Arts writer and CAW contributor Kate Sierzputowski sat down with Mickey Pomfrey and talked about his new gallery, MICKEY, how it came to be, and his history co-running the previous space Courtney Blades with Blake Harris. This interview was created in partnership with Gallery Weekend Chicago.
KS: How did your first gallery in Chicago, Courtney Blades, get its start?
MP: Courtney Blades started because I broke my neck and I wasn’t doing much. I was probably taking two classes in the semester at SAIC. Chloe Seibert, Sam Lipp, and Jade Kuriki Olivio came to me and said they wanted to do this show called Cocktails in my backyard in 2010. At that time Blake Harris was living in a van outside of my house taking care of me because the ceiling of his Pilsen apartment had caved in. In the process of planning Cocktails, the fortune teller next door moved out of her storefront. Blake and I had worked on other crazy projects before, so we decided to start a gallery together. We built out the whole space as a gallery in a couple of months. Initially, the space was carpeted and there were weird mushrooms growing out of the wall. We put up new drywall, plastered, put in new lighting, and turned it into a functioning gallery space. We were both 21, it was a learning experience. My dad had taught me a lot of handy stuff and Blake came from a construction background. We did it all ourselves. It really all started because of happenstance.
KS: How long did you and Blake work together on the initial Courtney Blades project?
MP: Blake ran it with me for quite a few years, I am not sure exactly how long. At least three to four because we closed down in 2015, and he wasn’t there for the last year and a half. For the last show we did together, Craig Robins gave us this space in downtown Miami to have Michael Clifford’s memorial show. We had shown most of the work in the show together at the old Chicago space. `
KS: Did you consider Courtney Blades an artist-run space or a gallery?
MP: We considered it a gallery. That was kind of the whole point of its name, to make it more of a commercial sounding gallery. We both made work, but not towards the end. I think for the last two years of Courtney Blades I wasn’t making anything. I was just focusing on the gallery. Maxwell Graham from Essex Street told Sam Lipp after he asked if I made work that I really shouldn’t be. I don’t know why. I don’t know if he had seen some of my stuff and thought it was bad or not. Or maybe that he thought I was better at that than making work. I used to make large scale sculpture and it was devastating. I was miserable between running a gallery and having an art practice. I wasn’t sleeping much and I was working every waking moment.
KS: What made you want to continue the gallery in a new space after you found out the original Courtney Blades building was being condemned?
MP: I never wanted to stop the space. As soon as I found out about it I immediately started searching for spaces. I had already been looking at other buildings to acquire for years. I had also been having the best month when I got the news. I went to Miami with Chloe Seibert’s work and we did really well. We did NADA, and in that same week I also sold a lot of Puppies Puppies works and had a month where I sold more things than I had in the six months before that. I didn’t think I could go out like that. I wanted to keep doing it. I didn’t want to go on and work for someone else, I’m not really a curator or an academic. I’ve always been a spacist and somebody that works with artists well. I think after so many years of making a gallery I started to think of myself more as one who created a space than one who runs a gallery.
KS: Are you going to continue representing the artists you had previously represented at Courtney Blades?
MP: Representing is always a weird thing, for young artists especially. As an artist, you want to show as many places as possible, and I have never gotten held up on who represents who. I think it is more of a thing for New York. In Chicago, there is not that much of a cutthroat atmosphere. So saying that I represent someone, I care about my artists and I do the best I can for them. But is there formal contracts and stuff? No. There never was.
KS: How is the programming at Mickey different than what you previously had at Courtney Blades? Do you have a different concept behind it or are you still trying to show emerging artists that you are friends with?
MP: It’s not necessarily artists that I’m friends with. At the old space, you start from a launching point and you find other people. I don’t really have a grand vision of ‘this is the change I am making to art’ via this space. It is maybe too grandiose. It is more like just trying to operate the same way, while also kind of starting over from the beginning again, but at a much larger scale. I start with artists that I like and that I’m friends with. I am lucky in the fact that my friends in school were amazing artists. I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at a really special time. A lot of great artists came out of the three years I was there, or three of the five years I was there. That’s only just a launching point. The thing I am most interested in is the modern human condition, so finding art that really speaks to that. The art that resonates through time often has to do with a basic aspect of being human. So when I refer to the modern human condition, for me today that would be things like our connection with technology, anxiety, our ability for transgender persons to transition via medical means, the lack of the unique, social interaction through phones, etc.
KS: Why did you decide to scale up so dramatically?
