Artists, Communities, & Gentrification: An Interview with Peanut Gallery


via Chicago Contemporary Art Seminar

Interviewed by Kyle Gaffin

Peanut Gallery was an exhibition and studio space run by an artist cooperative consisting of Charlie Megna, Kelly Reaves, Jessi Meliza, Ryan Burns, and Brandon Howe. They described themselves as “specializing in showing ambitious new work by local emerging artists and connecting people with one another through workshops, screenings, artist talks and forums. Our goal is to nurture a vibrant, inclusive creative community, while encouraging questioning of established norms and good-spirited mischief.” From 2010 to 2014, they operated a space in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, at the corner of California Ave. and Augusta Blvd. In the fall of 2014, they were forced to close up that space and move out due to their landlord’s plans to completely “remake” the intersection. “Gentrification got the best of us and we lost our storefront,” they said in a “Hiatus” post on their website. I sat down with them to discuss these changes and the issue of gentrification, the challenges of running a community arts space, and their hopes and plans for what was to be Peanut Gallery’s new location in Logan Square. Whereas their space in Humboldt had a polished, professional gallery feel, the space in Logan Square was in fact an apartment with one room to be converted into exhibition space, with the rest becoming studios and space for socializing. What lent the new space a particular charm was its backyard, which was to serve as the means of entry to the gallery, and which would introduce visitors to a beautiful little garden and a family of chickens on their way in. Everything was coming together for an opening show in May in an exciting new space. Yet some weeks after conducting the interview, I was informed that Peanut Gallery had again lost their space and would no longer be operating as a gallery. There are hopes to to keep the project alive in some way, either with an online presence or as a traveling space.

Ryan Burns was not present at the time of the interview.

Kyle Gaffin: How did Peanut Gallery form, and what was your vision for it?

Charlie Megna: It started in a small studio space in Wicker Park, which I shared with a group of other people. Kelly and I started hanging out and painting a bunch in there together, and we just kind of had the idea that since we had the space and we knew a ton of people that were making art that wasn’t showing, we just thought we could have some really good shows. So we just started putting shows together. We started with group shows first, putting calls out for people and then selecting friends that we knew had work that fit with the specific theme of the show. Then Brandon started coming and hanging out there a bunch, and then joined and became a part of the gallery. It just kind of formed from there, and kept going and then we got the bigger space [in Humboldt Park] after that one, and that’s when it really took off and got more serious. And the vision?… You go for it.

Kelly Reaves: The vision? I think the vision was always to show what we considered underrepresented artists…I think that’s it. And to be ourselves and have fun about it.

CM: Yeah, to have a non-threatening style of gallery or something…something that was very open to everyone…

Brandon Howe: And to show artists that are really working hard. You know, not really trying to have anyone pigeonhole us into one particular style of art or anything like that. Really just, if you’re working hard and you haven’t really had a chance to show your stuff yet…if you’re making good stuff, you’ll get a show.

CM: Yeah, kind of like a platform for people to get started to get shows was kind of the idea. And then to just have fun! Laughs.

KR: Yeah, a lot of artists were either still in school or just graduated, and a lot of galleries don’t want to give artists shows unless they feel like the work is really finished and polished and really thought out, and I always liked the idea of giving people shows before it’s quite to that stage, to help people work through stuff.

KG: It sounds like you had in mind that this would be primarily an exhibition space. But was there programming that you would put on to make it more than just a place for exhibiting new work?

CM: One of our big ones was Tuesday night Drawing Nights, and that started just to get people together, to hang out and make stuff, and, you know, to meet people that were in the neighborhood or that were also jmaking similar stuff or had a similar mind about art and the space and everything. And then we’ve done different lectures and we’ve tried doing classes, we’ve tried to do other programming that’s not just about the exhibition – we’ve always tried to make it something so that you could get people together – it’s really all about the community of people, it always has been. So we’ve tried multiple things, but it’s hard to get people out to a lot of things, too.

KR: Yeah, it was about four and a half or five years, so it went on for a while, and I feel like we tried a little bit of everything almost, you know there were a couple performances and just a little bit of everything, really, but the thing that really stuck was Drawing Night, we did it consistently every week the whole time. Especially if the weather was nice, a lot of people would come out, and it was really fun because we could just kind of watch people meet each other.

