The Suburban is an independently run artist exhibition space in Oak Park, IL. We give complete control to the artists in regards to what they choose to produce and exhibit. Thus it's a pro artist and anti curator site. The Suburban is not driven by commercial interests. It is funded within the economy of our household. Its success is not grounded in sales, press or the conventional measures set forth by the international art apparatus, but by the individual criteria set forth by the artists and their exhibitions. In this, The Suburban is more closely aligned with the idea of studio practice than that of the site of distribution.
Michelle Grabner & Brad Killam
One of the first things my Advanced Placement European History teacher, who I have grown to thoroughly respect, said to us, came in a class discussion about about the children of historical figures. "I want each of you to go home and thank your parents for not being artists," she said. "The children of artists are the ones who lose their minds, fall into madness or commit suicide, and I wouldn't want any of you to turn out that way."
Her commentary was obviously striking: I am not only the child of two artists, but I am constantly surrounded by art and its supplementary activities (its viewing, selling, and making). The nucleus of this part of my life lies in the tiny yellow building formerly attached to my garage. My parents call it The Suburban.
The Suburban is a social perculiarity that I have not yet learned to cope with. Since its conception in my preteens, The Suburban has created a varying array of effects on my life, the majority being positive. I have dissected my entire record collection with a British artist named Simon, I have shared fruity non-alcoholic drinks with my friend Sam at a fully functional tiki-bar-cum-art-installation, and developed to some degree, an understanding of what constitutes contemporary art.
However, life within intimate proximity to an art gallery is not entirely beneficial for a self-conscious teenager and his ten-year old brother. While awkwardness does arise when sharing a house with half-a-dozen large, unshaven Scandinavians, the major difficulty of living with The Suburban is explaining the idea and function of it to the more tradtionally "suburban" mothers of my friends.
"Were your parents throwing a party at your house on Saturday?"
Yes, it was an art opening."
At this point I try to convince her that The Suburban is a serious pursuit of my parents, and that is has a "real" significance in the art-world. What this significance is I do not know.
Among my peers, The Suburban has brought me neither recognizable fame, (I can't imagine "My garage is also an art gallery" would serve as a successful pick-up line) nor overwhelming scorn. My general rule is to discuss the gallery and its work only with close friends or those who question what "The Suburban" means on our household's telephone answering machine prompt. My reasoning for this is simple; debates about the artistic merit of a fictional Swedish Citizen Recruitment Center are not something I enjoy taking part in, let alone fully understanding.
Because of The Suburban and my parents' choice of career and life style, I have seen and learned to appreciate art on levels unknown to my peers. From Marfa, Texas, to Budapest, I have traveled the world to see it. I have eaten bratwurst in my yard with those who make it. I have traded my bedroom away for weeks to Englishmen for duty-free tubes of Toblerone chocolate. For this uncommon exposure, it should have been the request of my history teacher to come home and thank my parents for becoming artists.
For a town of its size, energy, and wealth, Chicago's contemporary art world was remarkably small. With just two-and-a-half serious institutions dedicated to visual culture, a single "blue-chip" gallery that survived by cherrypicking the programs of its larger competitors on the coasts, few committed collectors, and one wobbly media organ (since defunct), America's third largest city struggled to support an active community of first-rate contemporary artists. The lack of a thriving commercial gallery scene deprived Chicago's artists of the financial clout needed to strengthen their aesthetic hand; without the fuck-you money that underwrites hard-core imaginative independence, they were vulnerable.
Power resided elsewhere. What few career opportunities the city was able to muster were controlled by a small band of local academics and arts administrators who collaborated, reinforced each other's authority, and vacationed together. During their reign, the Chicago art world - like the eternal, ruling Democratic machine after which it was modeled - gradually evolved into a profoundly inorganic operation.
For those artists, curators, journalists, and gallerists who were not favored by the ruling forces, the situation was sclerotic and depressing. Not surprisingly, pathologies surfaced in the local artist corps. One type of artist, desperate to forge some connection to those places that could advance them, privileged A Career Full Of Right Moves - the glorious world of strategy, career politics, and social maneuvering - over the vulnerability and generosity that good and original art willingly risks. In the alpha group's shadow wandered the majority of Chicago artists. Unwilling to define their self-interest as narrowly as their more ruthless peers, and so forced to accept what career crumbs were left them, many of these artists contracted a chronic case of the sours. Neither emotional style was the sort to inspire an abundance self-respecting, first-rate imaginations to sign on. An exodus of artistic talent annually set out for one of the coastal capitals.
In '97 Brad Killam and Michelle Grabner moved down from Milwaukee - a city without a commercial contemporary art scene and thus one devoid of professional hoops to jump through - to teach in Chicago and raise two boys in suburban Oak Park, an affluent suburb immediately west of the city line. Plunging into their new hometown with their trademark energy and drive, Killam and Grabner quickly gained first-hand experience of its art scene's sorry condition. If they were to improve their odds of living genuinely happy lives as participants in the Chicago art scene, they'd need a way to finesse the flaws in the local set-up. That much was clear. The couple determined to establish some sort of non-commercial exhibition venue that, whatever the particulars of its program, at least felt better.
