Nothing Great Gets Done Alone

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

No Coast and Roxaboxen are two art spaces in Pilsen that have fostered diverse communities, but have struggled with the same issue of sustainability that plagues many artist-run spaces in Chicago. There’s an array of familiar symptoms—people move away, can’t pay rent, get partied out, get “real jobs,” don’t have enough jobs, get stolen from, or have their shit broken one too many times. It’s entropy in fast-forward. No Coast and Roxaboxen now find themselves at two different points on this arc. Roxaboxen opened at the beginning of 2010 (run by Liz McCarthy, Miranda Stokes, Kyle Stephens, and Bart Winters) and is now looking to focus less energy on picking up beer bottles and more on sharpening collective vision and upping the curatorial ante. By art space standards, No Coast is a veteran. After a three-year run, the collective has seen many of its members dispersed by far-off job offers, financial difficulties, and art degrees. The remaining members (Young Joon Kwak, Aay Preston-Myint, and Alex Valentine) find ourselves asking what kind of art space can be run efficiently, creatively, and continuously, without capitulating to the classically clean commercial gallery/studio environment that might coddle artistic aspirations without really challenging them.

In an attempt to defy this fate, No Coast and Roxaboxen have entered into a partnership that will unite our different energies and experiences, but still preserve each collective as a discrete and autonomous entity. Roxaboxen will continue hosting exhibitions, performances, and happenings, and No Coast’s artist consignment store, communal work space, and printing press will be located in Roxaboxen’s basement. The partnership is made possible by shared principles and similar roots: both spaces were founded with a mission to host art practices that haven’t yet been digested and regurgitated by market forces to be consumed by mainstream audiences, practices that have been excluded from better funded institutions such as museums and commercial galleries.

The relationship between No Coast and Roxaboxen is an intellectual business partnership, a quasi-commercial enterprise with no written contract. In developing this model for sustainability, we’ve looked to conventional models for business, DIY, non-profit practices, and unprofitable practices (see: labor of love). Most importantly, we’ve looked to other local inter-organizational collaborations, such as the relationship between non-profit spaces ThreeWalls and Green Lantern Press, or that of the Experimental Station and its affiliates, including AREA. We’ve also built on our own successes and failures at venues such as Texas Ballroom, Mess Hall, Shape Shoppe, and the Philadelphia Athenaeum.

Like any other successful space, both ventures require a great deal of intellectual, emotional, and financial investment, and we’ve been around enough to understand that balance is key, and that nothing great gets done alone—no matter how hard it may be let go of the hang-ups of one’s own practice. Some folks live in the space but don’t work there, while others come only to work—and each person contributes and takes away from the arrangement what they are able to carry at that time. Each of us devotes an amount of time, money, and labor that has effectively merged the practices of operating our spaces with our private and social lives. We are intimately involved with the communities that gather at our space, and we rely on their volunteered time, labor, and ideas in developing our programming, just as we oftentimes volunteer our resources to them—a shared labor of love. This newer, larger collaboration provides us with enough bodies, enough space—and enough savings—that we just might be able to stave off the burnout, instability, guilt, and resentment that plague so many collaborative efforts.

With this newfound freedom, No Coast and Roxaboxen are embarking on several collaborative projects: Members of both spaces will make up a curatorial board for Roxaboxen Exhibitions, we will host community forums, lectures, screenings, and performances, and we are developing a communal multidisciplinary studio that includes a photo darkroom, screenprinting facilities, and a video/computer station. These studio resources will be available to the community with the support and supervision of its artist members, for cost or donation. We also sell work through the store, press, and gallery, but this is not something we rely on. If anything, we see the commercial side of our enterprise as a way for the communities that converge at our space to invest in themselves, their art, their space. ◊


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