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Writing on the Image of Mana Contemporary
by Stephanie Cristello

What defines a space if not its imagined intentions? Or, more literally, when does the projected image of a site’s ideal function supersede its realization, and become the very thing it projects? Such is the case with Mana Contemporary, an elaborate multi-use art center currently being renovated in Pilsen’s industrial Cermak corridor, which if a shorthand history of shared art spaces were any indicator, would belong to the 19th century Salon in Paris as much as it does to a sleek, atelier-styled, capital venture. A fact-based, yet arguably still imagined concept of a contemporary art space, Mana’s social model serves artists as equally as it propagates the fiction of a faux elite. However, sometimes the image of a thing is just as good as the thing itself – and in cases like these, the image becomes the very thing we expected it to be, and more. What makes Mana such a fascinating phenomenon is that this place actually exists elsewhere – and the plans, as elaborate and verbose as they may seem, have a concrete grounding.

Studios at Mana Contemporary; photo by Sarah Tricker.


The Chicago location, housed in the iconic former warehouse and garage for Commonwealth Edison, is an expansion that echoes the layout and function of the original Mana space in Jersey City, which opened in 2011. First starting as a moving and storage company operated out of a truck by Moishe Mana in 1983, the business expanded rapidly, which perhaps seems like an understatement considering the scale and scope of the development and money going into the construction and rehabilitation of the landmarked gothic factory. Now privately held by Mana, who secured the Chicago real estate a few years ago, he has left the development of the endeavor to Eugene Lemay, once a driver for Moishe’s Moving and Storage, now currently the Founder and President of both Mana Contemporary locations.

Still servicing art handling and storage on the upper scale through art collection management, the Chicago space is first and foremost prided by its superlative studios – to be occupied by Tony Tasset, Barbara Kasten, and Jan Tichy, as well as younger artists such as Alex Chitty, and Jason Lazarus, represented by galleries in Chicago, and elsewhere. As Micha Lang, Co-Founder and Director of Business Development, outlined in a walk-through of the space under construction, “the studios will not just be real-estate – artists in Chicago always seem to be searching for a better space to work in. We design these spaces with and for them, we design spaces to fit their practice.”

The five floors of the 300,000 square-foot art center will also house educational and programming facilities for UIC, a library of art books donated by the family of Donald Young, a culinary arts center led by chef and Director of Roots & Culture Eric May, and two major exhibitions spaces. The first, a massive ground floor gallery, is slated to host Fountain Art Fair in late September, though the official opening of the space has been recently delayed until February 2014. The second is sanctioned on the fifth floor studios, and will feature a rotating program of work by the resident artists each three to four months.

Ground floor exhibition space, under construction; photo by Sarah Tricker.


Regionalism aside, the location lends some discussion in terms of how it will impact the Pilsen art community, known for its apartment gallery circuit and smaller independent art spaces and collectives. Based on the plans, it seems Mana will be a resource – if not literally in terms of the facilities, then by the sheer proximity of an established venue. Having also connected with Nick Wylie from ACRE to consult on names to bring in to the studio, now appointed Director of Mana, the space will not be focusing on “community” in the same way the apartment gallery circuit does in that neighborhood, which seems to be the entire point. Mana is a business project, but also a very public arts program that urges, in perhaps even an overzealous way, the transparency of production. While certainly not a spectacle, the artists’ spaces will be in open studio mode quite frequently, coinciding with the many programs and events that will take place throughout the building, and it will be interesting to see how such a public aspect of their environment will impact their work. Of course, open studios are not a new concept to Pilsen – this year marking the 10th annual 18th Street Pilsen Open Studios, but as with any tension over new development, there is the fear, as one artist put it, of the arts being used as some sort of gentrifying Trojan horse, especially for an aspirational creative class. And while this view exists, it does not seem that Mana is particularly interested in a competition with Pilsen art spaces or residents, nor is it interested in exploiting the development of that area. If anything, the location seems almost out of necessity, which is to say that the sheer scale of the endeavor would be hard to fit elsewhere. What Mana will offer, which is new on many levels to Chicago, is a curated selection of artists that will happen to make work in the same beautiful building, for community or otherwise – and hopefully in a way that finally ceases to foster the ever-strenuous cliché of “creativity.”


Stephanie Cristello


(Image on top: Outdoor view of Mana Contemporary; photo by Sarah Tricker)


Posted by Stephanie Cristello on 9/6/13 | tags: artist studio art center chicago

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