Artist Kate Remington believes that cooperative galleries are the only way to go. With fewer commercial art galleries, she says, the idea of a group of artists pooling their resources to rent their own exhibition space “just makes sense.”

“Economically, these times are oppressive and depressing for artists,” says Remington, who’s a painter, printmaker, and arts educator. “The art business is rough, and I think more than ever artists as a group will be interested in a co-op situation. . . . Sometimes you have no choice but to pull back and believe in yourself.”

Cooperative galleries aren’t new in Chicago; ARC and Artemisia, both in River West, are two successful, long-standing examples. But art co-ops were virtually unknown in Wicker Park’s gallery district when Remington and five other artists opened Gallery 203 in a small room in the Flat Iron Building almost two years ago. Though Gallery 203 proved a success, Remington felt it was time to take a chance on building a larger co-op. “Gallery 203 is a good experiment, but it’s too small,” says Remington. “You can’t have big shows there with lots of variety.”

Remington first got the idea for a larger art co-op during September’s Around the Coyote festival, when Gallery 203 wound up using additional space in the Flat Iron to exhibit work. She asked a number of artists visiting the festival if they’d consider starting a co-op, and about 20 people expressed interest. The building owners offered Remington’s group 6,000 square feet on the building’s second floor, but it was too expensive, and the artists would’ve had to renovate it themselves. Meanwhile a space across the street became available. “This neighborhood is changing, and we felt that if we didn’t do it now, it might become a clothing store–or a parking lot,” she says.

South of North Gallery opened last week at 1552 N. Milwaukee, on the second floor of the building bearing the big red-neon Libby’s sign. The 3,000-square-foot gallery is the result of a partnership among 18 local and regional artists, each of whom will kick in roughly $100 a month to pay for the space.

Remington describes the co-op members as “quite accomplished, really eclectic,” a culturally diverse group ranging from their 20s to their 60s. They come from the neighborhood, suburbs, and as far away as northwest Indiana. South of North will show new and affordable art in all media, with regularly changing exhibits featuring guest artists and curators.

Many of the gallery members are Chicago art-fair veterans, but for some artists the cost of renting booth space has become prohibitive in recent years. “If your work is honestly priced, like mine is, you don’t make tons of money,” says Remington, who’s been selling prints and paintings about romance, politics, and basketball at art fairs for the last nine years. “When I got downsized from my job, I did ten air fairs in 1994, and it was just too stressful, with a mortgage and everything.”

Remington isn’t bothered by the oft-heard rap that co-op galleries show craftsy or inferior work. “One of the points of cooperative partnerships is to let people decide what’s good and bad,” she says. “The art world is stratified with judges, and if we can be freer of that, I think we’ll have it made. It’s true that some of us don’t know how to deal with galleries and slides, but you can find some great artwork way out of the mainstream. Yes, co-ops may have some awful pieces, but no one will be able to agree on what those awful pieces are. I think artists get tired of people who are arbiters of taste, and a co-op offers you a lot more freedom and opportunity. It’s a very American enterprise. Besides, how else can I show my Michael Jordan kites?”

South of North’s current guest artist is sculptor Paul Zakoian, longtime instructor at the Contemporary Art Workshop. The gallery is located at 1552 N. Milwaukee. Winter hours are noon to 6 PM Thursday through Sunday. For more information call 252-7666.

–Jeff Huebner

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): phot/Yael Routtenberg.