Jessi Meliza: Because they were open drawing nights, that was the time the space was reliably open outside of openings, and, since over half of the gallery space that we had was studio space – the back was all studios – we would essentially also be opening up our studios to share with the neighborhood. And we did have regulars, people who would come in all the time, who are still making work, and going out and developing as artists. But that was probably the main program. That, and we were one of the two spaces that would host this event called Radical Mending, which was popular, and regular, it was every other week, and people would come in and bring clothes to mend, and there was somebody there [Eleanor Ray] – who now owns a business in Humboldt Park as well, she owns the Wasteshed – and that was a very cool thing because that’s still in the neighborhood and that’s still kind of a little slice of what we used to do at the Peanut Gallery as well.

KG: Do you feel like those programs helped you to be connected with the surrounding neighborhood and have the gallery be relevant to those who were living there?

CM: Yes and no. It was more relevant to younger artists. We had a couple neighborhood kids that would come in regularly and when the school was over there and open at the time, we had a lot of kids from the school that would come in, not necessarily for Drawing Night but they would come in and just hang out, and we would try to push them to draw and make stuff while they were in there hanging out.

JM: So there was an elementary school just down the street that was closed in one of the big city closings – Lafayette Elementary – and that closed probably two years ago. So when school would let out a lot of those kids would just come and hang around. Sometimes we’d have stuff for them, sometimes we’d have snacks.

CM: The neighborhood was hard over there to get people in, we tried to keep it as open as possible and people would come by and say, “Oh I’m going to come in and drop off my kids,” or “I’m going to come do this or that,” but they never really did that much…I think, you know, it was harder in that neighborhood to get people more open to us being there or something, sometimes.

KG: Why do you think that was?

CM: I mean, it’s just a group of white kids hanging out, so…You know we tried to do events, we did some Palestinian film screenings, and we tried to do things like that to try to bring more people in and be like, “It’s not…you know, come in and hang out and you’ll like it.” But it’s hard to bring people in, especially if they aren’t making art or aren’t that interested in it, it’s hard to get them to come in. But a lot of the local dudes, like the kind of like “banger-y” guys, loved a lot of the shows and would come in for all those and hang out. I guess that stuff did bring a lot of those guys in – not always the best dudes, but they’d come in and hang out and liked a lot of the work and we talked a lot about it. There were a bunch of regulars that were neighborhood kids. So we tried a little bit, as much as I think we could, as many ideas as we could!

BH: One thing that was difficult was that a lot of neighborhood people seemed like they wanted to be able to come by and just put stuff up, but that’s just not how it was working. We were actually scheduling shows and people were applying for shows, and you know, you can’t just put stuff up. You can put stuff in the bathroom… we had art in the bathroom…. So we encouraged them to come work there, but I wonder if that was a deterrent for people sometimes.

CM: Yeah, I think the idea of what a gallery is is different in different areas and to different people.

KR: It’s tricky because we tried to walk the line and be a little bit of everything to everyone, but at the same time you’re kind of being exclusionary to everyone at the same time, too, you know?

JM: And the gallery moved in at kind of a weird, super-transitional time of the neighborhood. The neighborhood was already very much in transition before the gallery got there. So, when I was working at the Knockbox, we went from – like, the entire clientele changed over at least twice. It started off with a lot of people coming in because that was the only place they could get internet, so we had a lot of kids, again, from the neighborhood. It was right around that first change-over that the gallery opened, when we started seeing more people coming in with strollers and, like, younger couples, and people seeing the neighborhood as starting to be a good place to buy property again, so kind of in that upswing – in 2010 – and that was really when people started buying up property in Humboldt Park again. So, I would say that it wasn’t just the gallery that was having that kind of identity crisis. Right before the gallery opened, there were a lot of people who moved from that area. So it is still a really weird transitional time for that corner and that part of the neighborhood, from rentals or homes that people have owned for like 25 years to people buying and gutting places, and more and more very quickly. The gangs moved over a few blocks. The super specific street-by-street, house-by-house outer workings were all totally in motion. People that you would see all the time just weren’t out anymore.

KG: So what you’ve been describing, that’s basically what gentrification has looked like in Humboldt Park?

KR: Yeah, and everywhere!

KG: Sure. What do you see as positives and negatives about those shifts?

CM: I think it depends on how it happens. Humboldt’s a weird one, ‘cause it jumped. Like, there was no transition from like smaller stores or cafes – I mean, it had Knockbox, and that was basically it, but it didn’t have … over here in Logan it’s been a slow transition of a couple boutique shops or smaller shops and smaller cafes…

KR: …little independent businesses starting their first thing…

CM: …yeah, whereas out by Humboldt, there are independent business owners, but it’s all very high-end everything. It jumped from that mid-range price level, to just totally not available to a lot of people that lived there and even a lot of the people that are gentrifying the area – it’s still not even in their grasp. So that’s a weird one, how it jumped. But sorry, I think I kinda lost track of your question…you’re asking how it’s beneficial or not so beneficial?

