AMFM gallery has closed its doors but its artists live on
In a small, dimly lit art gallery in Pilsen, a projected video montage of prior concerts, fashion shows, and gallery parties plays in a loop on the main room’s western wall, while a rotating cast of DJs spin a high-octane blend of contemporary hip-hop. Partygoers comfortably trade laughs and dance moves in equal measure, soaking in their last night at the influential AMFM art gallery.
“AMFM is not done!” shouts founder Ciera McKissick, taking the stage to address the crowd that has gathered at her gallery’s closing party. The rousing cheer that ensues would lead one to believe that she’s right.
“Being an artist here means just having a family,” said Melissa Castro Almandina, a poet in residence at AMFM, the do-it-all arts institution that closed its gallery last Friday, Aug. 31. That impression was clear at AMFM’s closing party, which they threw to celebrate the memories and raise money for the gallery’s relocation away from its original space near the corner of 21st Street and Leavitt.
“I know that a lot of people really felt at home at AMFM and people are sad,” Alamandina said. “They think that we’re leaving, but we’re just relocating.”
Last month, McKissick announced in a Facebook post that AMFM’s gallery would be closing “due to circumstances beyond our control,” though she maintained the brand would “continue to live on through web content and pop up events, connecting artists to opportunities and behind the scenes action.” It has since come to light that at least part of the circumstances that led to AMFM’s decision to close their gallery came from tense relations with their neighbors.
“We were dealing with a lot of issues regarding what type of people we were bringing to the neighborhood,” said McKissick, “and we really want to go to an area that supports us fully and appreciates the work that we do and not have to deal with any type of issues about our identity or whatever.”
Almandina, who describes her work as exploring “resilience, womanhood, being a woman of color and the intersection between magic and science,” is proud of the family she’s found at AMFM. “We built a community of black and POC people, and not only black and POC people but creatives and artists, and I think we fit into Pilsen because we're very DIY and we're very community based, and that's one of our main goals.”
McKissick started AMFM, which stands for Art Music Fashion Magazine, as an independent study project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2014, after stints in Sacramento and her hometown of Milwaukee, she moved the project to Chicago, where she was offered a position as a resident artist at the Chicago Art Department. She had only anticipated staying in Chicago for a year but was hooked by the community she had developed around her.
“Truly it was the community and the artists and the people that made me want to stay and build with them here,” McKissick said. “I've really wanted to be a part of this kind of beautiful cultural renaissance that was happening in this city and try to uplift the artists that I believed in as well.”
She started hosting pop-up events under the AMFM moniker soon after her move to Chicago, but with the gallery on 21st Street, which she opened in January of 2017, she was able to provide artists like Almandina with studio space as well as throw events ranging from yoga classes to film festivals.
“I think that having a brick and mortar really solidified us, and [AMFM] was a space where artists and could come and convene, where curators and producers could come and bring their event ideas to life,” McKissick said. “[It] definitely catapulted the brand to an entirely different level and introduced us to so many new people, and we were able to have a rippling effect on the community.”
Since announcing the closing McKissick has set up a GoFundMe to help offset the costs of the gallery’s relocation, and has raised over $1,400 of its $4,000 goal as of Sept. 5, in addition to the money raised from the closing party, which asked for a suggested $5 donation.
Where exactly the new gallery will set its roots is still up in the air, but for now, McKissick has plenty to keep her busy. This Saturday, Sept. 8 marks the third and final installment of FEAST! The Festival, “an art, food, and music festival where everybody eats.” Hosted at Douglas Park, the Feast will bring together musicians and artists from around Chicago in an effort to feed the hungry and shine a light on local acts. So far, they’ve raised over $1,000 and have hosted a series of food drives and community potlucks in an effort to raise awareness about food deserts in Chicago.
Whatever the next step may be, McKissick is confident that AMFM can count on the support of the community she’s grown to love. “The AMFM family is far and wide,” she said. “Wherever we go, they will – if they will have us.”