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“Follow your gut and not the trends, think outside of the box, don’t be afraid to take risks but don’t be reckless, and, most of all, collaborate”. 

(Monique Meloche)

Rossella Farinotti interviewed Monique Meloche, dealer and special gallerist from Chicago. Monique told us about her entire career from the beginning: her studies, the path in the contemporary art system, her first brave group show in her home, the changing of locations for her gallery and artists and – the most important thing about this amazing woman – her focus on the relationship with the artists she works with and supports and her staff. This is a good example on how things could be done today and in the future. 

Discover more about this edition of Art Basel Miami: What should we expect from this 18th Art Basel Miami?-Top 7 must-see during the Miami Art Week 2019!

 

Monique Meloche Gallery, 451 N Paulina St, Chicago.

 

You started to work in the art system since the beginning of the 90s. You began your career in a big Institution, the MCA, then you worked with two historical gallerists such as Rhona Hoffman and then Kavi Gupta, both well known in the Midwestern art scene. Why did you decide to open your own space? And how did you have the ironic and strong idea to start from your own home in 2000?

My background is curatorial. I have both a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Michigan and a Master in Art History and Theory, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I worked at the MCA Chicago starting as a temporary auction assistant in 1991 and parlaying that into 6 years of employment with the final 3 years as assistant curator. I had fallen in love with Chicago so, after the museum’s experience, I reached out to the very respected and still active Rhona Hoffman Gallery and convinced her to hire me as her Director. For the next two years I basically got my PHD in being a gallerist. Kavi Gupta hired me away while he was repositioning his gallery - then called Vedanta - and I spent the next 1 ½ years honing his roster and introducing the gallery to the art fair circuit.  When it was time to strike out on my own I took notice of Chicago’s long history of DIY galleries, fostered by our incredible art schools from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Northwestern, University of Chicago, UIC and DePaul, many of which started in artist or art historian’s apartments, garages, and basements.  

So, it seemed natural to open my first gallery in my home, which we did in October of 2000 with an exhibition called “Homewrecker” featuring over 90 artworks by 30 artists. On that first night 350 people showed up and, after 3 months of non-stop appointments, including several museum groups, my husband and gallery partner Evan Boris and I embarked upon finding a bricks and mortar space and moniquemeloche was officially open to the public in May 2001 at 951 West Fulton Market. During that time there was only me and the meatpackers on that street!  It was an ambitious space with the gallery sunk into the lower level and open from both sides, kind of like an art arena.  Our first show was by Joel Ross titled “I Borrowed My Mother’s Bedroom” where the artist ambushed his mother in Texas and literally took her entire bedroom, including the ceiling fan, carpet, clothing, undeveloped rolls of film, phone with blinking message light on voicemail, etc. and created the most poetic portrait of his mother recreating her bedroom in the middle of our space.  On the checklist the price of the piece said “Ask Joel’s Mother” which we knew, of course, she was not willing to sell, so it was a very calculated statement to position my gallery as a curatorial incubator for emerging artists whose ultimate aim is institutional support.

 

Installation view, Joel Ross/ I Borrowed My Mother’s Bedroom, 2001. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. 

 

When did you start to collaborate with big institutions such as Museums, big international art fairs – you are one of the few American dealers that goes to Italian art fairs too - big Collection, the White House? And you are going to be in Basel Miami, at the main show, for the first year with two of your artists, right?

We were wildly ambitious in those early years and jumped on the newly expanding art fair circuit participating in FAST FWD Miami 2001 – the first hotel satellite fair that was planned to coincide with the first Art Basel Miami which was cancelled post 9/11 and travelled my “DISCO” show featuring Ana Laura Aláez, John Armleder, Carla Arocha, Tobias Bernstrup, and Nelson Santos (which we crazily opened in Chicago a week after opening our space) with a DJ spinning and Tobias Bernstrup performing in the Wynwood, then gritty district of Miami with the wonderful support of the Rubell Family Foundation. We were early exhibitors in Torino at Artissima in 2002 - which we recently revisited in 2016 and 2017 - and we did LISTE in Basel 2003-2005.  In 2015 we started publishing exhibition catalogues for most of our exhibitions with essays from an interesting list of writers.  We actually published a terrific catalogue for our 2016 Artissima solo booth by Nate Young with your amazing contribution – these we printed as a limited edition. In Miami we had done NADA a few years, but jumped over to UNTITLED when they started in 2012 and, in a few days, we will have our first booth at ABMB in the NOVA sector with Ebony G. Patterson, who has been with the gallery since 2008, and Maia Cruz Palileo, who just joined the gallery.

 

Installation view, Rashid Johnson/ The New Escapist Promised Land Garden and Recreation Center, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. 

 

We have a history of doing the Armory show in New York, but in 2016 we decided to go another route and did a pop-up on the Lower East Side with a show by Sanford Biggers and Ebony G. Patterson. It has become our temporary space, as we followed up in the same location for two more years with an Amy Sherald solo show in 2017 - before her Michelle Obama commission for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery - and sold out the show to several institutions and private collectors on the opening night, and in 2018 with another sold-out presentation by Nate Young in 2018. Last year we were invited to the wonderful Independent Fair in NY and we will do it again in 2020 with a solo booth by Candida Alvarez who will have her first solo show at the gallery on in February 2020 on the eve of her 65th birthday. Candida is a terrific painter working mostly in abstraction inspired by her surroundings and her Puerto Rican Heritage.  