KG: Yeah, I mean, in some ways, those changes, like a decrease in gang violence, these are good things…

JM: I wouldn’t call it a decrease in gang violence, by any description.

KG: Okay, just a shift?

JM: It just literally moved three blocks down. That’s not a decrease, it’s still bloody, there are still things that happen. There are people who get to live in Humboldt Park and who get to pretend like that doesn’t happen because they’re not within it. It’s still absolutely a huge thing. There’s still…I mean, it’s East Humboldt now, but that’s not very far. And that’s something that’s going to continue to get pushed into further and further areas that have issues. So, I’m not blind to the idea of gentrification [being a positive thing], but the way that gentrification has happened in that particular part of Humboldt Park, it started with people living there and acknowledging that there are things happening that are not necessarily safe, to now, people going in and thinking it’s a cute place to buy a house and just ignoring the fact that there are, like, people dying of heroin overdoses an alley over. So, in terms of what’s positive about it…

CM: It’s nice to be able to go to the park again. I guess gentrification can – I mean that’s a specific area – I guess in other areas there are ways that certain businesses, certain spaces can do more beneficial stuff for the neighborhood, you know when you start opening grocery stores in certain areas and start doing shit like that, you know, it can be beneficial…I mean, there’s probably a middle ground, where there’s good and bad all around.

JM: Yeah, where suddenly a post-office becomes more serviceable. And I really do think that Peanut Gallery and Knockbox were those transitional spaces, and they’re gone now.

KR: Sacrificial lambs!

JM: No really! And, fair enough, we made it safe for people to spend a million dollars on a building. Us being there gave people that idea, “Oh, it’s the young, artsy part of town.” Yeah, sure. Fine. But, whereas we were providing a space where you don’t have to be of a certain income bracket to partake in it, and to enjoy it – we were a place that had open doors, and we occupied that space and we didn’t charge people any money to enjoy that space, or to also not have the windows get broken, if we’re like, gonna, like, talk broken window theory or whatever – and now, all of those places are empty, but they’re going to be crazy high-end and expensive in two months, three months, whenever they open.

KR: Yeah, as far as I can see, as a homeowner in a rough neighborhood, I feel like gentrification is good for people who own, and community business owners if they own their building, and probably not so good for everyone else. It’s simple, but I like thinking of things simply.

KG: So you do see Peanut Gallery as being part of this process of gentrification?

CM: Oh yeah. I mean, you can’t deny it.

JM: Yeah, this is in, like, textbooks about how things are gentrified. I mean, not Peanut Gallery, but “the arts.”

CM: So its how we can at least do something somewhat positive, I think, is kind of what we try to do more. And, yeah, having a free space where people can come in and it doesn’t cost you anything to enjoy the space.

JM: And this was something we talked about very openly while taking in that space – “How do we make this friendly to the neighborhood?”

CM: We know we’re taking part in this, but how can we at least do something that’s, you know, somewhat beneficial, or at least that’s a space for the people to come to hang out or enjoy or something, something that’s not just some place that they can’t go. [Laughs]

KG: Yeah, how do you think artists can be more conscientious about their role in that process?

JM: Squat. Don’t pay rent. Don’t buy a house. Don’t sell your art. Laughs.

CM: Yeah, I don’t know, it’s tough. I think there are certain artists that are pretty socially conscious, that try to do a lot of stuff that engages those issues I guess, but I don’t know.

KR: I think Jessi did a pretty good job of summing it up.

JM: [Laughs] You know, it’s part of the process and artists absolutely take a part in that process, but it’s also a part of a much larger socio-political system that has been in the works since the very first instance of white flight towards the suburbs, and artists crashing in the Lower East Side. It just happens. There are things that you can do, but you’ll drive yourself crazy if you feel like you’re the one person who can stop it. Not a good answer, but…

KR: The only thing I can think of is in my neighborhood, I feel like it’s gentrifying more gracefully because the art, actually, the art is kind of secret. You can’t see the art from the street. What you can see is farmer’s markets, and other food-related things, and food is more universal than art. So, I don’t know, it’s happening much more gracefully than just like, “Contemporary Art Gallery!! All of a sudden!” Well, and another problem is language barriers. ‘Cause when I lived in West Logan, I would have liked to have known my neighbors, but we didn’t speak the same language.

