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What's the Deal with Apartment Galleries?

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 4, 2010 8:20PM

Photo by darwin jr
Back on April fools, we joked that because some of the art scene is such a joke, it can be hard to tell when an art prank is real. One of TOC's gag stories that day, actually, turned out to be prescient. They jokingly described an art show at a hipster apartment gallery, and now, it seems, everyone's talking about apartment galleries again.

This isn't exactly a new phenomenon. The RedEye's November 2009 article brought a bunch of good/bad attention to apartment galleries. Galleries like 65Grand have been around for years (and had their own eviction threats), and with newfound attention from the city, they're getting renewed attention from the press.

Last month, CAM brought it up again. They discovered that the city's laws on the issue are convoluted and obtuse. After much effort, they got a city spokesperson to explain the laws:

Apartment galleries when used as a” networking opportunity,” such as inviting friends over to view and buy art is perfectly legal.

“For the artist showing art or another persons art to friends or for a private party such as an invitation or guest list and not open and or advertised to the public, in the home, having art openings or showings and even selling art in your home does not require a business license,” [Efrat Stein, the spokesperson for Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs] said in an e-mail.

Established apartment galleries, or those with long-term goals or with regular exhibitions and hours should apply for a limited business license. An artist can have Live/Work space if he or she lives within certain business districts. The license allows 50 percent of the home space to be used for the production, showing and sale of art or business-related activity.

The limited business license was created to “accommodate artists working form home,” said Stein. As long as they meet the zoning requirements (B1, B2, B3, C1 and C2), can provide at least one parking space and live above the ground floor, their apartment gallery qualifies. The license costs $250 and lasts for two years.

But this explanation is still unclear. What exactly is an "established" apartment gallery? What is "long-term"? Does the gallery have to meet coolness requirements? It looks like the "limited business" policies have less to do with anything cogent and more to do with the city wanting to know what's what, and what's where. Not only does it want a cut of whatever purchases go down, it wants to know what's up. (The website is, um, not helpful.)

On Wednesday, William Dolan's blog post brought it all together. He said the zoning rules can be annoying, but two things make them necessary. First, the safety they assure; but second, and especially interesting if you think the city's policies are a little too nosy, Dolan also made what we consider the best point in the whole apartment gallery discussion so far, about what it means to go against the city:

The other tactic would be to embrace the outlaw nature of the apartment gallery. There already is a thriving underground restaurant scene. It’s an easy way for restaurateurs to build a reputation and gain some experience before opening up a public place. These renegade food services have been chronicled in the local media and seem to operate with impunity. The apartment gallery can be the new speakeasy. — Well, maybe that’s a little overboard.

I do know that generally these laws are passively enforced. A complaint has to be filed before a business is shut down, and often times more than once. That means if the activities of the apartment gallery don’t get out of hand, they are usually left alone. Besides, how long should one expect to run a gallery out of his or her home before either taking the step to operating a stand alone space or get out of the biz altogether. By the time the law catches up with the gallery owner, he or she has gone legit or is ready to throw in the towel. If there is a healthy “art apartment” scene, someone else will step in and keep up the tradition.