Monique Meloche grew up immersed in the art of the deal, via her car-salesman father in Toronto.
But she didn't intend to combine art with commerce when she graduated with an art history degree from the University of Michigan, then a master's from the School of the Art Institute.
"I really thought I was going to be in academia," she said. "I had zero interest in the commercial side."
Fast-forward a few years to 2154 W. Division St., where double m's signify the gallery that bears her name, one that has helped foster artists like Rashid Johnson, a finalist for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation's 2012 Hugo Boss Prize.
Meloche warmed up to commerce after working as an assistant curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. She ventured out to the Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Next came a stint at the Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago. Then she opened her own.
Last year, Meloche experimented further, founding Gallery Weekend Chicago, to make the city a global destination for contemporary art. It was successful enough for a sequel, Sept. 21 to 23, boasting Mayor Rahm Emanuel as honorary chair and 15 of Chicago's premier contemporary art galleries as partners.
Designed to attract national and international collectors, the curated weekend, which dovetails with Expo Chicago at Navy Pier, entails chauffeured visits to galleries and museums and access to coveted reservations at Next and other top restaurants. Although attendance at VIP events is by invitation only, many happenings are free and open to the public at the participating galleries, including opening receptions and conversations with artists and curators. (For details, go to GalleryWeekendChicago.com.)
We asked Meloche to discuss her evolution in the art world.
Q: How did you get from zero interest in commerce to being a leading contemporary art dealer in Chicago?
A: Kavi Gupta had hired me to be his director while he was changing and expanding his gallery. He gave me a lot of responsibility. I was able to really take some risks. Then it became obvious once his new building was rolling out that he was coming back in. I left in early summer of 2000 and took a couple of months off to figure out what I was going to do next. I thought, this is ridiculous, I should throw my hat in the ring. By the end of summer, I realized the art world's memory is short. I thought, let's do this sooner rather than later. But I had no space, I didn't have a roster of artists.
My husband and I had just gotten married and we had a new house in Ukrainian Village. He was crazy and kind enough to allow me to open in October 2000 with an exhibition that we called "Homewrecker." I invited 30 artists to exhibit 90 pieces over three floors of our home. More than 350 people showed up on opening night. We had thought we would keep it up for a month and ended up having it up for three months, and I was getting calls from college and museum groups to tour it. Thankfully, I found a space in Fulton Market and opened in May 2001.
Q: You went from risk-averse to gutsy with your first exhibit?
A: We opened with Joel Ross' "I Borrowed My Mother's Bedroom." He really did. He drove down to Texas and knocked on her door and took her carpet, her bed, her answering machine even with blinking messages on it, and he brought it here and made this really eloquent portrait of a woman. At the end of each night we would make sure we'd shut the door so the talc smell would reconstitute itself. There were people who couldn't cross the threshold because they felt like they were trespassing.
It was a calculated maneuver to open with that, because the installation was not for sale. Even though I was opening a commercial gallery, I wanted to be someone who was championing these projects that needed to be fostered. I could offset that by making sure I didn't have five of these exhibits in a row. I didn't open just to be like, here's a picture, let me try to sell it. I wanted to take everything I learned from my time in a museum, and work backward and see how to get my artists there.
Q: Who's your mentor?
A: For sure, Rhona Hoffman. She would acknowledge she's a tough person to work for but she taught me a lot. She allowed me to mount my thesis exhibition, "The History of the Shoe in Contemporary Art." There was no way I could have secured loans of Andy Warhols and Philip Gustons without her. She went to bat for me. She is a strong-willed woman who is very focused on the direction she wants to take her gallery. You don't stay in business for over 30 years, especially with a great hunk of artists she shows who now are household names, but weren't back in the '70s, without that. Her ability to keep taking chances — even as she became established — is really inspiring.
Q: What's your proudest accomplishment?
A: Rashid Johnson, I've worked with him since Day One when I couldn't even give his work away. Now he lives in New York, but he just celebrated a 10-year survey show at the MCA — the museum where I worked and his hometown museum. Now it's on to the Miami Art Museum, then the High (Museum of Art) in Atlanta and the Kemper (Art Museum) in St. Louis.
Q: What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
A: I have much less anxiety now, and it allows me to be much more efficient. We had a fire here last fall on the opening night of a show. We didn't know we were having a fire. The lights just went off and we couldn't get them back on. We had 150 people in here. We thought, well, let's just get every extension cord and every clip light out — and we ended up getting a positive review of how wonderful the lighting was. The fire became a major event later in the night and we were able to evacuate all the artwork. We had to basically rebuild.