Robin Monique Rios first became a gallery owner in 2003, when she and Jerod Schmidt opened the 4Art Gallery in Pilsen within 6 months of finishing art school.
If this sounds bold, Robin makes it sound like a pragmatic move. She says she was raised by tough Southern women, having a job was always a priority. She started working for hotels while she was still in high school, later she’d switch to the telecom industry. She worked on business and corporate accounts at MCI, which came in handy when she went to write the gallery’s business plan.
Meanwhile, she did well in corporate and male dominated environments. She says she got every job she applied for, and she advanced at every job she got. She says she has a learning disability so she always struggled in school, but in the workplace she compensated, she never let anyone see her struggle to learn. She always had money to spend, but she wasn’t a shopper, so she spent it going to nightclubs and looking out for her friends.
That part is important, that she felt successful in the corporate world, or at least valued and well paid, with an active social life on the side, because after about 10 years of it, she fell into a depression anyway, and she says it was because “I wasn’t living my life.”
It is true that the year was 1999, MCI/WorldCom was poised for some problems. There was lots of shifting around within the organization, though Robin says her employer would accommodate her if she refused a particular job.
Today Robin puts great importance in spiritual expression, and back then, she wasn’t doing that. She says she was having thoughts of suicide, she was functioning on the outside, but in secret, she was thinking about how she might end it all.
Then one night she switched on the television, and she saw a commercial for the Illinois Institute of Art. “It was as if the t.v. illuminated,” she says. “It was as if God himself was talking to me.”
The Illinois Institute of Art was founded in 1916 as the Commercial Arts School; in 1999 it was promoting a new campus embedded in the Merchandise Mart, which was still dominated by showrooms for furniture and interior design. Today the school promotes its Chicago context, with its advertising agencies, world class restaurants, high fashion and design. In the commercial Robin saw “they were describing all the things they were going to offer, and I wanted to learn all those things.”
She had some trepidation about going back to school. She doesn’t test well. “I don’t comprehend what the questions are asking of me.” But she put that aside and asked the admissions counselor to just pitch the program. The campus was small, a class might have only 5 or 6 students. “The instructors will work with you to make sure you have what you need to learn,” he assured her, and that turned out to be the case. “It was the best thing I ever did,” she says now, “I didn’t miss a single day of class.”
She met Jerod Schmidt at school. Their personalities were so sympathetic she says their reactions to life were often in sync, and after graduation they were both a little depressed by the job prospects they saw at other people’s businesses. They started talking about opening their own business - a fine art gallery that would also offer framing and graphic services. So they wrote the business plan and got a $20,000 small business loan from Accion Chicago. That seemed to be the easy part.
The hard part seemed to be finding a good space. They started looking in Wicker Park first, because they thought they needed an arts scene to bring in customers. This was back in 2003, the Around the Coyote art fair still drew tens of thousands of people through the Wicker Park galleries, and the Flat Iron building had been buzzing with artists for over a decade, but Wicker Park rents were so high she figured they’d have to bring in $10,000 a month just to meet expenses.
She was driving home from a particularly discouraging day scouting overpriced spaces in questionable proximity to the heart of the scene, when she passed the Podmajersky buildings on Halsted and saw a “For Rent” sign in one of the windows. On a whim, she stopped the car and called the number. John Podmajersky III answered the phone and offered to show her some spaces on the spot.
Deanna Isaacs would write about the John III and his plans for the family business in the Chicago Reader later that year. It was his father, John Podmajersky Jr, who had bought the properties, starting in the late 1950s. Over 40 years he accumulated more than 100 of them and renovated them as shabby-chic live-work spaces for artists. The designs were playful, he opened floor plans, added spiral staircases, clerestory windows, made covered passageways outside. The backyards were joined into shared private gardens furnished with architectural curiosities salvaged from other buildings. But the fronts were left relatively nondescript – they had a uniform look, just slightly off-beat in their paint jobs, the artistry went on behind the fronts.
His son wanted to bring more energy to the front. He saw the renovations around the UIC campus approaching down Halsted Street. He didn’t want artist’s studios with their back to the street, he told Isaacs he wanted “artist entrepreneurs” who would open commercial businesses in the storefronts. Isaacs interviewed 2 of Podmajersky’s new tenants for the article – one was an art consultant for corporate buyers, the other was Robin Rios. She and Jerod had opened the 4Art Gallery in a 2,800 sf space at 1932 S. Halsted earlier that year.
The space had a great accessible floor plan, storefront windows and reasonable rent, the only thing it didn’t have was a scene. So she and Jerod set out to generate one. The Podmarjersky’s already organized an Open Studios night each year. The galleries in River North drew crowds by marketing 1st Fridays, open gallery nights when the public was encouraged to wander through on the same day every month. Robin and Jerod began to market 2nd Fridays in Pilsen.
