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Douglas Alain Park: What is the value of working in alternative spaces?

Alternative spaces are funny. At times these art venues can be young, inexperienced, experimental, naive, and without context, but at the same time they can also have a strong sense of authenticity, a rawness and newness, a sense of vigor, enthusiasm, and dedication that most mainstream venues never seem to attain. The term itself blankets many different models of showing. From artist-run cooperatives, not-for-profit groups, individual studios, living room galleries, and even outside public space, the alternative space can be many things to many people. Some have been around for decades and while still an alternative to the commercial model they are confident and established in their roles within the art world. At its core an alternative space is any creative use for showing in or outside the gallery that doesn’t follow the normal mode of operations. In short: it’s an alternative.

It’s true that more often than not the alternative space is associated with the emerging, recently-schooled artist. And while this might not be the case for all instances the alternative space is the place where a viewer can see the freshest, newest, most experimental, most innovative work, both the successes and the failures.

One would assume from this common association with emerging artists that alternative spaces should be used as mere stepping stones for either the artist in their budding career or the space itself as it finds its place and settles into established adulthood. But that view is a little narrow. If you look at the larger picture, the greater history, most established spaces, galleries, and even museums were alternative at one point. When the gentry of 16th and 17th century Europe started their cabinets of curiosities, the precursors to today’s museums, they were little more than private collections of objects shown to friends. I’m sure the visitors to some of Chicago’s living room galleries would take comfort in the thought that the seemingly mundane environment they are viewing art in is a time-tested argument. And then with the example of White Columns in New York City, Contemporary Artist Workshop in Chicago, both alternative spaces in their origins that have become pillars of contemporary art in their communities, it’s clear that alternative spaces can have staying power. This is all a round about way of saying that the alternatives of today become the first choices of tomorrow. So as an artist it would be unwise to overlook the little guy just because they’re little now. They might grow into giants.

So other than getting in on the ground floor, what other value is there to working with these kind of spaces? Another aspect to alternative spaces is that while usually fiscally conscious they are not entirely about the money. Sometimes it’s the furthest thing from their minds. The art work is the focus. This is flat out refreshing. I’ve shown in many settings, commercial galleries, university galleries, and alternative galleries, and without a doubt the most emotionally satisfying in regards to the kind of work able to be shown has been with alternative spaces. These kinds of spaces can give their showing artists a little more freedom. They don’t have the monetary concerns that some commercial galleries do or the content concerns of some of their university counterparts. Alternative spaces are the venues were you get to do the projects that you’ve always wanted to do, the one’s you know will never sell and which might offend but still need to be made. For me that’s usually my best work.

When I moved to Chicago it took me awhile to find my footing in the art community. I didn’t know anyone locally and fresh with an MFA from an institution outside of Chicago I felt a little intimidated by the sheer number of Chicago artists with degrees from Chicago institutions. It seemed everywhere I turned galleries and spaces were showing artists who were schooled in Chicago. I assumed at the time, and admittedly prematurely, that this was a bias and would be true across the board especially in the case of emerging artists and alternative spaces. The pervasive idea that artist-run spaces only show their friends was always looming in the back of my head. But nonetheless I was set to show my work more in the local scene and I was resolved to be part of the community. I attended openings I came across, trolled their websites for like-minded work, clicked every link on their links page, and explored those sites in turn. Eventually I had a surface familiarity with the lay of the Chicago scene and when I came across a call for proposals from the local artist-run curatorial collective GardenFresh I sent in an idea. The group liked my proposal and showed my work and over the next couple years included me in other exhibits they hosted. A relationship was started from that blind submission which eventually culminated in the group asking me to join them as a co-director. As an artist there’s no way of knowing which contacts will open doors and turn into bigger and better things, but it would be a shame to not utilize and investigate all the options that are before you, both the established and the alternatives.

An alternative is by nature a risk, an untested course. This can be scary, but as artists we also know that it is experimentation and risk that can lead to breakthrough.

Alain Douglas Park is an artist and writer. He has an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and currently works in publishing while also teaching art part time. He was co-director of now closed  gallery/curatorial collective GardenFresh and editor of Tin Parachute Postcard Review, a literary project he co-founded with his wife.

This story appears on the Studio Chicago site courtesy of Chicago Artists Resource. See more Artists Stories on CAR