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Interview: Britton Bertran Owner/Curator -- 40000

By Keidra Chaney in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 26, 2007 2:31PM

bbertran._chicagoist.jpgA relative newcomer to Chicago's art gallery scene, 40000 (119 N. Peoria) has received a great deal of buzz since its start in 2005. After living and working in New Mexico and Austin TX, gallery owner/curator Britton Bertran set down roots in Chicago after receiving a Master's in Arts Administration from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. Bertran made the leap to full-time gallery owner after several years of working in various non-profit and government arts administration jobs in the city. "I was frightened like ... a little girl." he jokingly says about the experience. Chicagoist spent some time with Bertran discussing 40000's place in the city's art scene,

Chicagoist: So you've been in the West Loop for about a year now, it's a big hub of a lot of gallery activity [Bertan moved 40000 from its initial location in Wicker Park last year.]
Britton Bertan: That was before I got here, actually. In the late to mid 90's a couple of galleries were here: Donald Young, Kavi Gupta ... River North got a bit staid, and stagnant, and just like with any other place where artists go, or gallerists go, the real estate people have their eye on that and pounce on it. I'm not saying if it's the galleries ... that brought this on so much as the young professionals, but the area's starting to turn around... Fulton Market, another district that real estate developers have targeted, has started to have its own gallery district differentiated from the West Loop, now you've got clubs, like Reserve are over there. There's a lot of energy here. [But] lots of high-rises, not a lot of residential, three-flat neighborhoods.

C: It's not the kind of residential area where'd you'd attract a lot random walk-ins or whatever.
BB: It seems like the area is where you have a lot of young professionals who are buying their first condos ever ... and they work downtown. They'll buy their first condo here, cause it's a hip place, but then they'll move on. It's like a starter neighborhood, I guess.

C: Do you think that influences, then, the vibe of the community, especially the community of artists here in the neighborhood?
BB: Well, there's no real relationship that I can tell between the kind of people that live here and the galleries themselves. It's just a destination district, for artists and collectors no matter where they live. What [gallery owners] do is try to coordinate openings, so if you can get a collector or a person of interest to come to the neighborhood just once, it will be incentive to come again. And students are here all the time.

C: That's surprising to me.
BB: Well, the Art Institute is really close by, UIC is even closer. Students are here with faculty, or on their own which is really refreshing. They're curious to see what's going on here, and [for many of them] the next step is getting representation by a gallery after grad school... Part of the whole thing about becoming an artist is that you can't set in your studio and expect everything to come to you. You have to get out there, be visible.

C: How often do you have new shows?
BB: We usually have 4-week shows, and then the week after that 4th week, we have de-installation, and the installation of the upcoming show. Every once in awhile, I'll have two weeks in between four week openings, and I do this thing that I call "40000 Betwixt," which is like a one-day one night exhibition/performance event where I'll find an artist whose willing to produce something really elaborate that night. Those have been really amazing, I've done three so far, and each one has been really different. One was a performance, one was a video screening, and one was a really fucking crazy show, called "Vomitorium with AgitProp" with beer bongs and everything. It was So much fun.

C: Do you normally take any time off?
BB: I'll try to take a couple of weeks off in late August, but usually September is my big kick-off, but I just need a little time to get away, not always being surrounded by art and art people.

C: You're pretty much doing this on your own, this is your own gallery, and you've wanted to do this for awhile, do you find yourself being stretched too thin?
BB: I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't completely obsessed with what I'm doing. But it's such hard work, it needs to be happening all the time, so physically and mentally there are no breaks. And in that equation is producing the next show, having enough money to get away, or saving money for something down the line... any number of things, I figure the more and more I establish myself, the more time I'll have to carve out for myself.

C: So when you first quit your full-time job to do this, did you feel prepared for this kind of life?
BB: I had no idea what I was doing. I had an inkling, I had never worked in a proper gallery before, but I had worked in multiple cultural institutions. I had a really solid understanding from grad school about how things operated in the art world, and I've been involved in one way or another in the art scene since about '91. But, you know, I have a few mentors here in Chicago, some gallerists and curators, who kinda filled me in on the ins and outs so I just went for it. I feel like I'm somewhat successful, I've been around for two years.

C: Is there a reason that you wanted to start 40000 in Chicago?
BB: Well first off, I fell in love with the city. I had been looking for an urban kind of environment to live in, and Chicago is where I happened to settle my feet. But I'm originally from New York, and I know what the situation is [with the art scene] and the only other option these days [for a career] is going to L.A. New York and LA are the options right now, and Chicago is a slow third. So there are limited options in the art world right now, and Chicago's kind of the place to be at, for me trying figure out where to go next, whether I want to continue with the gallery forever and ever.

C: How do you figure out what to stock next, or keep track of the "next big thing" in the local art scene?
BB: That's a tricky question, a lot of galleries will pick up on the "next big thing" and stock all their shows with it -- like [local arts podcast] Bad at Sports was saying awhile back "shitty drawing" was the next big thing, but now that's over. Some galleries who are looking ahead of the next big thing, and what I look at are galleries that have a pretty solid reputation for looking beyond the next big thing, that cultural capital is there, and it's laid out for others to pick up on. I don't really hold to one aesthetic.Technical ability, strong dynamics ... humor are always things that I look out for.