Alternative Art Spaces: Labors Of Love

Oct 9, 2014

DEMO Project in Springfield, IL
Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS

If you think an art show needs the confines of white walls, like in a museum or other formal setting, think again. Warehouses, apartments, and storefronts are also display places for art. Alternative art spaces, as they are known, began gaining attention in the late sixties. To this day, they draw in audiences who desire art that’s challenging and cutting edge. While cities like New York and L.A. are known for them, you don’t have to go to a big city to check one out.

Inside DEMO Project gallery in Springfield, Carla Bengtson is setting up her artwork. The sound of buzzing insects drone on in the background. It's a chaotic scene, there are perfume bottles on the ground, and a pile of rocks on which a tiny video is projected. There's a larger video projected on the wall behind it - the source of that incessant buzzing. “As I was taping this orchid bee, it saw its image reflected in the lens of the camera and started attacking itself, its own image,” Bengtson explains.

“The title of the show is 'Machine Dreams' and all of the pieces interact with questions of technology and nature in some way,” says Bengtson. She lives in Oregon where she teaches art. Her interest has taken her across the world: “I started solo-backpacking and getting more interested in understanding my place in nature. For 11 summers now I've done residences at research centers in the Amazon.”

Beneath the multi-faceted layers of artwork and objects in this room, there's a message. It begs consideration of the relationship humans have with nature. Next to the perfume bottles on the floor, there's an invitation for viewers to make their own unique scent, much like an orchid bee would do.

Carla Bengtson installs artwork at DEMO
Credit Rachel Otwell/WUIS

“It doesn't look like art looks to many people, and one of the reasons that I do want to bring it to a larger audience is because I am an environmentalist, I care about how we experience nature, how we think about nature ... There's a back-story that I think is interesting, but I hope that people can come in and experience it on a gut-level as well,” says Bengtson. She says in her experience, people who create art installations like this often have a social justice cause that inspires them. The pieces are heady, there's no still life portraits or watercolors here. Bengtson's installation is similar to the works that the DEMO has displayed over the year of its existence. They utilize multimedia and various objects, both found and created.

Jeff Robinson is one of DEMO's founders. He says with this space, he wants to bring art out of the university setting. “It will bring a type of artwork to this community that they wouldn't see even at the art gallery at UIS or other venues that might show contemporary work because we relieved artists of the pressures of needing to sell work … or even to be a success,” says Robinson. He teaches at the University of Illinois Springfield, and heads the visual arts gallery there.

Robinson says DEMO is a place artists are better able to take risks: “There's this notion of experimentation that comes into play and there's this sort of uncertainty. And I think most galleries require or expect that the artist that shows there might have some level of certainty to their work and maybe this is more experimental and therefore more playful.”

DEMO gets by without a budget to speak of. It's run by volunteers and it's on the campus of The Springfield Art Association. Previously, the house was being used as storage. There's no running water or heat. It's slated to be torn down as part of development plans, though the Art Association says it hopes this mission can continue after that happens.

It's common for spaces like this to get by on shoe-string budgets, sometimes they are supplemented by grants from government agencies or community groups. They are almost always propelled by the donation of time, labor, and personal funds from the artists and organizers.

Some alternative art spaces are non-profits. The movement gained momentum in New York City in the early seventies. Originally, government grants were common, which meant abandoned industrial spaces, like warehouses, were given new life as galleries and studios for emerging artists, but that money largely went away when funding for the National Endowment for the Arts was slashed.

Cristelle Terroni has been researching the topic, she says one of the major conclusions she's drawn is: “Alternative spaces allowed the New York art scene to become more interested in experimental art, which before were not as visible… They created the logic of supply and demand, since new art forms were visible, then new galleries could be created.”

Claire Hedden, installation view of homing in on at Violet Poe Projects, 2011
Credit Claire Hedden

By now, the movement has spread across the country. In Bloomington, Kendra Paitz curates art for Illinois State University. Since 2010, she has hosted art shows right out of her home. She's decided against pursuing non-profit status, and says her art shows are accessible. For the audience, it's like attending a party at a friend's house.

“There's a real sense of freedom with it in a lot of ways. There are no sort of institutional barriers, there are no boards to answer to, there are no attendance numbers to fulfill, it's all for the love of the artwork and working together," says Paitz. She usually has a few shows a year. So far most of the artists who have shown their work have been friends. People find out about the shows by word of mouth.

“If I was answering to grant makers, or had a board, or was incorporated, then I wouldn't necessarily still have that flexibility. I think in general, it really is a labor of love for me, and for the artists who are doing it. They've all been so generous and so passionate,” says Paitz.

In Chicago, alternative art spaces are somewhat commonplace. Katie Waddell founded a festival called "2nd Floor Rear" to highlight some of them. Participants ride the subway around the city to visit the art. She says spaces in Chicago run the gamut: “From more established alternative art spaces that tend to have 501c3 status and kind of a devoted following and a set funding structure … all the way to spaces people literally just set up in their apartments.”

Wadell works with artists who include performers, and her festival is based on happenings and events as well as physical locations. She gives one example of artists who walked around with a piece of luggage full of art - a roving gallery. Wadell echoes an often heard sentiment about this scene: “If you do something wild and crazy in someone's apartment - you don't have the same restrictions that you might have if you did something in the Museum of Contemporary Art where you might have funders to worry about, or public safety to worry about.”

Tony Balko: Party on, Pedestal Installation and performance at the STOREFRONT
Credit Courtesy of 2nd Floor Rear

And that means artists are not only allowed, but encouraged, to let their imaginations run wild,  and to express provocative messages. Back at the DEMO in Springfield, Allison Lacher is making herself useful however she can. She herself is an installation artist, and also works for the University of Illinois Springfield in the visual arts gallery and teaching. Lacher is one of five people who help keep DEMO running, and they treasure working together she says. “That spirit of collaboration and optimism and energy tends to spill over into the space. It's been amazing meeting the artists and getting to know them and having them here, and they're coming from all over, it's really cool,” says Lacher.

Lacher says she hopes this place continues to draw in new audiences, who perhaps aren't well versed in contemporary art, but who are curious: "DEMO project is a little disarming, it brings a playful element, something about this domestic setting can … potentially be less intimidating than another setting, and I think there can be real value in that.”