of blending “the stimulation of being both audience and organizer for lectures, programs and exhibitions; the enrichment of women working with women.”
ARC celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, making it the second oldest women’s collective gallery in the country.
Though the gallery showcases works of all genders, Gerda Meyer Bernstein’s aim as a founding member was to let women express who they were, whether through photography, painting, installation, sculpture, performance or other artistry.
In addition to Gerda (who is one-hundred and still making art), the founding members included Dalia Reklys Alekna, Jan Arnow, Judy Lerner Brice, Ellen Ferar, Irmfriede Hogan, Johnnie Johnson, Maxine Lowe, Mary Jane Min, Civia Rosenberg, Regina Rosenblum, Laurel Ross, Frances Schoenwetter, Sara Skolnik, Myra Toth and Monika Wehrenberg.
When ARC was created, there was nothing akin to it in Chicago and the market was commercially oriented. Concurrently, the debate around the definition of “real art” was heating up.
“Pretty much anything made by a woman was seen as craft, not serious art,” ARC president Stacey Lee Gee says. “ARC was created for the founders to be able to show their own work, in the context and in the way they wanted it to be seen.”
“Just the concept of it was new and radical,” Carolyn Berstein adds.
The gallery’s first location was on East Ontario across the street from the old Museum of Contemporary Art, chosen simply to piggyback on event foot-traffic spillover.
“And so your thinking was, look, when they have their openings, we’re gonna have our openings and so everybody’s going to be there,” Carolyn says, turning to Gerda, with a laugh.
Gerda managed much of ARC’s early marketing, learning the process in real time.
“She was constantly convincing people to help,” Carolyn says. “She still had kids at home and she was doing her own artwork, so she was trying to find a group of women who could share in the vision and the workload. None of them had done that before. So it was really learning how to incorporate and create a nonprofit organization, creating a mission statement, research—all as their lives moved in different directions.”
In 1973, in a world that hardly recognized performance, ARC created a space and funding for those who were ignored. By fighting for their own right to show artwork, ARC members helped spotlight other artists who were passed over by more traditional spaces. They hosted one of the earliest performance-dedicated programs in the nation called RAW Space, and unlike other galleries, they paid artists $250 a performance.
ARC was also an early advocate for the Chicago artist community at large. In 1975, ARC held a fundraiser for Second City when they were raising money for an improv performance idea called “Saturday Night Live.”
ARC helped fashion a gallery category that operated outside the whims of the commercial system. Today, ARC is one of a very few nonprofit galleries dedicated to producing solo shows for artists.
“The co-op model creates an incredibly dynamic ecosystem of passionate people who make an adaptive vision for what they see missing in the art world,” says Lee Gee. “Many of us are about as different as individuals could be, but our differences and the ever-changing individuals that make up the membership create a unique synergy,” she says. “I believe that this special mutability has allowed us to move and change… to become one of a handful of galleries formed out of a feminist ideal to continue to exist while so many other incredible galleries have closed one-by-one.”
ARC members, through their dues, subsidize half of the cost of solo-show production. ARC allows solo artists to keep one-hundred percent of the proceeds of any artwork they sell, compared to the industry standard of a fifty-percent commission. The model is a nontraditional, but much-needed break for a professional artist looking to exhibit artwork made in unusual materials or methods.
“Most for-profit galleries seek out only sellable objects, so an artist doing less-investment-friendly work could find themselves doing the best art of their career with nowhere to show it.” Lee Gee says. “But due to the work ethic of our strong membership base, ARC is able to create a space to feature these solo shows.”
ARC member Cheri Naselli joined in 2004 in what she calls their third phase. She has witnessed several moves due to being priced out of a location as a nonprofit. She hopes to find a permanent home for the gallery, ideally a location with more space to create opportunities for performance, additional solo shows, and an on-site artist-in-residency.
ARC is already planning for the next fifty years. Further down the road, major highlights will include an artist residency somewhere outside of the city, allowing artists to make varied work in a more relaxed setting, but with the urban connection at their back to support and show their innovations. Members would also welcome an installation-specific gallery or small house separate from the gallery space for grander and more complex pieces.
“We want a place where community can go and experience a full and complete vision of what this unique kind of artwork can be,” Lee Gee says.
ARC will celebrate its fiftieth-anniversary exhibition at the opening reception on September 29 from 5 to 8pm. The exhibition will include an expansive fifty-year survey of artwork made by members, past and present. The gallery will also host a Facebook Live event on October 14 from 2pm to 4pm for those interested in a more intimate understanding of the artists’ work from the exhibition.