An Interview with Kavi Gupta

Could you start by telling us about your background and how was it to open a gallery in Chicago in 2002? You already had an experience with Vedanta Gallery if I'm not wrong.

I started out collecting art. My family in India are some of the biggest collectors of contemporary Indian art. My father was an architect and an engineer, who moved here in 1964 and worked with Bertrand Goldberg on Marina City. I was born in 1969, and our life was about architecture and design. I was an art history minor at Northern Illinois University; I was an investment banker after college but was spending all of my money on art. I went to get a master’s at the business school at the University of Chicago, and they allowed us to work with other departments. I chose the art history department, and that really propelled me into thinking I wanted to do something with art. I wanted to be around art, I wanted to be around artists, and I wanted to show what I was collecting. In the late ’90s, I found a building in the West Loop, a boarded-up crack house on Peoria, for a dollar a square foot. I called right there and said, “I’ll take it.” I built that space over two years, and I later bought the building across the street. In that time the gallery was called Vedanta.

As the West Loop developed, the value of those spaces went up, and we were able to leverage that into buying the building on Washington Blvd. and later then expanded into an additional 8,000 square foot building in the West Loop on Elizabeth Street. We also have an 11,000 square foot warehouse in Pilsen. The idea, basically, is to build opportunities for our artists. A lot of them work in large scale, and I wanted to give them the freedom to do that if they wanted to. We produced a large show of Roxy Paine’s, Apparatus, in the Elizabeth Street space that won the AICA [International Association of Art Critics-USA] Award as the best gallery show in the country; it took up two rooms and 5,000 square feet. It was a museum-caliber show, one of the bigger productions a gallery has ever done in Chicago. We also produced a Tony Tasset piece for the Whitney Biennial that was 80 feet long.

How Kavi Gupta Gallery inserts itself in the rich artistic history and geography of a city such as Chicago? Is your activity informed by this very location? And in which way do you think your gallery has now shaped the way the art world sees the Chicago art scene? I’m thinking here of Theaster Gates, Curtis Mann, Angel Otero, Melanie Schiff and Tony Tasset, but also of the estate of Roger Brown you recently added to your gallery.

We’ve positioned ourselves as a gallery that’s based in Chicago, but we don’t quantify our success based on things happening here. However we do believe in championing Chicago artists. The majority of our artists are or were at one time Chicago-based, but we’re promoting them around the world. We’re very proactive on behalf of artists, and that means not sitting here waiting for that client to come into our door. So our team is constantly out there traveling, doing international art fairs, attending museum openings, talking to collectors, curators and art writers, pitching ideas and getting in front of them. If you look out my office door, you’d see two people packaging catalogs and other people writing proposals for museum shows. We have one person doing nothing but PR for specific artists. We have two people who are artist liaisons going to artists’ studios, talking with them about their practice and what’s coming next. There is a high level of back- office activity with a global focus.

One of the key words coming back in your interviews is “experimentation.” Could you please tell us why this attitude is so important to you? And could also come back on the curatorially- focused, project-based program of the gallery, spanning from public works to academic panels? In a way, your gallery acts as a cultural agent.

Our gallery is known for encouraging artists to take risks, giving them space to experiment and helping to produce these new bodies of work for them. We've been really successful with this— our artists continually amaze us with their vision and passion, and the gallery has received three AICA awards and multiple nominations for the best gallery shows in the country.

The gallery is fortunate to have recently brought on my wife, Jessica Moss, a contemporary curator and museum veteran, whose curatorial practice perfectly coincides with the gallery’s mission. She has delved into the work of Chicago historical and contemporary artists as well as curated a groundbreaking and award-winning exhibition on contemporary art and politics in India. I feel like this is a really exciting time for the gallery right now.

In 2014, you also founded Kavi Gupta Editions that is not only about publishing and selling books on your artists and exhibitions but also about proposing a space for critical discourse to the Chicago community. Why is this so important to you?

Editions has been a great addition to the gallery. It brings in hard to find art historical texts, international art publications and periodicals and is one of the only resources for this physical material outside of New York.

We believe it is critical to develop original research on our artists to illuminate their practices, especially important with artists whose work has been historically marginalized. We have a heavy emphasis on original research in the gallery–there are writers on staff, and we produce serious programming that brings in esteemed historians and academics. There is a continuous stream of books, talks, and videos in production so that we are able to get the material in front of academics, curators, and collectors. We have held as many as three symposia for long running exhibitions of historical material like Politics, Rhetoric, Pop: Andy Warhol and Roger Brown. We publish small books on every artist that we represent, produce at least two full-size monographs a year with essays and interviews, and we have publishing deals with major publishers like DAP, Phaidon and Kerber Verlag, and Mousse to name a few.

You have a gallery in Berlin. Could you please come back on this experience and why did you decide to have an European outpost?

Berlin is a cultural capital, a place where curators and artists live and spend time. It’s about thinking; it’s about looking. And it’s a place where new art is constantly emerging. For me Berlin has always been that place in Europe. It’s also very affordable, so it was a great place to make a European foothold. We wanted to reach out beyond Chicago and establish a beachhead for our Chicago artists, to have a different audience come and see the work, increase its recognition. We also used Berlin as a way to find new artists from Germany and elsewhere. Because it’s so affordable, artists come from all over the world and have studios there. There are artists from every city in Europe, as well as from Japan, China, and India. So it was important for us to be there and see what’s really happening in contemporary art today. We’ve recently closed the Berlin gallery after many successful years to focus on all the exciting things that are happening here.

Could you tell us more about your program and how would you define your gallery’s identity? It seems to me that your gallery is having a voice as a laboratory for contemporary aesthetics but also as a site for political and social discussion.

The gallery is really focused on championing artists whose careers are significant but for whatever reason didn’t get the recognition they deserved, whether that be because of race or gender or sexual orientation. We’re looking at both historic and contemporary artists from Chicago and the surrounding region who have confronted difficult issues from our country's history. As a first generation Southeast Asian gallerist, I’ve been particularly interested in exploring regions in Southeast Asia and first and second generation Asian American artists whose work has not gotten proper recognition in the Western canon. I feel like my perspective allows me the agency to place their work in art historical discourse by identifying where their cultural narrative fits into art’s contemporary international narrative.