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Are Apartment Galleries Illegal?

 Mari Espinosa

About a year ago, a Chicago city official walked into Green Lantern Gallery to check a license for the sandwich board advertisement outside.  When he found out the gallery had no license, Caroline Picard, the owner, was given a two tickets, one for the sandwich board and one for not having a business license.

Why wouldn’t a gallery owner have a business license?

Because the Green Lantern Gallery was also Picard’s home.  She estimated that of the 1200 square-foot apartment, about 50 percent was gallery space and the other 50 percent was living space.  Picard said the gallery had 501c3, or non-profit, status and she did know she needed anything further.

“There are some rules about the number of [people] that come, where the exits are,” she said “and based on those regulations, pretty much every apartment gallery is illegal.”  She noted that a business license is not meant for apartment galleries, or at least not made with them in mind.  Picard added that she was told she needed a live/work license but did not qualify because of the zone her apartment is in.

On a call to the Department of Business affairs, a representative said that the only option for an artist to work from home is a Home Occupation License.  There was no mention of any other license available to make apartment galleries legal.

The City of Chicago’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Web site, a list rules states what business owners can and can’t do with a Home Occupation license.  One states that “No more than 2 clients may visit your home at one time and no more than 10 clients within any 24 hr period.”

Another rule states that no more than 15 percent of the apartment space used as a business in a multiple dwelling building.

Such rules as these are clearly prohibitive to galleries artists might want to run in their homes.

Picard believes that these kinds of spaces are important for the art world. She finds that art changes when you change the venue it is shown.

“The collusion of public and private space, mixed with a living contemporary art and the communities that support it, is transgressive in and of itself,” she said. “Such a recipe breaks down the societal expectations of public activity. Furthermore apartment galleries agitate common definitions of ‘home’ and ‘domestic space.’ The people who inhabit apartment galleries organize their homes according to the possible descent of an unknown body of people: the public.”

Picard started Green Lantern because she was interested in “creating this intersection between domestic space and public space.”  As such, she said, apartment galleries are, for the average person, a bridge to what can be a really insulated art community.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many apartment galleries exist in Chicago.  Many are only active for a short period and many are just not well known. But the many of them are not legal, and may not be able to be.

Since the ticket, Green Lantern Gallery has been put on hiatus. Because of zoning issues, Picard cannot get a license for her apartment, but said she is currently searching for a storefront to rent so the gallery can reopen.

[Ed Notes: This begins a series that will unpack this further, and look and short and long-term solutions that can preserve Chicago’s most unique quality of our art scene: the alternative space.  We’ll figure out how you can “throw a private art event” and still receive press coverage, along with actions that can possibly change the above-listed regulations]