Ten in One on the Fence

For months Joel Leib has made no secret of his desire to move to New York City. His Wicker Park gallery, Ten in One, has had a profound influence here for nearly a decade, but now, Leib says, “I’m trying to up the ante.”

In April he spent a weekend with architects and contractors scouting for storefronts in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, right on the fringe of the hot Chelsea area. He almost settled on a space, but decided against it because he thought the up-front investment was too high. Still, something else could come along. “I have a lot more connections in New York than I did a couple of years ago,” he says, “and now people know I’m looking.”

Ten in One may not be closing its doors at 1542 N. Damen–at least not in the foreseeable future–but if the gallery does relocate, New York’s gain would be Chicago’s loss. Over the past nine years, Ten in One has been a premier venue for young, conceptually oriented artists, and Leib’s hustle and marketing savvy have brought attention to a diverse group of mostly local painters and sculptors, including Walter Andersons, Stephanie Brooks, Tom Denlinger, Michelle Grabner, Tatsuya McCoy, Rebecca Morris, and John Spear. Leib has beaten the odds by running a commercial gallery that sells work other dealers might call “risky”; in a recent show, for example, New York artist Carlos Mollura displayed a pair of inflatable sculptures.

A Lincolnwood native, Leib has never pulled punches when taking on the hometown crowd. In the March New Art Examiner, he complained that local collectors by and large don’t support more adventurous local artists: “How much energy do you put into chasing them in a town that doesn’t care enough?… It’s hard to keep the momentum going with such a small audience.” Too often, he says, collectors wait for artists to receive a critical seal of approval before buying.

Leib now appears to be tired of the struggle. Though “collector and critical support has been increasing,” he says, “sometimes it’s frustrating that art is not a primary consideration for most people in Chicago. In New York, I’d be a smaller fish in a bigger pond, but it’s a city where art really matters.”

In 1988, shortly after earning an MFA in painting from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, Leib became a partner in an artists’ cooperative gallery on West Grand (Ten in One, he says, refers to a carnival sideshow). He kept the venture going after his partners lost interest, and in 1989 he moved to a storefront near Ashland and Ohio. Soon he joined forces with three other edgy commercial galleries–Beret International, Tough, and MWMWM (which folded several years ago)–to form Uncomfortable Spaces, an alliance sharing both aesthetic concerns and some operating costs. “We weren’t happy with the scene as it was, so we decided to make our own,” he says.

Leib has also taken his act on the road, forming relationships with out-of-town galleries. Last year artists from the Uncomfortable Spaces were featured at New York’s TZ’Art gallery. This fall Leib is curating a show at Post Gallery in Los Angeles, and several artists from Ten in One will be included in an exhibit at Rocket Gallery in London. He says he’s trying to get the word out: “Chicago doesn’t have much of a buzz outside the city right now.”

Since 1994, Ten in One has been at its present location on the corner of Damen and Pierce, a high-profile space in the heart of the Wicker Park art scene. When Leib first moved there, many of the artists he represented also lived in the neighborhood. But some–including McCoy and Yvette Brackman–have moved to New York. Others–such as Andersons, Brooks, Morris, and Grabner–are consistently getting reviewed in the art press. Leib fears he’ll lose artists to New York galleries if he doesn’t relocate. “I’d like to stay for a lot of reasons,” he says. “I’m from here, and there is a lot going on in Chicago–it shouldn’t get dumped on all the time. If an opportunity occurs that I can’t ignore, then I could still stay here. But the reality of the marketplace might push me to New York.”

The reality of a different marketplace hit home last month. Two weeks ago, the Busy Bee building, where Ten in One is housed, was sold, leaving Leib in a truly uncomfortable space. He had considered extending his current lease–which expires August 31, 1999–but now that doesn’t appear to be an option. The new owner, Mitchell Gerson, has given Leib the choice of either breaking his lease or staying until it runs out. A new restaurant will be going in next door, and Busy Bee proprietor Sophie Madej believes Gerson plans for it to also take over Leib’s space. Gerson was out of town this week and referred questions to property manager Toby Richardson, who says “it’s too soon to tell” what’s going to happen to the building.

Leib wonders if construction will disrupt his operations. “I just want to make sure I get a whole season out of this,” he says. Richardson says rehabbing won’t start until after building plans are drawn up, “six to eight months” from now. Richardson can’t understand Leib’s anxiety: “He’s got a lease and everything’s fine. Why would a transference of ownership ever complicate things?”

When Leib moved into the Wicker Park storefront– for years a grocery and liquor store, and then, briefly, an eco-travel agency–he was paying $700 a month. At the time, he told me, “You couldn’t get a better space in River North for twice as much money.” Though his rent has gone up $150 a month, it’s still a bargain. (Moving to the gallery district around Superior Street isn’t an option, he says.)

But it’s getting more difficult for art galleries to stay in an increasingly pricey Wicker Park. “The area is in transition from arty bohemian to trendy boutiquey,” Leib says, “and I’m in transition too, from a small cutting-edge gallery showing local artists to a more ambitious space showing artists from all over as well as Chicago. I’m not sure that places like this fit into the neighborhood’s–and Chicago’s–plans anymore.”

Leib says he’s not complaining about the new landlord. “I’m in a position where things are up in the air–do I stay or do I go? And if I stay, can I stay here? These are questions I was thinking about before. The sale of the building is just another poke with a stick to get me to decide which side of the fence I’m on. But if I can rent a storefront in New York for a comparable price for what I assume I’ll have to pay in Wicker Park, why shouldn’t I consider New York a viable option?”

Lewis Lazare is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joel Leib photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.