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Cultivate Featured Gallery: The Martin

Cultivate is honored to share The Martin. The Martin is an artist-run community space and gallery in Chicago. Learn more about the Cultivate Featured Gallery series below.

Learn more about The Martin on their:

Briefly describe your gallery/museum space and what you enjoy about it.

The Martin is an artist-first community space that serves first as an art gallery. We are located in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago, IL and have been in operation since 2018. While our walls have been filled with artists from all backgrounds, we focus on emerging artists with an emphasis on women, non-binary, queer & BIPOC individuals.

We are a unique location as we are attached to Split-Rail, a neighborhood restaurant owned and operated by my partner Chef Zoe Schor. We also have a 70s-inspired cocktail lounge in the basement of our building called Dorothy - positioning us as a triple-threat queer woman owned business corner in which on a full operational night you can have dinner, experiece a show or event and then cap it off with a cocktail while moving through all three spaces and never leaving the building. I love that unique flow we have and working directly with this community as well as my business and life partner.

What is your current exhibit and what is it about?

My current exhibition is titled SUBURBAN NOSTALGIA. The theme came in correlation with Split-Rail’s pre-fixe menu they’re executing for Chicago Restaurant Week - a huge celebration of restaurants and food that actually lasts three weeks and in which we experience a vast amount of business and actively choose to have fun with it. This year Split-Rail designed their pre-fixe menus around two popular suburban-based restaurants that were rooted in a lot of people’s suburban experiences, so building a show that continued those vibes was an easy connection.

Suburban Nostalgia features over thirty works by sixteen artists - thirteen of which are based in Chicago. The featured works range from collage to weavings, playful nods to childhood items and toys to a huge range of photography work.

Entrance of The Martin Gallery
Installation of exhibition at The Martin

What is the process of choosing an exhibit? How far out do you schedule them?

I try not to get too ahead of myself with my exhibitions as I have the privilege of always meeting new artists and working my way through different galleries and spaces throughout Chicago. I’d hate to pigeonhole myself into a full calendar and not be able to feature someone who submits interest in the gallery whose work knocks my socks off.

I have designed 2022’s exhibitions in a varying structure oscillating between group exhibitions and solo exhibitions. My space is split into two rooms so this year I have built dual solo shows in order to expand the opportunity for openings & closings and for emerging artists to more easily fill a smaller space than the complexity of filling two rooms with their work. I have the honor of representing two artists this year, Jennifer Warren & Damaine Nickles, and the focal point of their representation this year will be their full space takeover solo shows- an opportunity only given to them for this year.

Otherwise, in a broad sense curation is a mix of bringing in work that speaks to you, the curator, and bringing in work that will actually shine in the space. I believe in accessibility and keep an open exhibition submission on my website for anyone who wants to pitch a show, and for any calls I make for submissions I never charge a submission fee and work to make it as seamless as possible for anyone to submit. I spend so much time in the gallery space I of course want to be surrounded by beautiful, exciting and vibrant work- so that’s what I go with.

What are the important “take-aways” you hope the community gets from your exhibit space? A big focus for me is to make the gallery experience inviting. Of course the work needs to look great on the wall, on the pedestal, etc. and overall building and shaping a show around certain artists says a lot about the space (who are you giving time to? how do you feature them? how do you speak about them in person or online, etc.) but none of that will feel accessible or exciting if you enter into a space that is not warm, inviting, welcoming and a lot of the times: simply open. Because I throw a variety of events in the space, as well as the addition of our other businesses in the building, I very much strive for an environment that people want to return to time and time again. I want to create a space that people want to be a part of, want to explore the work, want to ask the questions they want to ask without feeling embarrassed, undermined, or simply ignored. I think galleries can be very cold spaces and artists should be screaming to change that. What are some programs/features your space offers that folks might not know about? I do my very best to make all programs and features of the space known, but for anyone unfamiliar with the space we change exhibitions every 4-6 weeks and host a variety of events throughout the month - most notably our weekly Makers Marketplace on Sundays from 11am-2pm and our monthly queer open mic night: Fruit Salad. Our Makers Marketplace highlights up to eight artisans a weekend while Split-Rail hosts brunch next door, providing a cross-community opportunity for makers and brunch guests alike. We set up tables within the gallery, providing additional opportunities for exposure to the artwork while it is featured in our space. BIPOC Makers get their first feature with us for free and any Maker interested in featuring in our Marketplace can submit monthly for free via our Google Form accessible by the link in our Instagram bio or mailing lists. Fruit Salad is a monthly open mic night and feature that highlights the LGBQTIA+ community in Chicago. We collect donations for entry that are split between our host, our feature performer for the evening and a giveback partner that our feature artist selects to support. The growth of Fruit Salad and its success has been the biggest surprise of this iteration of The Martin and we’ve since moved the monthly performance downstairs to Dorothy to accommodate the interest. Finally- I think the biggest feature that may be unknown to a common visitor is that we offer financing for any artwork over $300. I want to grow collectors, especially young collectors, and allowing grace and the opportunity to pay for a piece of work over a few months and a few payments can make the difference between someone taking home original artwork and not. I struggle with getting that message to every person who accesses the space, but it’s there for those who want and need it.