They did have two specific antecedents in mind: Stephan Dillemuth's Friesenwall project, active in Cologne during the early '90s; and Matt's Gallery, which had been operating in London since '76. Both were ventures that explored the idea that the specialized real estate known as "a gallery" isn't just a place for hanging pictures but is, rather, a context, with that context's definition conforming to whatever happens to be introduced into it. To these influences was added a third, courtesy of yours truly. For some years it had been my own fantasy to open an avant-garde art gallery in a suburban strip mall. I'd voiced that desire in the couple's company more than once, and it was added to the mix of ideas that eventually coalesced in Brad's own eureka moment.
Attached to the garage of the modest Grabner/Killam home in Oak Park was a tiny, eight-by-eight foot room with cinder-block walls, into one of which was set a big window with eight segmented panes of hammered glass. Previously the room had served as a storage shed; Brad saw that, without too much trouble - emptied, cleaned, painted, some inexpensive illumination added - it could be reborn as an exhibition space. Although minuscule, the new venue, dubbed The Suburban, could still provide a power base sufficient to reduce his and Michelle's reliance on the unhealthy Chicago system. In their own backyard, the two had located a place that could be used to invite into their lives the tenor of experience they sought.
An avant-garde gallery in a suburban garage in the Midwest: it felt like a natural development. In fact, since art is fond of money and the suburbs have money, it's curious that there aren't already a lot of artist-run avant-garde galleries scattered throughout America's countless suburban communities. But there aren't. True, the Los Angeles art world has managed to shift things in this direction somewhat (Thomas Solomon's Garage comes to mind, but likely there were other LA garage-galleries predating his venture), if only by virtue of the fact that, in all the sprawl, the distinction between city and suburb is, integrally, blurrier. (The Suburban has more in common with the LA model than with New York's.) LA's example notwithstanding, the art world's habit of identifying artistic experimentalism with urban income and lifestyle diversity is firmly entrenched; the avant-garde's history is principally a history of marginal neighborhoods in large cities - and has been, ever since it emerged as a self-perpetuating cultural artifice at the latter part of the nineteenth century. After more than a century, though, the idea of clustering cool galleries in urban art ghettos is about as original as the cycle of gentrification it's known to spark. It's time to be looking at other, more enticing locales.
Artists are expected to dislike and ridicule suburban life, of course. It's practically a responsibility, a duty, this attitude. Suburbs are too plastic or too dull or too conformist or too...something. Or is it that they're not something enough? I never know. I remember, sometime in the '80s, hearing the hard-core Manhattanite Gary Indiana remark that the suburbs should be burned down. I also remember wondering what in the world he was talking about.
I didn't get what the guy was talking about. I'd been under the impression that artists were people who had a predilection for frontier living, and, well, aren't the suburbs a sort of frontier?
Situating a gallery for experimental, avant-garde-ish art in the garage of an American residence in the suburbs, then, actually constitutes a frontiering act on two levels. The fact that, physically, the suburb represents a new (in America, at least, the mass, middle-class suburb is barely fifty years old) category of landscape - Trees 'n Traffic! - is only the more obvious of the two; the idea that an adventurous, creative American imagination might not automatically loathe or reject that new style of environment is itself imbued with a definite pioneering dimension.
In Brad and Michelle's Suburban project the romance of the olde American frontiering impulse had taken fresh form. By inserting the context of experimental visual culture amid its leafy streets, the suburb's image of itself was challenged, and altered a little bit. At the same time, extending to the 'burbs a gallery of The Suburban's stripe confronted a few of the avant-garde's own self-limiting assumptions. Westward ho, indeed.
2003: The Suburban has reached its fifth season of operation. Presented six or seven times a year in its sixty-four square feet of space are artists known and unknown, American and European, young and old, hailing from places cool and uncool. As with any other gallery, sometimes the shows are good, sometimes less good. When an Important European Artist is exhibiting, one or two of the lieutenants in the Chicago machine make the right move and attend. Everyone's welcome. On clement evenings the openings are held outside, fifty or so well-behaved, friendly, slightly beery people milling about on the lawn. Even in subzero temperatures, Chicago's artworld feels a little warmer.
The moveable roof tipped me off. A clever nod to the worldwide museum-expansion frenzy of a few years previous, Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam decided to go for sub-grandeur in their maturing art gallery's third expansion.
The self-styled proprietors of The Suburban exhibition space in Oak Park have always been comfortable with the meshing of large and small scales. A compromise between their internationalist art ambitions and their lively life as a well-knit family of four, they opened the tiny gallery in a backyard outbuilding space originally intended as the office for a two-bay commercial garage.