CM: I don’t know, I got to know mine, and we don’t really. They speak very little English, and I speak very little Spanish. We trade food and we have cookouts. I don’t know, I mean, they’re older, so they’re not going to come over and hang out in my apartment, and like, drink with me, you know? I hang out with them as much as I can, as much as makes sense for us to hang out together. And we’ve been here [in Logan Square] for a long time, too, I guess. We’ve established ourselves.

JM: So I think that’s something that’s important, the transience that sort of takes place in young artist’s lives. If you’re always uprooting and moving somewhere else, that doesn’t really give you the opportunity to…establish.

CM: Yeah, I think you really do have to ground down and establish yourself to show that you really do want to do something for the neighborhood. It took years for the dudes a couple houses down to like me, ‘cause they were not about me for a long time. And I understood, where I was like, yeah, you see people come and go and just flip these houses, and it’s young art kids having parties all the time, and you were raised in that house – it’s like, yeah, I get it. So once I’d been here after three or four years, they finally kind of started talking to me and hanging out. But I knew that – I was like, “Just give me some time, I’m not doing that stuff, I’m really trying to have a place here.” So yeah, establishing yourself somewhere, showing that you’re not just gonna be there and then fly out when it’s not fun anymore. When it gets tough, when people set your car on fire.

JM: Make sure you’re not just trashing the place enough to justify a gut rehab. Laughs.

KG: Is there anything else that you feel like you learned from your experience in Humboldt Park?

JM: Business promises are hard to make.

CM: Yeah. We learned a lot for the gallery’s sake…

BH: I think – and this is partly going back to the point about being conscientious – but being in a situation like that and trying to do something for the community, there really needs to be some kind of element of programming – a lot of time and effort put into trying to work with the community. And for it to be accessible to them financially speaking, which means basically that you’re doing it for free or very little money. And that whole system is just very challenging, and I think we had this idea that we wanted to do all this stuff and it’s, like, getting grants and there’s all these certain roadblocks in place to make that more difficult than it sounds in theory. But, I don’t know, having a system where there’s some way to have the community involved with it, not just witnessing it. ‘Cause I feel like a lot of the younger kids and people in the neighborhood that we met, they wanted to do stuff, but we felt like we had to tell them to, you know, write a proposal and propose a show?…That’s very different than, “Come in and make work and we’ll show it,” you know or, have classes and things like that. And then we all had to work full-time to pay rent, and we had to pay a lot of rent there, and half the time we didn’t even have time to be there ‘cause we were working just to pay for the space. So it’s this weird kind of … you’re doing it, but then there are just constantly these things that are making it more challenging. And that’s not to say that it’s not attainable, but that was just a learning experience for me, of seeing the reality of what it takes to do something like that.

KR: Also I think just something as simple as, going back to your question about what to do to reach out more and assimilate, is something as simple as putting signage up, like a sign on the door with a schedule and hours and stuff like that, cause a lot of apartment galleries, just a lot of different arts spaces, you wouldn’t even know they’re in the building. So a sign can go a long way, I think. People walking by start to notice, and then they walk in when they see the sign.

JM: Now, those are all really weird and different questions with what’s going to happen now that we’re in Logan Square. It’s a different space altogether.

KG: Sure. What do you think will be different?

CM: It’s gonna be a different vibe altogether, it’s going to change up and kinda fit more with our attitude, I think – that’s how it feels. We are kinda more DIY – we worked hard, we worked jobs to do the space, we were doing it because we loved it, not because we were trying to make money or we thought it was, you know, a feasible full-time job or anything. So this kinda fits, I think it gives people a better idea of what we are about, where it’s like, “Here’s our space, we’re gonna have shows and it’s not….” That other space had large windows and looked like a really professional space, and we’re not necessarily the most professional people, that’s part of what part of Peanut Gallery is.

BH: And that’s not to downplay what we’re doing.

CM: Yeah, we take what we do very seriously, but we also understand the ridiculousness of art, and, like, “having an arts space.” And if you take it too seriously, then it’s just another stuffy…arts space. Which is what we really don’t want, that was the whole thing, of not wanting to be that. So this place, kinda, I think, can help us do that more, or encapsulates that more. People will get that vibe more, hopefully.