Attendees participating in Fruit Salad open mic night at The Martin

What do you strive for as an exhibit space? What is important to relay to the audience?

As I touched on in the “take-aways” question above- I strive to be an open and inviting, safe and inclusive space for artists to not only desire to be featured but also to be in attendance on a regular basis. Few things bring me more joy than seeing people who regularly come to something like Fruit Salad show up for an exhibition opening or another event in our space because it’s parallel to what they’ve already experienced. It’s extremely important to me that I create a trustworthy environment so when people reach into their wallets to buy a ticket, to take transit, to walk through the door and experience what I’ve built that I have shown up for them and their expectations.

I also want the space to be fun, quirky, something different, something to talk about, something to share. I don’t want to be forgettable.

What are some challenges you face as a gallery/museum? Share something you’ve learned along the way.

Just as any business a huge challenge is - money! Money money money money money. My space is not a non-profit so we don’t qualify for most city-based aid. I work in the emerging art sector and am still very up and coming so I can’t afford a lot of pay-to-play “opportunities” there are to match your gallery up with the well established and well funded entities. Our clientele are typically friends of emerging artists, neighborhood individuals or simply folks who wanted dinner and ended up in an art gallery afterwards.

I’ve had the great pleasure of being able to sell artwork and being able to sell what I consider higher than average priced works, but closing those sales are few and far between, and I think a lot of that goes back to connecting with the younger collector. If I’m able to empower folks to purchase their first piece of artwork, that's a massive win. It’s a slow process and I hope to become more consistent at it in the future.

I’ve learned a great deal and look forward to learning more. Operating a gallery space was not my original intention and so, like much of my artistic endeavors- I’m a little bit learning as I go. Overall I’ve learned if you’re good to people, kind, honest and show up in the ways that people are expecting you to show up - establishing and building on that trust is going to benefit you time and time again.

What are three Michigan based curators/spaces that you love and would recommend others check out?

To be honest I am not very active or connected in the Michigan based art community. What I would recommend to anyone in any space is to seek out the smaller spaces and remember how patronizing them is such a bigger impact than your annual trip to the major museums. Big institutions are important and beautiful and something that should continue to be available to us in cities big and small- but the small rooms are where you’re going to find the passion, care and immediacy of work. It’s where you’re going to be most connected to the art that is happening around you. Seek out the curators and talk to them about the work. Talk to the gallery owners and see how you can best support them. The honest truth is it will probably be in a financial sense since we live in a capitalistic society and art is a business. But if we care enough about it and want to see it continue and grow, we have to invest in it.

I look forward to exploring Michigan’s artwork and curatorial messaging and thank you all for the opportunity to share my corner of the world here in Chicago.

Founder of The Martin, Whitney LaMora

About the Founder

Whitney LaMora (she/her) is a queer Chicago-based creative. She is the Founder & Curator of The Martin, an artist-first community space located in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago. LaMora specializes in intimate and immersive experiences and is passionate about highlighting queer emerging artists. She lives and reads with her partner and their nice and naughty pets in Ukranian Village.

Find her on instagram whitneycurates


Cultivate Galleries

A curated collection of contemporary galleries, artist-run spaces, and arts organizations that we love and/or partner with Cultivate. This featured gallery guide program at Cultivate serves to share the gallery's work and process with the community, inviting the community to understand how and why a gallery selects and showcases the work they do, granting artists an insight into the work and decisions of various artistic spaces, and to connect artists to our network of curators, artists, and other gallery owners.

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