When you walk into Connect Gallery at Harper Court in Hyde Park, it doesn’t have that overly reverent hush you feel in some art galleries. People are laughing and talking – either meeting for the first time, introducing friends, or just catching up. A local artist might be finishing a painting. Kids might be doing homework at a long table. And then there’s the art. Commanding. Unapologetic. Relatable. True. Current.
None of this is by chance. Co-owner Rob McKay sees Connect as “the anti-gallery,” adding, “we don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t come in the space and enjoy art or be inspired – we say, ‘From Kangols to tuxedos – art is for everyone.’” People might stop in alone one day, bring a friend another time, and then become a regular at the openings. The gallery grew from the 2016 Connect Art Fair, a three-day, multi-site, pop-up art event Rob co-produced with Eric Williams, owner of The Silver Room, and recent Harvard Graduate School of Design Loeb Fellow. The event combined visual and performing art, designed objects, film, music, fashion, and literary culture – attracting 5,000 people to Hyde Park and winning for “best public art event” in the Chicago Reader’s 2017 “Best of Chicago” awards.
Rob and Eric were introduced by house music DJ/record producer Ron Trent. With his background in tour/stage production working on shows for The Roots, Fugees, Oz Fest, Smoking Grooves Tour, Rage Against the Machine/Wu-Tang Clan, and Lilith Fair, Rob was a perfect collaborator for the growing block party, which started at Eric’s original Silver Room location in Wicker Park in 2002.
If there’s an extra buzz in the air at Connect lately, it’s because Rob, Eric, and the team are in the final stretch of planning the 15th Annual Silver Room Sound System Block Party, on Saturday, July 21, from 12-10 p.m. in Hyde Park.
The block party is a standalone in Chicago’s jam-packed festival season for its inclusive, backyard barbecue vibe, even though it’s grown to attract an estimated 40,000 people to the one-day event next month – with fans flying in from across the country. It may be bigger and require more volunteers than when it started in a Wicker Park alley, but the party’s organic nature, sense of family and community, and involvement of local businesses has remained the same.
There’s a common thread of creativity and entrepreneurship in everything Rob has done in his career, whether starting out as a street vendor or working as a music producer, label director, recording engineer, tour manager, curator, or just being
a dad to his four children. For him, art – whatever the medium – has always been a catalyst for social innovation – as well as keeping him extremely busy.
Connect Gallery is currently helping to organize the “100 Canvases” fundraising exhibit on Friday, July 6 at The Silver Room, with 12” x 12” paintings by well-known artists and friends auctioned to raise money for the block party.
Rob is also relaunching Connects’ podcast, “The Habitual Line Stepper,” recorded in the gallery. Previous episodes have covered ex Chicago Bull Craig Hodges and “Freeway” Rick Ross – the third episode will highlight the “Chicago Top Five” local artists featured in Connect’s current exhibition “Larger Than Life” – David Anthony Geary, James Nelson, Martha A. Wade, Max Sansing, and Brian Dovie Golden. The name and theme of the podcast reflects those who push boundaries with the purpose of actualizing their dreams, and as a kid growing up in Markham, Illinois, Rob credits his mom and inspiration as the original line stepper in his life.