Some Thoughts on Apartment Galleries by William Dolan


A few weeks ago, Chicago Art Magazine ran an article asking the question, “Are apartment galleries illegal?” The article summarized the troubles The Green Lantern apartment gallery ran into, and documented the issues the City of Chicago has with mixing businesses with residences. A follow-up article dove a little deeper into licensing issues and indicated the City is unfamiliar with the term “apartment gallery.”

The commentators, at the end of the post, voiced disappointment and frustration. One even accused the City of malevolence toward artists and musicians. Since I have some thoughts on the topic, I was going to chime in, but felt I didn’t want to get into a flame war. I’d rather do that here.

While it can be disheartening that the rules can make it difficult or even impossible to legally operate an apartment gallery, it certainly was not born out of some sort of plot to hurt anybody. Instead, the laws governing businesses have two main objectives. One is to protect nearby residents from disruptive activities and the other is safety.

As for combining business activities and residential living, there are many problems that can happen here. Certainly, a steady flow of customers in and out of a business can get on neighbor’s nerves. The increase in vehicle traffic and parking puts a strain on a residential area. In the case of apartment galleries, the openings which tend to be big parties, certainly disturb the peace.

Of course, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the safety issues. There are fire codes to protect patrons. Generally, these are more stringent than residential codes. Though there are occupancy rates for residences, they are a little stricter for businesses. Fire suppression systems are still optional for most type of residential buildings, yet businesses are required to have fire extinguishers and in many cases, sprinkler systems. Also, security for residents is a concern. While taping the hallway door open makes it easy for art patrons to freely come and go during openings, it also allows access for any nut job that has other reasons for entering the building.

These are just a few of the reasons any municipality would want to regulate mixing home and business and since it’s hard to address every single type of business, the laws are kind of a one size fits all. Except for the opening parties, I can see where one might be upset when the regulators clamp down on an apartment gallery. After all, there isn’t that much activity that would differentiate the gallery from the apartment.

So what should apartment gallerists do? Well, one tactic would be to convince the City to make an exception for apartment galleries. Demonstrate to those in charge the differences between a quiet gallery and a busy store and that most of the laws are in place to regulate the busy store. Educate them on the cultural impact of the gallery on the quality of life in the City and the reputation of the City as a global city. Find a way to protect the interests of residents while allowing a business to thrive.

The other tactic would be to embrace the outlaw nature of the apartment gallery. There already is a thriving underground restaurant scene. It’s an easy way for restaurateurs to build a reputation and gain some experience before opening up a public place. These renegade food services have been chronicled in the local media and seem to operate with impunity. The apartment gallery can be the new speakeasy. — Well, maybe that’s a little overboard.

I do know that generally these laws are passively enforced. A complaint has to be filed before a business is shut down, and often times more than once. That means if the activities of the apartment gallery don’t get out of hand, they are usually left alone. Besides, how long should one expect to run a gallery out of his or her home before either taking the step to operating a stand alone space or get out of the biz altogether. By the time the law catches up with the gallery owner, he or she has gone legit or is ready to throw in the towel. If there is a healthy “art apartment” scene, someone else will step in and keep up the tradition.