What was trickier about Pilsen was that most of the studios were part of that hidden trail of spaces the older Podmajersky built. So Jerod made maps of where all the artist studios were – they printed fliers and gave copies to the other artists to promote themselves, they spent hours handing them out downtown, and at other arts events. Robin still remembers approaching an established gallerist to ask her for advice. The woman was incredulous. “Why would I tell you how to start a gallery?” she wanted to know. Robin and Jerod had the opposite instinct – they believed they’d be more successful if their neighbors were too.
In the end, they were successful at bringing crowds to Pilsen, and even at helping Podmajersky fill his storefronts, but it wasn’t clear it all worked to sell a lot of art. A few years later the storefronts were emptying out again, 4Art had paid off its loan but Robin still wasn’t drawing a reliable salary. One departing gallerist told the Reader she thought 2nd Fridays were mostly a party where people came to drink wine, eat the cheese and crackers, and watch each other look at art.
Yet on any given 2nd Friday the crowds still come to Pilsen. They wander the artists’ studios, they rub shoulders with each other, and they look at art with the person who made it right there to chat with them about it. And the party and the art may be sympathetic in non-commercial ways.
They’re both expressive activities, for instance. As a place where people come to show themselves and to check each other out, a social scene is a sort of theater for mutual display. People hone their personal style, stimulated by people they see around them. And to the extent their tastes evolve together as they participate in the pageant, the scene is also a sort of collective activity for spinning webs of meaning, for creating a context where each individual’s small acts of expression take their significance.
The curator Claire Molek says when she set out to revive a curated version of open gallery night in River North, her goal was to make the art scene more “transparent” -- more accessible to the public who might not feel conversant in art, but also more open to participants in the gallery system itself, who might be tempted to stay in their own box and protect it from poaching without a nudge to step out for a collective project.
That kind of transparency and context might be more important for an art world now, in a postmodern landscape, where critics have less authority to define direction and meaning for whole schools of people than they did even a few decades ago. Selling art could be an after effect.
As an exercise, Robin recently sat with an intern at the 4Art Gallery and did a Google search for images of abstract painting. Scrolling through, they saw a lot of repetition, treatments and effects they’d seen before in other people’s art, repeating again and again through the Google scroll. It’s as if they’ve been mutually informed, communicating by invisible threads. Robin tells her intern that what will be new about her work as a fine artist isn’t necessarily her style, or her technique. “What’s new is your connection to the world.”
Robin does take pride in her technique. She describes herself as a digital painter, and she considers digital art the most recent art movement to point a whole new direction in the field, the way Impressionism did. She recalls being amazed at the possibilities opened up by tools like Photoshop. “It blew my mind,” she says. But in the mid 2000s, critics and artists weren’t sure using digital tools made real art. And Robin herself is a little critical of artists who are too free with Photoshop filters and effects. She uses her own photographs, makes her own effects with the camera, she’s proud that photographers who looked at her work couldn’t believe it was digital because they couldn’t see pixels, even with a glass.
At first she was making photographs of fairly traditional genres – landscapes and buildings in picturesque decompose. But her signature, her “brand” she even calls it, her particular connection to a subject matter, began take shape when a friend gave her an X-Ray and asked her to make it into a piece for a 2004 exhibit called The Devil Show.
“It spoke to me on so many levels,” she says. She’d been sick a lot as a kid, and always with exotic illnesses, including a bone disease that fused her hip and put an end to her skateboarding days. As an artist she came to believe her physical ailments were an expression of soul sickness, the unhealthy spirit she’d got by suppressing her true self, by not living her life.
She’d been so nervous about showing that first piece she didn’t want to attend the opening. But when she arrived there were people waiting to talk to her about it. Some of them wanted to give her X-Rays and MRIs of their own for her to make into art. Eleven years later, she has made more than 40 pictures in a series she calls Observation. She says the Observation series is about stripping away layers of social and personal constraints in order to reconnect with the world as our true selves.
As a gallery owner, Robin emphasizes that she represents artists who make fine art, as opposed to what she calls “decorative art.” The distinction must hinge on that goal – making art that expresses a real connection to the world – but since the goal is ephemeral, the distinction is also a moving line.
Robin says she’s known too many older artists who’ve had some success, but have become embittered misanthropes in the process. They got sucked into a cycle where appreciation of their work seems to wax and wane, and they find themselves making the same kind of thing over and over again. Either they’re trying to fill a large order for a hotel buyer with lots of rooms to fill, or they’re trying to recapture that landscape that sold, to hit the stylistic notes that brought some recognition before.
