June 14, 2015

2015: Corinna Kirsch on Leaving Chicago

Paul Germanos: Hold old are you? Where are you from? When did you come here? Is Chicago one of many stops on your journey?

Corinna Kirsch: I grew up in a rural part of Texas which was like suburbia, just about a 45-minute drive north of downtown Houston. I ended up choosing to go to Chicago for the Master of Arts in Art History program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But I’ve always liked Chicago; my dad is a Midwesterner. I arrived for my degree in 2007, and stayed a little bit after that. I moved away for good during a snowstorm in January of 2011. And a lady never reveals her true age.

Above: A portrait of Corinna Kirsch by Mark Dorf; black and white (halftone) filter applied; resized for publication.
PG: For what did you hope when you came to Chicago? A degree? A job? What did you think that you'd find here? What was your first impression of the city?

CK: Pretty much, I just wanted a degree in Chicago. A job--I’d take one anywhere. I came to Chicago straight from Austin, Texas. The cities are, um, very different. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations other than that I’d see a lot of art, meet a lot of artists, and hopefully become a better art historian. This is going to sound so "basic," but my first memory of Chicago was the sight of all the Art Deco buildings; coming from Texas, where everything is new, having some sort of history visible in the built-environment was incredible. Oh, that, and nobody else in my MA program smoked cigarettes. I’ve since quit.

PG: Did you attend a school here? Which school did you attend? How long were you in school here? Did you receive a degree here? When did you receive your degree?

CK: I attended SAIC from 2007 through 2009. I received my MA in Art History in 2009.

PG: How long were you in practice here? Did you enjoy success on your own terms? Can you recall some peak experience? If you felt frustrated, what frustrated you? Poor sales? A lack of publicity? High rent? Crime? Inefficient transportation? Public apathy? Bad weather? What was the total amount of time that you spent as a resident?

CK: Hmmmm. I thought SAIC was a great place to be in school. But afterwards I was running an apartment gallery and having a difficult time finding a job (this after working as a curator at the University of Minnesota). One reviewer came out to my space; and, while we were chatting, he ended up saying something along the lines of: “You’ve made it.” I wanted to die. I was working for just above minimum wage at an awful hair salon and paying for exhibitions out of pocket. I didn’t have enough time or resources to support the type of programming I wanted. All in all, none of that is what I considered “making it.” I was poor. I was on food stamps--a survival trick I learned from an artist [we'll call him Greg] who has since left Chicago. And it wasn’t just about being money-poor: I just wasn’t having fulfilling conversations on the state of the art world.

PG: How does Chicago know you? Does Chicago know you? Have you been misunderstood?

CK: Those are great questions. I have no idea of what Chicago thinks of me now! I haven’t been back in a couple of years--oh, I did visit last year for a conference--but I do try to stay in touch with what’s going on in the city by staying in touch with what artists and organizations are doing there. I love writing about Chicago! Let me know what people think of me when you find out.

PG: Was there an event which precipitated your departure? For which other city did you leave? What was waiting for you in that other city?

CK: This is pretty funny. I ended up moving because I didn’t think I’d be able to get an arts-related job. (That’s not a great reason to leave; but that’s what I did, when I was 26.) I went to New York because I had a place to stay for a couple of weeks for free--and because I was receiving unemployment insurance from my former curatorial gig. So, yup--it was mostly the unemployment insurance that let me move to New York on an $80 Amtrak ticket. And for some reason I assumed that there would just be more jobs available in New York. Now I love New York for different reasons. In part, I became a critic because I see injustices, whether aesthetic or political, in the art world. I wasn’t as attuned to them while I was a happy go-lucky grad student with the world ahead of her (I know!!!). It’s nothing you can predict until you’ve had that life experience.

PG: Does Chicago look different to you since your arrival to it and/or departure from it? Do you have advice for someone about to begin what you've finished?

CK: I’ve only been back once, briefly, for three days. I do remember being shocked that Logan Square [subject to rapid gentrification] looked like "Jocksville." My advice to anyone in Chicago would be to stick with it, and try to overcome the insularity of the SAIC world. Move south; try to be involved with people in your community who aren’t artists. Be critical. Be digital. Fight for the type of art world you want.

PG: Do you expect to maintain a connection to Chicago and its art world? What's your incentive to stay connected? Have you left friends or family here?

CK: No family. No close friends. Honestly, I just believe there’s a bunch of creative, caring artists and other people in Chicago; and I want to see them succeed however they see fit.

PG: By what means do you stay abreast of developments in the arts in Chicago? Print? Social media? Visits?

CK: I try to keep up with Chicago by being online.

PG: In the end, is place important? Is physical location a matter of consequence in 2015?

CK: Digital spaces are becoming more important. I’m starting a PhD in the fall, and I hate to admit it, but one of the reasons why I chose Stony Brook University is that I didn’t want to leave New York, at least not yet. There’s so much activity here that I end up going to panels, talks, and openings several nights a week--when I have time. I’m a country mouse at heart, though, and hope to someday write and blog from a place that I own. Maybe with a horse. I love writing about horses and art. But for the moment, I like the speed of New York. I like not having a car. I like public transportation which is reliable and frequent (sorry, Chicago). I like being surrounded by other workaholics, by artists and critics who see a purpose beyond aesthetics. Digital activism, too, is a topic that more people are comfortable discussing here than in Chicago, in my experience. Maybe that’s changed? New York is prohibitively expensive for most people. I wouldn’t work as many hours as I do--if I didn’t have to do it in order to stay here. So in that sense I definitely miss Chicago. I’d go back in a heartbeat if someone wanted me to teach a class on criticism, or blogging, or reporting.

