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Stephen Kelly Gallery: Turning Profits and Heads
by Andrew Davis
2006-03-01

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Pictured Stephen kelly Smith. Photo by Andrew Davis. Work by Lisa Caplan. Former President Calvin Coolidge once stated that 'the business of America is business.' If that's the case, then Stephen Kelly, owner of Stephen Kelly Gallery, is the essence of Americana. However, he is more than a businessman; he is also an artist, and is successful in combining the analytical and the creative.

Kelly recently chatted with Windy City Times about the art of the deal—and the deal regarding art.

Windy City Times: Your background is in art.

Stephen Kelly: Yes. I've been an artist my entire life. My dad went to art school in Grand Rapids. But I remember drawing from age five. I went away to school for business. I try to utilize that as much as I can; sometimes it works well and sometimes it doesn't. [ Laughs. ] But it's a learning process. However, I [ ultimately ] left a company and went to the School of the Art Institute. I decided that I wanted to control my art and bring together the business and the art worlds.

I opened my own gallery because I showed other galleries and had been pretty successful. I figured that I could sell and produce my own work as well as create the whole environment on my own terms. It's been a real process and a learning experience.

WCT: It'll probably always be a learning experience.

SK: Oh, absolutely. It's funny how you think you understand something about the business and something always pops up. I'm always trying to get better at what I do.

WCT: Who are your own favorite artists?

SK: I like Gerhard Richter. I like how he spreads the paint across the surface and you wonder about what's going on underneath. I always wonder about what he's deconstructing—and I think he's trying to break down what abstraction is. I love mystery. With my own paintings, I don't [ reveal ] everything; I want people to be continually interested.

WCT: Is there any type of art you won't display in this gallery?

SK: That's a good question. The body of work that I'm working on now is taking me in the direction of art that is even more abstract. I want work that's very clean and simplistic. I really want people to create the story within themselves. There's going to be more abstraction.

I want something that people don't see all the time in River North. I mean, there are a lot of beautiful works, like Picasso and van Gogh. That style is wonderful but I want something new.

WCT: So what separates this gallery from the plethora of others in this area?

SK: Part of it has to do with the fact that I'm an artist myself. There aren't a lot of artist-owned galleries in River North, or Chicago for that matter—and there aren't many galleries owned by African-Americans. I bring all those worlds together.

If someone comes in here and wants a piece specifically for their office or home, I can create that. As long as we're on the same page, it'll be a happy relationship. I really try to create the environment for the client. But I [ essentially ] work as a consultant; I want the client to become part of the process.

WCT: What are the best and worst aspects of owning a gallery?

SK: [ Laughs. ] The best aspect is that I can sit in this gallery and be surrounded by beautiful work all day. I love working with people, and I don't know where they might be coming from: places like India, Europe and other spots. That makes it fun. I also enjoy the creative part, [ which involves ] creating and selling my work. I like the control.

The biggest challenge is the business aspect and keeping everything interesting and fresh. So I have various events, like First Fridays. It's always [ about ] cash flow. Money talks; that's the bottom line. I want to let people know what I can provide what they need.

Something I didn't realize initially is that River North is seasonal. It makes for an interesting sociological study. Spring and fall are usually the best times while winter and summer tend to be slower. In the summer, people go away to resorts or places like Saugatuck and New Buffalo. During the fall, people come back from traveling and walk around the galleries to prepare their homes for the winter. There are a lot of dynamics going on [ regarding ] spending habits. It's such a learning process. This has been business school; my advice is to start a business if you really want to learn about it.

WCT: What is art to you?

SK: Art, to me, comes in different ways. When I'm in the studio, the creative process is art to me. With any artist, the art is in the creation; for the viewer, it's in observing that piece. I'm very blessed to be in this world and being able to create.

One day, I won't be here but my art will be. That's the beauty of it. That's what Picasso, Michelangelo and all of these incredible artists can say. They've been able to transcend their lives through their art.

Stephen Kelly Gallery is located at 750 N. Franklin, Ste. 101. Call ( 312 ) 867-1921 for more info.


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