Unsung Chicago: Woman Made Gallery


Woman Made Gallery in Chicago’s River West neighborhood opened its “Bare Essentials: Minimalism in the 21st Century” exhibit this month, featuring women artists working within the minimalism framework.

Beate Minkovski and Kelly Hensen, two Northeastern Illinois University art students, founded Woman Made Gallery (WMG), in 1992.

In the early sixties Minkovski studied sculpting and ceramics at the Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Germany. Then in 1984 she went on to study painting and Illustration at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, followed by earning her Bachelors Degree in Art from Northeastern Illinois University.

This was a piece of art from the Bare Essential: Minimalism in the 21st Century exhibit at the Woman Made Gallery in Chicago By: Laura Jo Clanton

At the end of her senior year, the graduates “had to mount an exhibit and do all the things that are related to that,” said Minkovski.

She and Kelly Hensen “decided on artwork that shows how woman are portrayed throughout history: from the Virgin Mary to a sex blow-up doll man made in Hong-Kong. The exhibition addressed women’s position in patriarchal societies, including imagery on body/beauty, sexuality/reproduction, inequality and violence against women.”

According to Minkovski, since they “couldn’t show some of the work at the NEIU library” they rented a space to use as a gallery for their senior project, “with the intent to use it as our personal studio space,” said Minkovski

However, due to time constraints they were unable to work on their own art and still “generate income,” said Minkovski. Within the first year of opening the gallery Hensen left the partnership.

There was “so much interest from their fellow students to also be part of this space,” said Ruby Thorkelson, Gallery Coordinator, that the studio then began exhibiting work from other local artists. In 1993 one of those artists, Janet Bloch, partnered with Minkovski followed by Pamela Callahan in 1994.

“As more and more women became involved, WMG grew into the arts organization you see today…always striving for equal placement and recognition of women’s art in the world,” said Minkovski.

By the second year WMG had “incorporated as a non-profit art gallery and since then its grown to show over 7000 women artists in the past 20 years,” said Thorkelson.

The mission of WMG is to “elevate the position of women’s art in the world and educate the public about artistic contributions made by women throughout history and in the contemporary art world,” said Thorkelson.

According to their website in “an NEA 1992 statistic, only 17% of works in U.S. galleries are by women, although 48% of the artists in the U.S. are women.” (Bureau of Labor, 1993)

The website goes on to say that “just 40 years ago there was virtually no mention of women artists in university art history courses or in texts on art.”

“WMG is a great space that brings attention to the fact that women are still underrepresented as artists in galleries and museums around the world,” says Elise Nagy, former gallery intern and current DePaul University B.A/M.A student in the Women’s and Gender Studies department.

The gallery has made it their goal to “bring more marginalized artists into the fold” by opening up a space where they can come and learn, teach, and create art in coalition and in community with others rather than “struggling alone,” said Nagy.

This philosophy also helps to break down the stereotypes notions of what it means to be successful in the art world. It “breaks down this idea of the artist as the lonely genius,” said Nagy, by making the art more accessible to the “everyday people.”

According to Thorkelson, WMG has six exhibition cycles a year where they deal with a variety of different themes. These can range from the more aesthetic themes, like “Abstraction”, to more political and social pieces, for instance shows on “domestic violence, breast cancer, and representation’s of gender.”

For Minkovski, the exhibitions that dealt with or touched on social/political issues were always the ones that meant the most to her. These are the pieces that make a statement or say something about the lives of the audience experiencing the art.

Some of the most influential or memorable exhibits for Minkovski, from years past, have been, “Menarche, Menses, Menopause and Blood,” “Mary Mary Quite Contrary (visual comments on the role of the Virgin Mary,” and “From Sham to Shame (art about the Iraq war).” These pieces, along with many others made comments on or were representations of things that happen to people in the real world.

Making art more accessible in its content and telling the world about the many gifted and talented women artists in the world “brings attention to how making and loving art can fit into our everyday, real lives,” said Nagy.

November 4th marked the opening for the latest exhibit, which is on 21st century minimalistic art, entitled “Bare Essentials”. Minimalism “traditionally is about stripping down artwork to its very basic forms and sweeping the content out of it,” says Thorkelson.

“It’s not a very rigid interpretation of minimalism,” said Thorkelson.

This is a piece from the Minimalism exhibit at the Woman Made Gallery. By: Laura Jo Clanton

“This show is interrogating more what it means to be a woman artist working within the minimalism framework”

The intent here is to look at how different women artists take the structures of minimalistic art and “create a piece of art that is devoid of content” yet still says something about the lives of their audience.

This exhibit exemplifies the mission of the Woman Made Gallery, “considering that minimalism was one of the more male dominated threads of art making in the 20th century,” said Thorkelson.

The location of the WMG within various Chicago neighborhoods over the years has also played a role in the expansion of the gallery and the fact that “people are aware of us and search us out,” said Minkovski.

Over the years the gallery has called 4 different locations home. From its founding in 1992 to late 1997 the gallery was located in Ravenswood Manor.

“We always appreciated to be off the beaten track, where you wouldn’t expect a gallery, like adjacent to a train stop at our first location,” said Minkovski.

Following their first home, over the next fifteen years they would be located just south of downtown Chicago, Humboldt Park, and finally landing in the 600 block of north Milwaukee Avenue, which is “the most visible to a larger community,” said Minkovski.

The gallery also tries to incorporate  a lot of “community based work in various Chicago neighborhoods,” said Thorkelson, especially those surrounding the gallery. By holding “participatory art workshops” the gallery is able to help further their belief that “art is a transformative and healing experience” to the many neighborhoods they influence.

“The gallery is definitely more well known and respected because of its location in Chicago,” said Nagy.

Being in a city “that embraces the arts” in the way that Chicago does, said Thorkelson, plays a big role in the overall feel of the gallery because the artists “bring an experience” that is unique to Chicago or Illinois.

“Neighborhoods in Chicago have their own art traditions” that WMG is always “interested in exploring and promoting,” says Thorkelson.

Over nearly 20 years the Woman Made gallery has worked hard to provide a space for artists and art lovers to come and learn, teach, create art that has been under represented in mainstream art studies over the years.

The gallery does more than just present art but helps to create artists through “professional development workshops,” resume building, helping artists to be more concise in their presentation, and offering internships for students.

“ I had a great opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes to keep a non-profit gallery open and functional and vibrant,” said Nagy.

The Woman Made Gallery began as way to show the world the contributions of female artists. Today it still holds to that mission statement while also making a place for future artists to come.


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