Sector 2337, the bookstore, gallery, and performing arts venue, closed its doors December 14, marking the end of what its founder and executive director, Caroline Picard, says was intended as a five-year experiment at 2337 N. Milwaukee. Before it became a staple of the Logan Square arts community, it spent nine years in Wicker Park, where it began as the Green Lantern Gallery and Press.
Picard started exhibiting work by friends and local and traveling artists in the front half of her second-floor loft at 1511 N. Milwaukee in the summer of 2005; she soon developed a near-constant run of multidisciplinary lectures, readings, exhibitions, and performances in addition to founding an independent literary press. The artworks displayed in her apartment were offset by a brick wall that held the faded impression of a decades-old advertisement for bitters, emphasizing the Green Lantern’s status as a public entity tucked into a private space.
The gallery was initially inspired by an exhibition space Picard’s cousin had built in his loft in Baltimore. Picard visited as an undergrad, but her idea to establish an apartment-based alternative gallery was put on hold when she moved to San Francisco after she graduated college. This notion reemerged when she moved to Chicago for grad school at the School of the Art Institute and came into contact with the social art practices of artists at school and at Threewalls, where she volunteered. The not-for-profit exhibition space and visual arts residency program was established in 2003 in the West Loop, and despite several changes in directors and locations, still remains a site for residencies, exhibitions, and public discourse around underfunded practices in Chicago.
From initial Threewalls founders Shannon Stratton, Jonathan Rhodes, Jeff Ward, and Sonia Yoon, Picard learned that art making, socializing, and commerce could all happen in the same spaces. “[Working with the organization] made operating a nonprofit seem feasible and real, and I connected with the art community through Threewalls,” Picard explains. “I knew who would come to my openings if I hosted them. It wouldn’t just be a cold call or Bat Signal out into the universe.”
In 2007, two years after Picard’s first exhibition, she followed in the footsteps of Threewalls and decided to register Green Lantern as a nonprofit. Other galleries tucked into private spaces with limited resources were also developing at the time (although not necessarily with the intention of becoming nonprofit entities like the Green Lantern). Among them were Vonzweck, which was started inside the living room of Philip von Zweck’s Humboldt Park apartment in 2005 and stayed open for three years; 65Grand, which opened in Bill Gross’s space at 1378 W. Grand the same year and continues programming today on North Avenue; and ArtLedge, an exhibition space resting at the top of a spiral staircase in Caleb Lyons’s apartment, which exhibited work curated by Lyons and Brandon Alvendia from 2004 to 2006.
These galleries, like the Green Lantern, were enmeshed in the lives of their owners, sharing space with roommates, partners, and the gallerists’ own artwork. “When you have a messy space of life and art, framing is superimportant,” Alvendia says. (He also ran the alternative space Storefront in Logan Square from 2010 to 2014.) “Do you frame the work in your space architecturally? Socially? With language? The art we were exhibiting wasn’t just what people put in, it was the atmosphere that we tried to engender into our community. There is not enough space in the world to accommodate everyone’s unique ideas. We were happy to be one small supporter, but we wanted it on our terms.”
Picard compares this experimental scene to the work of two Black Mountain poets. Charles Olson, who was known for having a long breath, formulated extended lines of poetry to match, while Robert Creeley, an asthmatic, configured short bursts of words to aid in his reading. In a similar vein, Picard’s gallery was her living room, while Alvendia and Lyons had their ledge. A few years later, another pair of artists, Christopher Smith and Irene Pérez, even exhibited artwork in a medicine cabinet in an apartment bathroom. “For me, I have this belief that part of making the best work is figuring out what your limitations are,” Picard explains. “You must identify the things you think are hampering you and figure out how to make them useful.”
Picard happily allowed the Green Lantern to take her living room hostage until 2009, when the city shut her down for displaying a sandwich board on the sidewalk without a business license. Without a business license, it was also illegal for the Green Lantern to sell artwork, books, and alcoholic beverages under the guise of a “donation,” and without a public place of amusement (PPA) license, Picard couldn’t sell tickets at the door for musical performances. Although Picard attempted to acquire a business license from the city, she wrote in an essay in The Artists Run Chicago Digest, it was impossible because her apartment wasn’t correctly zoned for commercial activities.
After that, the Green Lantern existed wherever Picard could find space for it. For several months, it occupied the former office of a friend of a friend on Chicago Avenue. Eventually, starting in 2011, Picard decided to eschew visual art exhibitions in favor of the occasional salon-style public program, conversation, or reading at the original site, which she now shared with her husband, Devin King. In 2014, Picard and King moved the Green Lantern into Sector 2337 as a way to establish the gallery inside a fixed set of walls while legally selling books and beverages that could financially support the new space’s programming and avoid any more tickets from the city.
“All of a sudden we had different kinds of insurance, different licenses, liquor licenses,” Picard says. “It was the other extreme.” She and King once again lived in the same building as the space, this time in the apartment above the gallery.
At the new location—a storefront with gleaming wood floors, a pristine bar, and a well-manicured backyard—Sector 2337 expanded upon its original ethos, maintaining its interest in interdisciplinary conversations while updating its shabby-chic interior. It produced five years’ worth of challenging exhibitions and associated publications that questioned the notion of the traditional exhibition space. Early on King, who was the Green Lantern Press’s poetry editor and codirector of Sector 2337, curated a series of readings at the gallery for which he invited academics and poets to present pieces alongside some of the exhibitions. “Having a commitment to platforming a multidisciplinary culture and trying to foster a dialogue around those different avenues has always been a constant at Green Lantern,” says Picard. “We have always wanted to present thoughtful, high-quality, difficult work in a way that people from all backgrounds and disciplinary interests would still feel comfortable inhabiting.”
It may have no longer been marked by the remains of a billboard, but the brick wall at Sector 2337 does hold the embedded remains of a bird taxidermied by Rebecca Beachy for the gallery’s 2017 exhibition “Coming of Age,” which presented a collection of art objects that exhibit a relatively positive outlook on the future despite our present dark times. Sector 2337 also hosted symposia like the plant-centered 2015 “Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening” and exhibitions like “Styles of Radical Will: Italian Sculpture,” a sculpture and painting show by legally blind artist Stephen Lapthisophon that placed frustrating physical restrictions on how the audience could look at the work.
Although physical walls will no longer surround the space, publishing and curating will continue in other spaces and cities, continuing the through lines that have carried each iteration of the Green Lantern. Increased difficulty in fund-raising made the final decision to close the space at the end of 2018 easier, but the answer to where Picard and King might shift their attention to next remains open. It’s unclear, Picard says, whether the closing of Sector 2337 simply marks a chapter break for the project or a decisive end.
In the final year of Sector 2337, Picard and assistant curator Sharmyn Cruz Rivera developed a gallery that occupied a former restaurant menu box that faced the street. Its placement made it completely open to passersby along Milwaukee Avenue, presenting few barriers for accessing the work in the outward-facing gallery. Cruz Rivera titled the project “Shoebox Gallery,” and curated exhibitions that represented the openness and experimental qualities of Sector 2337 on a much smaller scale. “The thing that needs to be remembered is that it’s possible, and that artists will continue to hack their environment,” Picard says. “No matter what, there will always be the chance for weird aesthetic occasions.” v