1369 West Grand Avenue / +13127194325 / 65grand.com
Fri – Sat 12pm to 5:30pm
Interview with Bill Gross, Owner/Director of 65GRAND, Chicago, IL by Rajee Aryal
On Dec 11, 2012 I sat down with Bill Gross in my studio at the School of the Art Institute and talked about 65GRAND, his gallery in Chicago.
RA: Could you say something about your personal background?
BG: I was born in Omaha, Nebraska. I moved to Minnesota for high school. Late in high school, in 1973, I was in the back of a VW bus driving back to school and there was an announcement on the radio that Picasso died. That’s when it struck me that people were still making art. I thought all art had been made like 400 years ago. I started to get interested – I thought, well this is an active pursuit that people are involved in. I just kind of started going to school. I got really restless so I moved around a lot. Anyway I got through undergraduate school with a degree in painting.
RA: Where did you go for undergrad?
BG: I went to five different schools throughout the Midwest. I was really interested in making art. But I was also, in retrospect, always really interested in art history. Art history from the 1890s to the present. I studied the earlier art history but I just never really connected to it. I was interested in exhibitions more than the individual paintings or drawings. I graduated from University of Nebraska, went to Illinois State University and studied painting. I took a lot of art history classes, particularly contemporary art history or modern. I was interested in the dealers. How did Sydney Janis end up showing these people? Who was this person? I’ve always been interested in how art gets into the world and, in a way, how that history has always been very fickle. Because there are sort of some important gate keepers and they are the people who determine certain things.
RA: When did it occur to you that you wanted to have your own space?
BG: I was asked by some friends to co-curate a show in an apartment space, called the Guest Room Project. They would have people who didn’t know each other curate shows in the guest room in their house. The openings were just like barbecue parties at their house. I think they wanted to get people who didn’t know each other together. I enjoyed doing the show. Later, the friend who had the space was moving to Portland. He’d done all these exhibitions but people hadn’t seen his work. He wanted to show his work and I said, well we could just hang it in my house. Like in my kitchen and clean up the space a little bit and invite people for a party. He was like, yeah let’s do it. We said, Ok let’s make a name and see if we can get it listed. So I did that in my apartment and people came right away. I have been in Chicago for a long time. I have lots of different friends who are involved in the arts. They were like, this is cool. What is your program gonna be?
RA: Did you sell the works? Were they priced?
BG: It was mostly just a going away party for a friend. I don’t think we had a price list or anything. I can’t remember if we sold anything. But I had already done some projects with other people, at art fairs, where we curated booths. The other people were really shy about selling things. But right from the beginning, I always thought if someone is interested in a work, I’m gonna sell it to them. But I wasn’t thinking too much about doing that. Then after a few months, there was another friend who was making work from heavy cast iron that she didn’t think would be shown anywhere. Since I already had the place painted and cleaned up, I thought let’s use my space. So we did that. People did come over to see these shows. I thought that was kind of weird. And somewhere in the middle of all of this, I thought, I like doing this. I don’t have a background in business or anything, but what is a gallery really? You just hang some artwork and people look at it, obviously it’s more complicated than that but that’s what went through my head at the time. So I began to consider a more regular kind of schedule. That’s when this became an idea that I could run a gallery.
RA: How long did you do the shows in your apartment?
BG: I started in October 2005, so like 5 years. It was in my kitchen.
RA: You were selling the works too right?
BG: Yeah. At some point we started selling. We started getting ArtForum reviews. Our first ArtForum review was before we expanded. My girlfriend moved in with me and I told her that we were going to convert our bedroom into another gallery space. Because it was a nice space, it didn’t have any windows or anything.
RA: Where was this? Which neighborhood?
BG: Right across the street from where I am now, Grand and Noble. My girlfriend (now my wife) was also really involved in arts and she was excited. There were two rooms in the apartment and in one of the rooms we could project videos. There were all these funny little steps and we just evolved.
RA: So after five years of that you rented a separate space?
BG: At first I just exhibited friends. Then after a couple of years, I was showing people mostly from New York. I showed an artist from LA who’s now doing a show in MOMA, Zoe Crosher. I started to think about things a little differently. We had our third ArtForum review. There was a person in town who was getting kind of irritated that apartment spaces were getting a lot of attention. He contacted the city and lodged a complaint that I was running a business in my apartment. …it wasn’t zoned; I wasn’t able to get a permit. We couldn’t work out a deal with the city. By that time I was ready to have a regular space anyway. That was 2009. I think we reopened in Sep 2010 in the store front that we are in now.
RA: Were you thinking specifically about the kind of gallery you wanted to be?
BG: There were two things. Chicago has had this history of apartment spaces that were mostly students, they would come from various programs and they would focus on their colleagues, which makes sense. But I’m not connected with a school. I thought it would be interesting to show artists from a wider spectrum in terms of the programs they went to and their age. I’m older so I thought there’d be a value to having space where it wasn’t just college students but a wider age range. Some kind of notion like that was in my head. The other thing, there were the kinds of work that hadn’t really been shown much in Chicago. This was before the Unmonumental exhibition at the New Museum. But I was interested in that type of work, sort of raw work that was a reaction to, I think, the over-produced Matthew Barney kind of stuff. It was work that I really liked and I didn’t see really full-on versions of it here. So I gravitated to artists that made that kind of work.
