Left: A view of The Suburban. Right: The opening of Donelle Woolford’s exhibition, November 8, 2009.


Artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam run The Suburban, an exhibition and project space in Chicago, which recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary. Can I Come Over to Your House?, a book about its first decade, with essays by Grabner, Forrest Nash, and Michael Newman, is forthcoming from Poor Farm Press.

WHEN WE MOVED to Oak Park in 1997, the property we bought had a little cinder-block outbuilding adjacent to the garage. We parked the lawn mower in it but knew that it could be put to more interesting use. At just eight by ten feet, it was too small for a studio, but as an unusual exhibition space it had possibilities. Places such as Thomas Solomon’s Garage in LA or Matt’s Gallery in London, way out in the East End before the East End had any galleries, as well as Gavin Brown’s early exhibitions in pubs and the like, encouraged us to create something different. During our years in Milwaukee we’d regularly arranged exhibitions or magazine projects and brought in artists from outside the Midwest, so we’d already formed that habit. Another influence was new friend David Robbins, who had just returned to the Midwest from years in New York and Europe. David had participated in the early phases of several important galleries—Nature Morte and American Fine Arts in New York, Christian Nagel in Cologne—and his move to the Midwest drove home the point that, with the Internet dispersing information more evenly, American artists no longer needed to be in New York or LA to stay current with contemporary art practices. He talked about wanting to open an experimental gallery in a suburban strip mall. David’s attitudes reinforced our feeling that we could make an art outpost right in our backyard in suburban Chicago.

The plan was to make exhibitions that wouldn’t rely on commercial considerations or go the nonprofit grant-seeking route. We wanted to avoid the pressures that ordinarily determine some or all of what is exhibited. Both of us teach, and we pay for the Suburban out of our pockets; we put the pressure on ourselves and keep it off the shows. The gallery isn’t so different from other kinds of exhibition spaces––there are white walls, and often there’s a painting on the wall or a sculpture on the floor––but an exhibition at the Suburban is more closely related to what happens in the artist’s studio than to a proper show at an institution. Artists come here and do whatever they want. We give them the space but we don’t give them conditions. You’re free to succeed or fail just as you might in whatever studio construction you employ. An artist can use the yard or install something in our house, if they like.

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David Robbins, TV Commercial for The Suburban, 2010.

Exhibitions here tend to follow one of three routes. Some artists break off a little piece of their usual production and show it here to see what it looks like in this context. Others take the opportunity to develop a minor yet key part of their work. Still others will jump out of their skin, so to speak, and try something completely different than their usual practice.

Who shows at the Suburban is related to our movement through the world and who we encounter through the normal networking process; our relationships are with artists rather than with the commercial galleries that represent them. Extending an invitation to exhibit is a curatorial decision. There’s no getting around that, but there is a way of sharing it. Since 2003, we’ve had two spaces––one small, one very small––that run concurrent exhibitions. We deemphasize the curatorial model by letting one artist invite another. This introduces us to more new artists, it reduces potential interpersonal friction, and it recognizes networking as another shaping force in the contemporary art world.

Artists who show at the Suburban come from all over the world, and they come to the opening on their own dime. Only 5 percent of the artists we’ve shown haven’t installed their own work and made the opening. Not surprisingly––but still disappointingly––it’s younger artists, who perhaps just want the Suburban on their résumé, who give the least of themselves. Artists who have established careers are the ones who really understand the difference that the Suburban represents, and they are often extraordinarily generous.

We didn’t set out to determine a business plan to draw a certain audience. The audience has happened the way it has happened. Not surprisingly, it turns out that artists, more than any other demographic group, have the greatest interest in exhibitions for exhibitions’ sake.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler