15 Minutes with Ali Gass, Director of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art

Art | Sep 2017 | BY Tali Jaffe

Ali Gass, the new Chicago resident—and director of the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art—gives us her snapshot of the city and what not to miss this month and beyond.

What has been your greatest memory of the city so far?
I am genuinely excited to find Chicago to be a place of amazing collaboration-ready colleagues both across the University of Chicago campus and out across other arts institutions. Not all cities are like that—I have felt incredibly welcomed. I also really really love the view of the city from my apartment. Some people love to look out at the ocean or have a big yard. I get calming vibes from expanses of buildings and bustling city streets.

After work, you can be found…
Testing the limits of kid-appropriate restaurants by dragging my 6- and 8-year-old to the many great restaurants around the West loop, where we live. You’d be surprised how welcoming Chicago fine dining is to the under 10-year-old set at 6pm. But just as likely, I can be found cocktailing with as many different people who make art, support art, sell art, love art as I can find. I’m certainly trying to get to know the scene but also looking for new friends! I live close to Soho House and it’s a pretty nice one.

Favorite neighborhood and why?
Right now we live in the West loop, which feels a little like my old neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with a crazy food scene (thus the kids getting dragged to Momotaro). But I’ve kind of fallen in love with the architecture and more “neighborhoody,” but still urban vibe, of Printer’s Row. My architect husband and I are seriously considering buying a very unusual house built on the roof of a loft building there! There’s a wine bar, nail salon, dry cleaners and burger place right on the block. The basics!

Galleries you frequent?
I’m embarrassed to say in my few short summer months—between my new job, my one-on-one time with new colleagues and lots of travel—I haven’t put in the gallery time I need to yet. But I certainly was drawn to Chicago for its vast and varied galley scene. I’ve been very kindly welcomed by Kavi Gupta and the Richard Gray Gallery, Stony Island Arts Bank, McCormick Gallery and others. And there are so many galleries I have known from afar, like Shane Campbell, Rhona Hoffman and Corbett VS. Dempsey. I’m excited to spend more time getting to know these galleries. And finally, I look forward to really understanding the vast constellation of artist-run and smaller-scale galleries.

Outside of the Smart, which institution do you enjoy returning to?
I’m obsessed with University museums—too many people have heard me say why recently, but it’s a thing! There’s a freedom and flexibility that comes with the territory. I love the commitment to investigating the issues both facing our world today and those that wound through our history through the lens of art objects and of artistic practice. I’m lucky to be in a place where there are great university museums as near neighbors, like the DePaul University museum and the Block at Northwestern. Three museums with three women directors! I feel like we have a real opportunity to create the narrative for the future impact of university museums both across campuses and beyond.

Detail from the Smart Museum of Art’s “Welcome Blanket” project. Courtesy of the museum.

On your Fall agenda:
Go see Senga Nengudi at De Paul and a return visit to Derrick Adams at Stony Island Arts Bank. Closer to to home, I really want to do studio visits with the faculty and MFA students at the University of Chicago Department of Visual Arts. And finally, I’m of course spending a lot of time at the Smart museum! I’m excited to see our crowd-sourced project Welcome Blanket grow through the fall and I want to spend as much time as possible with Emmanuel Pratt and the Sweetwater Foundation.

What does your art fair survival kit consist of?
Flat Shoes (too many previous art fair injuries), pocket charger for my phone and reliable curator friends to text me as they see interesting things—or tell me they saw something worth skipping!

Anything in particular on your must list for Expo and/or CAB?
I’m excited to see the booths of two great California friends, Jessica Silverman Gallery and Michelle Maccarone. And of course, the Official Expo After party hosted at the Smart Museum on Sat Sept 16th.

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