RA: Since you opened this more formal space, what has your experience been like?
BG: Well first of all, I miss the old space. I wish I had documented everything better. I had fun. Lots of people have memories of it – it kind of had its little history. I miss it but at the same time, I always felt bad that I was forcing people to hang their work in this really awkward place. So when I found a space, I could gut it completely and start from scratch. I knew the size of the place I wanted. I cleaned it up as well as I could. I guess I’m comfortable with the white cube, it seems to be the most neutral situation. But it’s hard to fight the perception of what a gallery is. The one thing nice about apartment space is that people can engage with artwork in a way that has less pretense and I think that does something for the art. There are interesting challenges to the more formal space as to how to make things more interesting. Partly that’s the artist’s job but I feel like as a gallerist, I want to make sure it is a lively program, also that the shows look awesome.
RA: How involved are you in the installation process?
BG: Some artists I work with are older. If they come in and have an idea about what they want to do in the space… I am pretty comfortable with people coming up with their own thing. But I sort of feel like my role is to be a little bit of a safety net for younger artists who come in, and they have just finished something that doesn’t really fit in with the rest of their work but they want to put it in any way because they are excited about it so I try to- I get involved there a little bit.
RA: As a gallerist, are you also always thinking about the market?
BG: I started in an apartment gallery so selling stuff wasn’t critical. When I moved, I tried to keep that situation. I very purposely stayed away from having a backer because backers want to see things happen in a certain way. I want to present work that is challenging and see if I can figure out ways to get people engaged in it. It isn’t always necessarily about sales because I am more interested in getting the artist one more step toward having a career and develop a base of people that are interested, it could be writers, curators, hopefully collectors but sometimes collectors kind of come later. The other thing is I’m always looking for and working with new artists, but there’s basically a core of maybe eight artists I have – some people would say that I represent them but I’d say it’s looser than that. What I can offer them is that when they are ready, we can start scheduling. I mean they are still looking for other places to show but they know that they will have a chance to show their work. So for those artists, I want to be there to support them.
RA: What has been the most memorable of your experience as a gallery owner?
BG: As an artist working in the studio, I focused on art in a certain way. As a gallery owner, I am very open. I don’t know what’s going on with some stuff but I am more interested in things where I can’t figure out what is going on. For me the most fruitful or memorable thing is that it’s helped me change the way I engage with art work.
RA: So your business model is based on sales?
BG: Yes, it’s a for-profit gallery.
RA: Has the recession affected your position as a gallery owner in any tangible way?
BG: When I had the apartment space, my expenses were different. Not only was the rent different but when you have a storefront the expectations are different. I would say the most tangible way it has affected me is that when I moved it was really hard to get a loan. I just had to build out my space with credit cards. If I hadn’t done that, it would now be easier to do art fairs and stuff. But I can’t do that until I get all those expenses taken care of. So the economy had something to do with that.
RA: So what is it that keeps you going?
BG: It’s something I love. I feel a commitment to the artists I work with. I’m always curious. Right now there is lot of talk about certain artists and I’d like to be a part of that conversation.
RA: What is your hope/fantasy for your future and for 65GRAND?
BG: Most base level, I just hope I can keep it going. I hope that more people start to trust what 65GRAND does. There’s some of that but I feel like 65GRAND didn’t become a part of some people’s consciousness until we moved to a storefront. Apartment spaces are certain things and they are an important part of Chicago but it’s not really a commerce space for an artist, so I really hope that people can be convinced to trust 65GRAND.
RA: Being part of the conversation, would you say that is very important to you?
BG: Like I said before, when I started, the kind of work I was most excited about had very little opportunity in Chicago. My fantasy is that we can have more opportunity for artists. I live in Chicago and my frustration is like, why doesn’t certain art come to Chicago ever? I can’t always get to New York or LA to see it. I could bring those works here but it is expensive with shipping and insurance. The reality is I cannot bring certain things here but my fantasy would be that I can do certain things in the gallery that really enlivens the dialogue. Not that I am critical of what other places do. I am a pluralist in that way.
RA: Few words about art and the art market in Chicago?
BG: Chicago is a great place for young artists. There’s so much dialogue. But it is a difficult place for artists who are past that emerging state. It’s a real hard market. It is hard to continue as an artist in Chicago. That neglect can be very damaging. Unless you are teaching, it is hard for those artists to mentor younger artists. If a younger artist asks me, I feel irresponsible telling them to stay in Chicago. In other ways I think Chicago is a great place. There’s so much opportunity for conversation. There are all these smart people at the University of Chicago, the smart people here at the Art Institute and other schools.
There are a few local collectors who will buy from galleries here in Chicago, if there were a few more it would help.
RA: Is Chicago then a good launching ground for artists?
BG: It’s worked like that for a long time. It’s a good place for people to get a start.