PG: Was some important subject omitted from this query? Please introduce it.

CK: Just let me know if I can answer any questions more fully.

PG: OK. In Chicago, you were associated with two galleries--Concertina Gallery and The Exhibition Agency--which operated from 2009-2010 at the same address (2351 N. Milwaukee) in the Logan Square neighborhood. Is that correct? If so, were there any particular exhibitions or artists from that period of your life which are now memorable? What would have helped you, as an apartment gallerist, to continue to operate a space? Is it all, in the end, a question of money? Any thoughts on being on the receiving end of press coverage? Did it affect your work (inform your perspective) as a writer?

CK: Yes, that's correct. All of it was memorable: the good and the bad. Here are some anecdotes, not necessarily in order of importance. I remember getting poked all the time by Matthew Paul Jinks' spiky metal sculpture, which took up our entire living room. We'd have to tread carefully to get past it, just to go to the bathroom or kitchen. Ugh, and then there was the red glitter, left over from a performance, which we couldn't get out of the wood floors. (We rarely had furniture in the apartment so that we could have exhibitions.) The back courtyard was my favorite part, even though you had to walk down through the laundry room, there was a gorgeous backyard to escape into--as we all know, apartment galleries can get scorching-ly, sweating-ly hot. I remember having to negotiate with artists in ways I wasn't yet comfortable. School, studio visits, working in a gallery--none of it compared to having your own microcosm of a gallery/museum/laboratory all-in-one. Artists weren't always happy with the way their work was presented, or who they were put in a show with--that's the sort of usual stuff you'll always find. I take it back: My absolute favorite experience of running Concertina was on opening night I managed to find a professional concertina-player to serenade the event. He was a really nice guy, sat in a kitchen corner all by himself, and played us something that may have been a waltz. That's the sort of playful thing you can do when your project space is on your own terms.

PG: As a writer based in Chicago you contributed to Edward Marszewski's "Proximity" in 2008-2009 and Stephanie Burke's "The Gallery Crawl and So Much More..." in 2009. Is that correct? Were there other publications to which you contributed while a resident of Chicago?

CK: I think those were the only ones. Oh, and the SAIC school paper: F Newsmagazine.

PG: Is there a website in addition to Art F City which you'd like linked from the article? A personal site or another publication? Do you want to leave contact information?

CK: Sometimes I write for Vice. I'm also a reporter for The Art Newspaper. And I'm starting my PhD in Art History at Stony Brook University in the fall.

PG: You earned your MA at SAIC in 2009. Are there any classmates or instructors who had a lasting effect upon you? Do you keep in touch with anyone from school or is that a closed chapter in your life? Was SAIC worth it? Was it a good choice for you?

CK: Most of the friends I made in my program don't live in New York. I try to keep up with them on social media. I think I've probably become better "online friends" with some people than I was in real life. In the Art History department at SAIC, David Raskin is great, and totally funny. I was really scared of him at first (hi, David), but he's down-to-earth. Michael Golec and David Getsy, too. It's funny, but when I was in the Art History program at SAIC, I was nervous, I think, of speaking my mind. Maybe I was a little shy? I didn't take as many risks as I would have liked in my coursework, which may have been due to my shyness. (This is also related to the fact that I was working all the time I was in school, a bad idea all around.) With writing, and being a somewhat public figure (at least on the Internet), I've had to deal with all types of conflicts (like trolls and working with a variety of editors) that have contributed to me being a somewhat more outgoing person who's willing to speak my mind about aesthetics and activism. As for Chicago people, it's hard to say who I've become better friends with since leaving. Maybe Eric Fleischauer and Jason Lazarus? I saw them the last time I was in town. Dana Basset? There's a lot of really talented, down-to-earth people who live in Chicago, but who I wish I could see them all the time. In general, I like running into former Chicagoans in New York.

PG: Do you have any advice for a young person who's trying to work as a critic? operate a gallery?

CK: If you want to work as a critic, talk to me. But really, if you want to work as a critic I would say that the top five things I can think of are:

1) Lose the academic art speak. Write sentences that sound like they just came out of your mouth. The world does not need more Deleuze-robot criticism;

2) Go see a lot of art. I don't just mean where you are. You need to be online, on Twitter, and know what people are making everywhere. Always be sniffing out for artists;

3) Don't be scared to say you don't like something;

4) Sorry--here's a fourth. Do not bury your lede. This is my number one editor grumble;

5) Write all the time. Blog if you must. Even if you don't have an affiliation yet, you've got to write. Practice.

If you want to operate a gallery, just don't. There's already too many out there. Unless you're providing an alternative to the current art-as-commodity sales model, then don't do it.

- June 5-12, 2015 (C) Corinna Kirsch

Learn more about Corinna by visiting her website: http://corinnakirsch.com/

Corinna Kirsch is Senior Editor at Art F City: http://artfcity.com/author/corinnakirsch/

Read Michael Weinstein's 2009 review of Concertina Gallery: http://art.newcity.com/2009/11/02/review-anthea-behm-and-aron-gentconcertina-gallery/

Read Julia V. Hendrickson's 2010 review of the Exhibition Agency: http://jayveeaitch.blogspot.com/2010/09/review-uncrumpling-at-exhibition-agency.html

Image above provided by Corinna Kirsch; original artwork by Mark Dorf; black and white (halftone) filter applied; resized for publication.

Edited by Paul Germanos. Apologies for errors and omissions. Contact using the information at right.

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