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For Art’s Sake
Jessica Cochran | Photo: Dan Kelleghan | May 28, 2013
Gallerist Dan Devening chats about the burgeoning art scene in Garfield Park.
To see the most cutting-edge art, the River North gallery district or Museum of Contemporary Art might be the first to come to mind, but any art world insider will tell you to head west on Chicago Avenue… far west. Garfield Park, not exactly a tourist destination, is where Dan Devening (dandevening.com), one of Chicago’s most respected artists, curators and educators, put his roots down with a studio space in a nondescript industrial building 12 years ago. Opening up shop as a gallery six years ago, he now represents artists and curates exhibitions year-round. The best part? He’s not alone—in recent years, more than a handful of aspiring gallerists have followed his lead, fostering the evolution of a much-buzzed-about concentration of artist-run spaces, studio buildings and other creative startups. What this prescient pathfinder sacrifices in what he calls the “legitimizing” effects of swanky downtown digs, he makes up for in a particularly art world brand of street cred.
Here’s the secret: Art collectors really like to leave their posh zip codes—just ask superstar Damien Hirst, whose career skyrocketed with Freeze, a legendary warehouse show in London’s vacant Port Authority—and as The New York Times’ art critic Judith H. Dobrzynski recently suggested, “Collecting, at its highest levels, is more like hunting than shopping.”
Like the best impresarios, Devening’s curatorial point of view is distinct and, according to Dianna Frid, one of his most popular artists, it represents “rich exploration and a sensuous intellect.” Like his own artwork, which is color-driven, quasi-structural abstraction, many of his artists share a flair for materiality, color and minimalism, with approaches ranging from cool graphic or experimental organic to conceptual text. Incorporating into his program fresh young talent like recent School of the Art Institute graduate Alex Valentine alongside art world veterans like European Volker Saul, his meticulously curated exhibitions are as much about ideas as they are about sales. Perfectly mixing generations and geography, one of his goals is to contextualize artists “in relation to things that are happening in Chicago,” he says.
And who are his buyers? Having had few expectations when he opened his doors, Devening’s eyes light up as he describes being pleasantly surprised by the people who venture westward through his doors—some of his most loyal buyers, he says, are actually artists, but he also works with art collectors from all over the world as well as designers and art consultants.
Like many art world multi-taskers, Devening is an artist first. Having received his MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago, his mixed media paintings and drawings have been shown everywhere from major institutions like the Block Museum to influential project spaces in New York like Printed Matter, Inc. So how has running his own gallery and the development of his teaching career—he taught for 15 years at Northwestern University and has been at the School of the Art Institute for 25—affected his art practice? Most recently, Devening says, his hectic lifestyle has fostered a love of paper. Improvisational and experimental in nature, paper offers more flexibility than painting. For a recent exhibition, KIOSK, at LAUNCH F18 in New York, he designed a sculptural apparatus on which he hung works on paper by four artists next to works of his own. With this unconventional presentational array, his penchant for presenting took a new, creative turn.
So why does Devening choose to work in Chicago? He cites newly hired international curatorial talent at the Renaissance Society (Solveig Øvstebø), Logan Center (Monika Szewczyk), and the Museum of Contemporary Art (Dieter Roelstraete) as just a few reasons our city is on the cusp. Others, though… they just might credit him for that.