BH: It will be interesting too – I’m just thinking in terms of the element of foot traffic we had going by – there was this complaint I heard a lot, like, “Oh, you’re never open,” and there was this expectation that we should be open all the time and doing all this stuff ‘cause we had that space. But it just wasn’t possible. Whereas here it just makes more sense that there’s not going to be people walking by all the time wondering why the hell we’re not open, and they’re going to come here when they know it’s time to come here, and see the work, and that’ll be different.

KR: Yeah, there will be less of that expectation that it actually has to be a business.

JM: And we’re not a business, we’re actually under the non-profit umbrella.

CM: Yeah, people didn’t seem to get that this isn’t our job. We do this ‘cause we love it.

JM: And I think Drawing NIght is gonna be a different beast, too, ‘cause this is more like inviting someone into your home and having a social gathering where people are drawing and people are talking, as opposed to at the gallery space, where I think people had the expectations of more of it being like those Drink-n-Draw’s that you buy on Groupon, you know? Not everybody, but there were definitely people who thought it was gonna be more like, an instructional… but that’s not Drawing Night. Drawing Night is just open…hang time.

CM: It’s a way to get to show people what you’re working on, there’s critiques going on, all sorts of conversations going on…

KR: Or if you just didn’t want to be at home alone, but you didn’t want to spend money at a bar, it’s a nice thing to do. I liked that aspect, where people could just hang out, they didn’t have to work on something. Yeah, I’m excited about the gallery being way – the exhibition space – being way smaller, because I think that it’ll force the artists to think harder about what they put in.

KG: Yeah, I’m excited to see what happens here in the next little bit.

CM: Yeah, it’s gonna be sweet. There’s a spare bedroom in there, and that’s going to be the gallery. And then this will be split, each of these rooms will be split kinda into two spaces, with partitions.

JM: And it’s going to continue to be an “enter through the back” sort of a thing.

KG: Meet the chickens.

JM: You have to meet the chickens. That’s a crucial element, that’s a crucial part of the journey.

KR: I’m excited about having outdoor space, ‘cause there wasn’t any in the old space and sometimes it’s so hard to force yourself to sit in the studio, you know, when it’s so nice out and you’ve got a park right there.

CM: And for shows, I feel like people will be more inclined to show up just ‘cause you can say, “Oh, it’s that house that I can hang out in the yard, and usually there are vegetables everywhere, and plants, and the chickens.” So it’s, I don’t know, it’s not as like … not “stuck up,” but not as … I don’t know, some people, even good friends of mine who just aren’t artists, it’s really hard to get them to come to the gallery. They don’t like going to galleries, they’re not used to that feeling of a gallery in a space like the one we had. But they’ll come to a spot like this, I know, and hang out, because it’s a little more comfortable.

BH: I think it will be interesting, too, to see what it’s like witnessing people viewing the work, and to see how people interact with the work. When you’ve got a big space that’s all indoors and there’s no where really to hang out, it gets packed, you can’t see the work…it’s this experience of going to galleries that I find frustrating a lot, where you go and it’s just this social thing really, and you’re not even really looking at the work, and no one’s really looking at the work, ‘cause they’re just talking to each other. So I’m curious to see here if there will be people coming in and having a very focused viewing of the work, and then you just go hang out outside, or in this space.

KG: Yeah, I think it’s really awesome, this idea of an art gallery that’s also a place that people will want to come to, just to hang out. Because I feel like that’s pretty rare, most galleries I feel like are actually pretty intimidating in a lot of ways.

BH: Yeah, that was kind of always our angle.

CM: Yeah, even when we had the space in Wicker Park, the whole idea was, “Get people to come hang out.” That was the main goal. That it can be a place that’s not just for “these people,” you know, whatever your ideas of a gallery are. It can be a cool spot. I grew up working at a skate shop all my life, and they were really influential in everything that I did, and they used to have a back room that was a café-style room where everyone would meet up and hang out, all the time, all day long. And I always thought that that was something super important to the community, for that group of people, who were the skateboarders in that neighborhood – you met so many people you would have never met, and it was just ‘cause they had this tiny little room and everyone would just hang out there, and hangouts, for me, are very, I think they’re really important, and they’re harder to come by. It’s hard to get everyone together in a comfortable place, not just …

JM: … not just an event space, a series of meetings.

CM: My goal is, I want people to just – be coming over. I want to have an open-door policy, where people just come over, and they’re here, you know, I wanna come home from work, and just like, fuckin’ random people are here. We just want a good hang place where people are excited to come and not feel weird about the gallery…and they can cook food…and they can steal eggs!

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