In the Loop: Pop-up art transforms and enlivens Chicago

The Chicago Loop Alliance in the US kicked off a Pop-Up Art Loop initiative in November 2009. Programming project co-ordinator Michael Perry talks about the details.

Pop-Up Art Loop office
The Pop-Up Art Loop office in Chicago.

How did the Pop-Up Art Loop come about? 

It was a response to the economic downturn in the retail leasing environment. Lou Raizin, Chicago Loop Alliance's Board President saw that this was happening in New York, LA and other cities around the globe and recognised that art often leads progress and development in a neighbourhood. 

The scheme is part of the Chicago Loop Alliance (CLA). What is this? 

CLA is a membership-based community organisation that seeks to promote the downtown Loop neighbourhood. The mission of CLA is to strengthen the Loop's competitive position as a mixed-use destination and contribute to Chicago's standing as a world-class city and tourist attraction. CLA supports and advances the interests of its members through advocacy, networking, partnerships and promotions. 

How is Pop-up Art Loop funded? 

Pop-Up Art Loop is funded internally through CLA. 

What are the main aims of Pop-Up Art Loop? 

Pop-Up Art Loop is designed to facilitate partnerships and collaborations between local artists and Chicago Loop property owners by transforming vacant Loop storefronts into public art galleries, exhibits and studios, showcasing Chicago's diverse artistic community. 

Pop-Up Art Loop aims to enhance the street level by showcasing art and artists and otherwise bringing light to dark spaces. 

Why did you set it up? 

There were a reasonable number of vacant properties to make it worthwhile. 

Is it confined to a particular area of Chicago? 

All Pop-Up Art Loop galleries are located within CLA's service area, which is defined as extending east from Dearborn to Lake Michigan, Congress to the Chicago River and south along Michigan Avenue from Congress to Roosevelt Road. 

What have been some of the challenges in setting up the scheme in the first instance? 

Identifying properties with property owners who were willing to donate their space to the program was one of the major challenges. The downtown neighbourhood has a lot of property owners who are primarily investors and don't necessarily see the non-monetary benefits of participating in Pop-Up Art Loop. 

How were these overcome? 

We've developed ties with local property owners who are residents of Chicago and see the benefits this program has to the community. We also developed a marketing recognition package to promote their participation in the program. 

What type of spaces does Pop-up Art Loop have for different types of use? 

It's mainly exhibit space. There are some spaces that have attached studio space or workshop areas. 

How did you go about approaching landlords? 

We did this mainly through existing contacts from CLA's Board or through calling the real estate agent and working the phones until we get to speak to the property owner. 

So you're dealing mostly with individual private landlords rather than a landlord or developer group? 

Yes, that's right. 

What do projects such as Pop-up Art Loop need to take into account when approaching landlords? Can you offer any tips on how best to approach them and what to focus on? 

Outline the benefits of the program - for example increased traffic, less panhandlers, and so on, and the benefits of the marketing recognition program that we have to promote their participation. 

What were landlords' main concerns? 

How soon we would be able to leave if they were able to find a renter, and how their recognition would be displayed so that people are aware that the space is still for rent. 

How did you assuage them of these? 

It is built into our contract that our artists will leave in 10 days if the property owner finds someone who will rent the place. 

What are the benefits for landlords in taking part in the Pop-up Art Loop scheme? 

The pedestrian experience is enhanced. Residents and visitors feel safer and are more likely to have a strong take-away image of downtown Chicago as a vibrant and exciting destination. 

An open and operating Pop-Up Art Loop gallery can serve as an almost daily open house for property owners to attract prospective tenants with the property owner having to be on site. 

An occupied space is often able to attract a more lucrative end-user. Pop-Up Art Loop locations have reduced or eliminated people smoking, panhandling or sleeping in empty storefront nooks and crannies. 

What issues did you have, if any, with local government planning departments such as in terms of change of use for the property from say retail or office to exhibition? 

None - we are very aware of the capacities issues for gallery openings that must comply with the Department of Buildings. 

What kind of licence agreement do you work with? 

We have a boilerplate licence agreement between CLA and the landlord, and a gallery agreement between CLA and each artist.

Head licence agreement (PDF download)

Gallery participant agreement (PDF download)

Why does the agreement work particularly well in Chicago? 

If we don't follow the outline of the agreement - for example, if we allow our insurance to lapse, allow someone to sleep in the space, anything specifically disallowed by the agreement or law, then we are out in 10 days. 

The minimum amount of time we would be required to leave in would be 10 days. The majority of the situations would allow us 30 days to vacate. 

What is the situation with insurance/s? Exactly what does Pop-up Art Loop provide and what do the artists need to cover themselves? 

Pop-Up Art Loop supplies a $5 million umbrella coverage for the space and the artist is responsible for insuring their art if they feel it is needed. 

Who covers outgoings such as electricity and water? 

Utilities are covered internally by the Chicago Loop Alliance. CLA also pays for artists' expenses (with a cap set) for installation and build-out materials as needed for the space. These are site-specific materials and not any sort of honorarium. One example is an artist needed 500 yards of yellow twine for her installation. CLA paid for that. 

Is it solely artists exhibiting that are allowed to be part of this initiative, as opposed to someone who makes hats or jewellery and wanted to use the space as a retail outlet for their wares? 

Yes, it's solely for artists, including performance-based artists. 

What improvements or fitout if any to the property are temporary participants allowed to do? 

Anything as long as we get it approved ahead of time and they return it to the original condition. 

What have been some of the challenges that occurred once the scheme was up and running? 

Continuing to keep the content fresh. 

What things didn't work and why? 

Having all our galleries be walk-in spaces - it was too cost prohibitive to hire gallery staff at each space. 

How did you deal with and cope with problems or issues? 

We decided to put more of a focus on walk-by galleries.

What are the key things necessary for projects like Pop-up Art Loop to succeed?

Support from the artist community, property owners that are amiable to participating in the program, programming that unites the individual galleries. 

What advice/tips can you offer to people wanting to set up schemes similar to Pop-up Art Loop? 

Start small and have a dedicated team. 

Visit the Pop-Up Art Loop website and Facebook group for more information.