Roots & Culture

1034 N Milwaukee Ave  / +17735800102 / rootsandculturecac.org
Thu – Fri 4pm to 7pm, Sat 12pm to 6pm

Interview with Roots and Culture by Giana Gambino, December 2012

Roots & Culture is a nonprofit gallery space in Chicago founded by Eric May IN 2006. “The mission of Roots & Culture Contemporary Art Center is to provide exhibition opportunities for leading-edge emerging artists and to develop the city of Chicago’s cultural community as a center for art production and a destination for artistic discourse.” The programming varies between group and two-person shows throughout the year, often hosting lectures, community gatherings and time arts events, amongst others. Roots & Culture supports young artists across several disciplines and varying nature of experimentation. The programming focuses on developing a dynamic community for the arts in Chicago and facilitating discourse between global contemporary art practices.  Roots & Culture occupies an interesting physical space, half gallery half home, though concealed, houseplants inhabit the entryway creating a very unique atmosphere.  Roots & Culture offers a nurturing environment that supports young emerging artists in developing an inventive practice by providing exhibition opportunities that can include directorial and curatorial programming that often interacts with and forms the surrounding community. R & C provides a welcoming and supportive social space within the Chicago community that extends across several disciplines. One of their goals is to change and develop the ways in which art is experienced and exhibited through progressive and innovative practices.

What made you want to open a gallery?

I had been working for another nonprofit gallery and felt somewhat confined by their mission- I was interested in curating but could not support the community of artists that I wanted to work with. I was also organizing event based arts programming at alternative venues around the city. So I eventually realized that I would need my own venue to platform the type of programming I was interested in.

Where did the name “Roots and Culture” come from?

Originally the name came from my love of 1970s Jamaican music, roots reggae. But I also thought the name was interesting because of how open its significance could be and in a way sounds like a straightforward description of the type of programming we wished to support.

Did you become a 501c3 right away?

No, the process took almost two years. I began the process almost immediately, establishing a board of directors and drafting mission and vision statements in early 2007. The bylaws took a few months to write and it was probably the spring of 2007 when we filed to the IRS. We received our letter in early 2008.

Can you describe the physical space and impetus in creating this gallery, storefront, home, garden hybrid?

Well the model of living in proximity to the space was a simple economic decision as it is for many galleries. In the first few years as I supported the program out of pocket, my living expenses were bundled with the gallery’s expenses. There is a more romantic answer as well- inspired by the apartment gallery model- I was interested in the crossover of public and private space. By welcoming the public into a private, domestic space the hope is that the audience might feel more comfortable and spend more time both looking at the work and engaging socially with their fellow viewers. But it was important for me to establish layers of permeability, soft boundaries through which the audience passes. The foyer garden acts as an initial point of contact, a serene and holistic passage that welcomes one into the space. The business of the gallery is fairly conventional- white walls, track lighting. It was important as I designed the space to offer a level of professionality- I wanted to offer a desirable exhibition space for a high caliber of talent. Through the gallery, you pass into the kitchen, which is the domestic heart of the space. Here we gather around the hearth and sociability occurs naturally over a drink and a snack. Then there are clear boundaries- closed doors- that shut off the strictly private, intimate areas of the space- the studios and bedrooms.

What is your relationship to neighboring galleries and how do you see R&C fitting in to the larger Chicago gallery scene?

Well, it’s always important to be neighborly. I have solid relationships with the other spaces in my neighborhood- Corbett Vs. Dempsey, 65GRAND, Courtney Blades, Defibrillator, and the Nightingale. I love the range of activities in the Noble Square/ East Village neighborhoods. Sometimes I miss the heyday of the West Town Gallery Network, three of my favorite spaces have long since closed- 40000, Booster & Seven, and duchess. Great programs, though the spaces I mentioned earlier are holding it down respectfully.  Threewalls, being one of the other few nonprofit visual arts programs in town is a kindred spirit, some of our programming overlaps, though I know that we serve different constituencies of artists. We collaborate frequently with them, like the MDW Fair for instance, which also involves Public Media Institute, and Document. I recently hosted an event with Scott Speh of Western Exhibitions and really enjoyed working with him.

In what ways, aside from the obvious (exhibitions) do you feel your mission to develop cultural community as a center for art production and a destination for artistic discourse is carried out? And how do you assess its achievements?

Well, I think testament to our mission is found in the stacks of proposals that we receive. At each bi-annual review we look over increasingly more proposals with increasingly exceptional work. By exhibiting young Chicago based artists we give them incentive to take root here and maintain the city’s reputation as “a center for artistic production”. The desirability of our program also attracts more and more work from out of town contributing to the “destination” factor.

Have you had any standout moments since you’ve opened, where you’ve thought to yourself, ‘this is why i’m doing this!’?

Fortunately there have been many standout moments and I think they fall into two categories. On one hand the ambition of the work that we show is the most satisfying. Artists that really work with (or against) the specificities of the space are particularly rewarding. A few examples- Josh Faught’s wall sized textile work and Carrie Vinarsky’s knitted cabin in 2007’s “Mr. Softy”; Michael Hunter’s & Carson Fisk-Vitorri’s re-imagining the way lighting works in the space in 2010’s “Casual Object Garden and Other Material Matters”; Brendan Meara’s wall-sized projections for 2011’s “Bcc:”; Alberto Aguilar’s 2011 installation of window sized hand painted signs; Andy Roche’s repurposing of our ceiling fluorescent light panels in 2012’s “Don’t Forget to Boogie”; and most recently during the “Pink Lipstick & High Heels” performance- Johana Mosoco’s false wall concealing the identity of her salsa dancing troupe and Julie Potratz’s pleather giant lips suit that kissed the walls with acrylic paint.

The other successful moments are when the space feels like a true hub for community. Mike Wolf’s programming for “Hey We’re All Beginners Here” was the first instance when we were able to attract the local community of the Noble Street Housing Cooperative located directly across the street from the gallery. In March we hosted a memorial service for Mark Aguhar, an incredibly talented young artist who tragically took her own life. While I had never even met Mark, the gathering of her people and the readings, testimonies, and performances that I witnessed that day were intensely emotionally resounding.

This weekend we just hosted a benefit auction for four friends, three of whom lost their studios to a fire and another who was the victim of a horrendous violent crime. The magnitude of generosity of the art community for this event was palpable and the opportunity to host such an event, to be a true community based enterprise, was a real pleasure.

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