In 2018 you moved to a new big space. How important is the challenge that the gallery venue can give to an artist? 

It was challenging from the beginning, starting from my home in 2000, and then the first gallery in West Fulton Market. When we moved to Division Street in 2009 - a much smaller space due to the economic downturn - we optimized our space to take advantage of the floor to ceiling plate glass windows and curated site-specific projects that we called our “on the wall” series for almost 10 years. These projects were lit night and day, so they were seen 24/7 by a very diverse audience due to our geographical location. When Kerry James Marshall did his project in 2012, not only did he inspire some young teens from the housing projects to actually come in and ask about what it was, but it led them to their first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago where Kerry’s work was on view – they didn’t even know about that museum and that it had a free day! The majority of our “on the wall” artists were not affiliated with the gallery-like Kerry, assumevividastrofocus, Nina Chanel Abney, and Kay Rosen but Carla Arocha & Stephane Schraenen made a mesmerizing moire abstraction, Karen Reimer responded to the cracks in the nearby Louis Sullivan designed church with a gold Kintsugi gesture, and Rashid Johnson experimented with hanging plants and shea butter that melted according to the sun each day atop of scarred wooden chairs. Architect Dirk Denison worked with us on our modest Division Street location and he and his team absolutely knocked it out of the part with our new location on Paulina Street.  He collaborated with gallery artist Nate Young on our one-of-a-kind reception desk and staff office/library. We absolutely love this new space, which is very versatile and allows for much more of our infrastructure to be under one roof. 

 

Installation view, Ebony G. Patterson/ ...for those who bear/bare witness..., Monique Meloche Gallery, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photo by RCH Photography. 

 

In 2014, when I met you, I was well surprised by a simple fact: I was new in Chicago, I wrote few emails to different people in town and you replied immediately by inviting me to see your opening – that day – and to dinner. I felt like home. I met “your” artists and your husband who has always been a great supporter to your gallery, and I noticed that you had a certain rare approach in working with the artists you were dealing with. Can I say that moniquemeloche looked like a family from the outside? Also, I think that working with emergent artists, taking them to a certain point and still collaborating with them is brave and not easy. I am talking about the pathway that artists such as Rashid Johnson started since the first solo show at your gallery in 2003, or other artists that still work with you such as Joel Ross, Ebony J. Patterson, Nate Young or Sanford Biggers that collaborates with Marianne Boesky too. How you define this “middle tier”?

My program has been culturally and gender diverse from the start as well as adventurous in terms of media: we have a great history of supporting performance art, video, painting, sculpture, site-specific installation. From the very beginning my gallery has operated like a family, and my roster artists and I all grew up together. I have always taken pride that so many of my gallery artists have become close friends, standing up in each other’s weddings, and being truly supportive of one another behind the scenes and championing each other’s successes. We’ve had some shifts in our roster over the years, but I do pride myself with still being supportive of artists that have come and gone. I am particularly proud of being one of Rashid Johnson’s early supporters, offering him a solo show in 2001 on the condition that he get his MFA, which he did later from SAIC. We had his first solo show in 2003 “The Rise and Fall of a Proper Negro”, and Rashid has obviously gone on to incredible success in both his artistic practice as well as his newfound talent as a filmmaker. I have shown Sanford Biggers for years and now happily work alongside Marianne Boesky, Massimo de Carlo, and David Castillo to support his practice.  I have been Ebony G. Patterson’s sole dealer since 2011 and know that our collaborative efforts will take us into the future.

 

Installation view, Rashid Johnson/ The New Escapist Promised Land Garden and Recreation Center, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. 

 

Installation view, Maia Cruz Palileo/ All The While I Thought You Had Received This, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago. Photo/ RCH Photography.


I travel incessantly in support of my artists, and I was just in Seattle for the opening of Ebony G. Patterson and Sanford Biggers in an ambitious group exhibition “In Plain Sight” at the Henry Art Gallery curated by Shamim M. Momin, and a younger dealer asked me “how you do it?!”. I said: “follow your gut and not the trends, think outside of the box, don’t be afraid to take risks but don’t be reckless, and, most of all, collaborate”. I would be remiss if I did not mention my amazing staff, from interns on up to directors who have gone on to be incredible artists like Patricia Trieb and Stacie Johnson, who also co-founded Regina Rex Gallery in NY, and curators like Ruba Katrib now at MOMA PS1, Whitney Tassie at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, and Allison Glenn at Crystal Bridges Museum.  Our current dream team includes our Gallery Assistant Megan Foy who started as an intern last summer after graduating with an art history degree from DePaul University, our Gallery Manager Allison Moore who has been with the gallery for over 7 years and started as an intern after she graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and our new Gallery Director Ashley Wynn who comes to us from LA/NY where she was Assistant to Klaus Biesenbach at MOMA PS1 and LA MOCA.

What are your plans for your 20th birthday? 

We do have a big anniversary coming up and we are excited to start planning the celebration! I have not yet decided if that is going to be an exhibition or just a party. So, stay tuned!

Cover image: Monique Meloche. Photo by Kevin Penczak. Courtesy of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
 

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

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