She says the critics, who could theoretically give artists feedback and push them to re-approach the world anew, aren’t much use anymore. When Dan Davidson was in art school [profiled on The Hardscrabbler in April 2015], there was a so-called Artforum Mafia, a clique of critics whose essays defined the terms artists could use to make sense of their own careers, whether they followed their guidance or rebelled against it. It doesn’t sound like today’s critics carry that kind of authority – or necessarily even seek it. “No one’s writing long articles anymore,” Robin says. “It’s all just Q and A.”
If the critics have stepped back, it sounds like gallery owners have stepped up to guide the show: they scout out what’s important, and neglect what’s not; they cultivate artists and educate buyers to appreciate them. In fact, that’s pretty much what the old ArtForum Mafia was afraid would happen – it’s the kind of art market feedback loop they pictured when they argued about the commoditization of art.
And the commercial results have been fabulous. At least in the secondary market, after pieces leave the gallery and are sold again at auction, the market has moved from one record to another, shouted on by ever more astonishing prices for superstar art. In 2014, worldwide sales for art sold at auction topped $15 billion, up 300% from 2004, according the ArtPrice annual market report. In the 1980s, top prices for individual artworks had stagnated around $10 million in the western market; in the 2000s a market emerged for works priced $100 million or more.
But behind the shouting around the superstars, the auction market has grown broader too, as in more art, made by a larger field of artists, finding a larger audience. Partly, there are just more fabulously rich buyers from more parts of the globe. They’re trying to establish new museums, or they’re building their personal collections, diversifying their investments. China’s auction market has surpassed New York’s every year since 2010. It’s helped shift the whole balance of genres. Europeans and Americans buy paintings above all else, but ArtPrice reports that sales of drawings have taken a new scale under the influence of the Chinese.
But maybe the most encouraging point is that even as the celebrity paintings get all the press, the vast majority of sales, 80% of them, are of pieces priced less than $5,000. In 2013, that segment represented nearly 300,000 works of art sold, twice as many as 10 years before. By 2014, sales of contemporary artists brought in $1.2 billion in revenue, which was $1 billion more than 2004.
Auction sales are where speculative buyers have access to bid up prices, but a vigorous secondary market is good for art sold in galleries too, especially if interest is growing in emerging contemporary work. It may be that in fine art, as everywhere else, it’s harder to establish a canon of important work than it once was. The conversation is ever more diffuse, it’s confusing, but there’s more opportunity to be part of it. Especially if it transacts at a local level, in your neighborhood, for instance, like it does in ours.
By 2009, the Pilsen art scene was wearing Robin out. John Podmajersky had succeeded in filling his storefronts, but then his all efforts seemed to backfire. Robin says she didn’t have a problem with John the way some people did – she never thought he was responsible for marketing the district, for instance, but she did think he went overboard on the rules. He had rules about the hours his artist entrepreneurs should be open, and about the appearance of their window displays. And then the rents kept going up, Jerod had moved to Portland, and Robin was tired of promoting the scene. By 2009, she was ready to close the 4Art Gallery.
Then she got a call from Michael Zhou, son of ShanZou Zhou in Bridgeport. Robin had seen the Zhou brothers at the occasional 2nd Friday event in Pilsen before, Michael told her his father and uncle had respect for what she she’d accomplished, they wanted to create something similar in Bridgeport, and they wanted her to be part of it. Robin says it was an emotional meeting – she was flattered, but she was also exhausted. In the end, the vision Michael laid out for building an art mecca in Bridgeport won her over.
Robin says the space was very raw when she moved in, her own space it was smaller, but it was also more manageable, she represents about half the artists she once did, and she’s part of a vibrant art scene she isn’t responsible for generating herself. Today, the Zhou B Center thrums on 3rd Fridays – from the basement to the roof, and there are hosts of other shows throughout the month.
The 4Art Gallery is located on the 4th floor of the Zhou B. Center at 1029 W. 35th Street. Robin displays works from her own Observation series at the back of the gallery. This is my favorite one. It’s an X-Ray of a human skull, painted in with more than 20 other images: there are train tracks burrowing into the depths, and gothic windows opening to the light. There are the creaking gears of thought packed in a frontal lobe, and there are doves in flight just outside the skull walls – soaring on invisible currents. It evokes all the limits and possibilities of the human mind.
On my most recent visit, I told Robin about the things I saw in it, and I was gratified when she told me it was very similar to what she saw. It was only walking home afterwards that I remembered we had talked about that same picture before. Did I see those things myself? Or did she point them out to me and they took root in my mind somewhere, pushing to the surface as I looked at it again? I don’t remember, but either way, as I start my collection of Bridgeport art, that will be the first picture I buy.