Artists responded well to the space, balancing the demands of the solo show format with the adroitly manageable 8' x 8' room. For instance, Gaylen Gerber's normally monumental wall-filling Backdrop received a new treatment here, and a new reading, situated on the tiny back wall of The Suburban. Because the painting felt like it had been cut off at either end by The Suburban's narrow walls, I at once realized his Backdrops weren't discrete paintings at all, but one giant painting spread out over space and time, and this smaller-scaled entry wasn't a version but a continuance of the overall project.
Obviously, with so little room available, the original Suburban held no more than a few viewers at a time. The inset-swinging door proved as challenging for negotiating the space as did a gaggle of more than two or three visitors. The inevitably cramped situation made for a kind of reverential art experience, with viewers stepping inside singly or in appropriately small groups, closing the door so as not to be interrupted. For me, the experience resembled something like being allowed into a precious archaeological site, or filing in for a glimpse at a revered and priceless historical document. Because the gallery is too small to accommodate opening-night crowds, receptions inevitably spilled into the yard and the main house. Instead of a typical art opening, a Suburban reception felt more like a breezy backyard barbecue.
So the initial expansion of the space, into what had previously been the couple's shared (and far more roomy) art studio immediately adjacent, seemed at first a risk to The Suburban's fragile ecology. I wondered how artists, some of whom had been looking forward to the chance to tackle the gallery's unique display challenges, would respond to a less limiting situation. Like deadlines, guidelines and budgets, limitations can be ultimately freeing, and most artists proved the point by mounting extremely well-conceived, appropriately-scaled shows.
Subsequent shows made the expansion a non-issue, with deftly handled installations by Julie Mehretu, Sarah Lucas, Joseph Grigely, Olafur Eliasson, Aleksandra Mir, Pierre Huyghe and Ceal Foyer. Having so many national and international artists accept invitations to show, Grabner and Killam responded by accommodating the next natural evolutionary phase of the gallery: The Suburban residency program.
With the footprint of the original building defining the limits of expansion in the tightly-zoned Oak Park neighborhood, building upward was the next logical step. The new second story allowed room for two studio spaces and two apartments, where artists-in-residence could live and work as both part of and separate from the Grabner/Killam/Ribic family. Remaining independent, the residency program was funded by occasional regional and international grants, along with the ever-open economy of the Grabner/Killam working household. Just ask the resident artists how good Michelle's homemade pizzas can be after long days of conceptual meandering.
The Matthew Barney/Bjork residency changed everything, of course. When the uber-avants chose The Suburban over the Art Institute of Chicago to birth their costumed-in-the-womb child, they made not only their own familial evolution but also helped bring the Little Gallery That Could to full maturation. In shunning the city's grand art behemoth, Barney and Bjork also flipped long-accepted local codes of institutional supremacy.
To celebrate The Suburban's newfound status as a triumphal model for independent art spaces, Grabner and Killam chose Scandinavian art collective N55 (Suburban veterans from 2001) to construct a moveable roof that also doubles as a solar- and wind-powered generator to provide electricity for the entire campus. Opening to the fresh air like the renowned Miller Park roof in Milwaukee to the north (and its more elegant cousin the Milwaukee Art Museum), The Suburban roof now literally lets in sunlight to a figuratively underground institution. Though daylight and fresh air will most certainly be appreciated by the artists who will come to spend summers there, one may again fairly wonder what effect this brightening and broadening will have on the Chicago area's most vibrant guardian of the vanguard.
Like the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Suburban now also boasts a crown - one whose design is not dictated by the necessities of displaying the artworks within, but one that freely announces the place as an artwork in its own right. But The Suburban has really always been a kind of art project. Since the supercession of institutional curation by free-agent show organizers, art programming has come to be regarded as an art practice, melding with the now commonplace mode of artists who use the work and efforts of others as material for their own work. The idea is that curators are as important to shows as the artists, and that over time, the programming of a particular space can be seen as an idea-based collaboration between organizers and artists.
Michelle and Brad have themselves worked collaboratively as artists for years, first as CAR, which took the whole family (including sons Peter Ribic and Oliver Killam) as fodder, subject and equal generators, and so we should naturally think of The Suburban as a large-scale, immersive and inclusive project. The continuing physical expansion of the space, rather than a threat to the sanctity of the original intentions of The Suburban, is actually a perfectly suitable manifestation of the founding spirit of the place. Their own family might be small, but their metaphorical family includes an ever-expanding world of interesting artists and audiences.
So, let's celebrate not only the past ten years of The Suburban, but look forward to the next five years, and heck, the next fifty years as well. Oak Park might be cramped, but you can always build up, you know. Solidly against the ideas of former resident Frank Lloyd Wright, who eschewed skyscrapers in favor of suburbs sprawling out over the rolling prairie landscape, Michelle and Brad's plans to add a third, fourth, and possibly more stories to what must now be called "The Suburban complex" seem wholly appropriate for a new era. Today's Oak Park lawns may be narrower, but its best minds are broad indeed.