MP: It came from a few places, including advice that I have gotten along the way. Maybe it was a mistake to go this big, who knows. But the general idea was to have space to grow into. I think it is better to have the space too big and empty than too little and too full. I really thought about what would make the perfect art space. I thought about what kinds of things you would have to have there. Even though Courtney Blades was a smaller gallery, we still had the coach house in the back, Blake had a three bedroom apartment next door, and we had the garage and two different basements, so we had storage and workshop and all of these other things.
KS: The build-out took a while, what was involved in doing that?
MP: First it was finding the building, that took a long time to find the perfect building. Dan Sternberg helped me with that. After looking at several ones, I looked in Motor Row and along this area. I wanted it to be near a train station, easily accessible, not too far from the center of the city. Finding it took a long time and the design of it was really, really considered. I worked with Dirk Denison on that. He had bought work form the old gallery before I knew him because I had met his partner David Salkin at an art fair. I had always liked his work a lot. I knew that he had done Rhona Hoffman’s old space and I needed somebody I trusted.
KS: I know you originally chose the name Courtney Blades as a way to play off of the self-titled gallery. Why in the end did you end up naming your new space after yourself?
MP: I was going to name the new space Courtney Blades again, but then it got weird because I don’t have a partner, and the whole point of having the name, in the beginning, was so it looked good on CVs. Sam York, who used to show with us, had made a fake Facebook profile and we thought it was a great name. We didn’t want to have some dumb name that someone wouldn’t want to have on their CV. The name also helped because we were young and people believed in it, especially online because it sounds like some official person was behind it. It was good because Blake is from the South and Courtney is a man’s name down there, and I am from the North and Courtney is a woman’s name, so it is kind of gender ambiguous. The reason why it was changed is a lot of the circumstances that made it such a good name in the past didn’t exist anymore, and now it is a new bigger, different space. I was having dinner and drinks with Rhona Hoffman and she said: “You have to put your name on the door so that people know that you believe in what’s inside.” I thought I would call it Mickey Pomfrey Gallery or Mickey Pomfrey Fine Arts and I ended up settling on the first for a while but it’s a whole mouthful to say because it is all of these “ey’s” in a row. It’s almost like alliteration but from the back. We kicked around a lot of ideas and the joke was for it to be “Mickey’s” for a while. It sounds like a bar or a nightclub and it comes back to other fake businesses that I have had for a while, it’s always “Mickey’s” something. I talked to my friend Bojan Radojcic and he is the one that suggested to drop the last name, drop the s, just make it Mickey. That way the name is both my name and a white box of a gallery too at the same time. That is how it changed.
KS: How much programming do you have planned out for the space?
MP: Almost none. There are going to be some growing pains, we might not be on an every eight-week schedule. The space is so big and the kind of work that I want to show and install lends itself to a two-week downtime. There are a lot of things that are in the fire, but nothing is specifically next. I think that oftentimes artists, especially younger artists, are working at or near the space, and if you want to show people from out of town, which I do, you have to have something provided. I know other spaces have separate studios for their artists. It’s nice to have it in the space.
KS: Are you going to focus on solo shows or are you going to have some group shows as well?
MP: Definitely group shows too, but that comes back to the whole thing where I am not really a curator. I need to either put a few people together and let it happen naturally, or people come to me with shows too which is how it always worked in the past. I don’t need to always have two shows either. I have no problem just having a show in the small space. This is space to grow into. People get into the gallery business and they are hungry and they try to do too much. I am lucky where I don’t need to be too hungry or do too much. I can let myself ease into it. In the old space I had one show and then I didn’t have another for six months afterward, and then by the end of it, I was firing every five weeks. I kind of like that, it feels more natural then to over program. I don’t like to program too far ahead anyway because you don’t get to be agile. I love to go into an artist’s studio and see that this is a break in their artwork. They are doing something good for these last three pieces, so I give them a show in two months and then just watch it fire off. As things progress and things get busier we will have to have it planned out more.
KS: Your most recent show was a solo show “Say Sorry” by Chloe Seibert. Could you tell me what initially drew you to Chloe’s work? Why did you know that you wanted her to be one of the first exhibitions in the new space?
MP: I can not tell you what drew me to her work initially. I guess I just knew she would continue to make good work. I wanted her to be one of the first because she was a big part of forming and continuing the last space. We designed the space thinking in part about her work and the growth of it so the space more fits her work than the scale fitting the new space.