Late last year, I received a cryptic note from the wife of an old friend in Seattle, alerting me to the fact that a woman was moving from Chicago to Ypsilanti with the intention of opening an art gallery in her apartment. As Linette was just about to give birth, I didn’t do anything with this particular piece of information at the time. But, a few days ago, when another friend mentioned that she’d visited a small gallery in the apartment of a woman from Chicago named Mary Ayling, I put two and two together, and decided to follow up. What follows in our brief interview on why she decided to close her gallery in Chicago, move to Ypsilanti, and welcome strangers into her home.
MARK: Did I hear that you moved to Ypsilanti from Chicago? If it’s not too personal, can I ask why?
MARY: You heard right that I did make the move from Chicago to Ypsilanti. My husband and I relocated in October of 2011 after 7 years in Chicago. I know it seems kind of counter intuitive. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them – mostly since the road usually seems to go the other way with people moving to the city. We loved living in Chicago. During our time there, I owned a storefront gallery with two other artists, and my husband worked in advertising and then as a freelance video developer. Our path to Ypsilanti was completely by chance. Dave had taken on a client that had him traveling quite a bit, and, as his work with them increased, they expressed an interest in having him come on full-time. It turns out that the company has a small office in Chicago, but the main branch of the video team is located in Sylvania, Ohio. Why this is so weird is because Dave and I met in Sylvania, Ohio in high school…. and hadn’t really imagined moving back to the area after we had been living in Chicago. But the job was great and I was thinking of applying to grad school, and was interested in Cranbrook and University of Michigan as two possibilities. It was like the planets aligned or something because it also just happened to be that my gallery in Chicago, Fill in the Blank Gallery was coming to a close. One of the other owners was moving on to start school in southern Illinois, and my other partner and I decided that, with this new opportunity for Dave, it was a good time for us to embark on new projects as well. So we had our final exhibit in August, closed in September, and Dave and I moved October 2nd. It was a lot of change happening all at once, and I think that kind of momentum helped me to get started on The Parlour Room right away. I took October to line up my first set of artists, and the space, and had my first exhibitor, Kristen Althoff, in by November.
MARK: Why Ypsilanti? Did you consider Ann Arbor, or any other communities between here and Sylvania?
MARY: We did consider Ann Arbor before moving. I honestly had never been to Ypsi before last September, and we looked at a few apartments in Ann Arbor as well before deciding on Ypsi. As far as in between here and Sylvania, not really. We kind of kept it to this area. I wanted to be close to Detroit as well, so I could have a chance to explore the art scene there. I have to say that I have met a few people that are big advocates of Toledo, and some of the projects going on there. I haven’t had the opportunity to check that out yet, but I’m interested to see what it’s all about. I know from experience that they have a great glass program at the Museum. That’s where I first learned to blow glass. But I haven’t had a chance to see what the art scene is like as an adult.
MARK: What, if any, research did you do before moving here? Did you know anything at all about the local arts scene?
MARY: When we were deciding if moving out of Chicago was a good idea, I did as much internet research on the area as I could. I found a little information on the Shadow Art Fair, which gave me hope that there were cool things happening. And, as far as galleries, I didn’t find much. I am still surprised at the lack of gallery fronts around. I know that Ann Arbor and Ypsi are both mostly college driven economies, and that there are a lot of gallery spaces associated with the Universities and Colleges, but, in my research, I was only really able to find a handful of local galleries independent of schools. One such gallery was The Gallery Project in Ann Arbor, which I’ve since started volunteering at. I had a friend in Chicago who had attended the University of Michigan for grad school, and he told me that I may have to find out more when I actually moved. So we had made the decision that Dave was in fact going to take the job, and then it was a bit of a blind faith jump that I would like the scene and find a place. And, luckily, I did end up finding a lot of great people in the area, and around Detroit.
MARK: I’m not sure about this, but I think someone gave me a heads-up several months ago that you were moving here, and opening a gallery in your apartment. Do you know a woman by the name of Laura Bernstein, by any chance?
MARY: It’s so funny that you mention Laura Bernstein, I thought that name sounded so familiar! I don’t know her personally, but Kristen, who had a show at the Parlour Room in October, and was one of my partners for the gallery in Chicago, is friends with her and (her husband) Leon. Kristen said that she had told her about the space and her show this past fall, so that must be the connection!
MARK: I’ve only met Laura once, but we’re Facebook friends. She and Leon came to a Shadow Art Fair. Leon and I, however, go back about 20 years. We worked the grill together at what was probably the worst restaurant in Ann Arbor. Anyway, Laura suggested that I check out Kristen’s show at your place, but, unfortunately, it kind of fell through the cracks. (I blame it on the fact that my wife and I were expecting a baby at the time.)
MARY: I love how small the world can be. That’s so funny that we would have a connection that way! And congrats on the baby! I am sad to say that I was out of town for the Krampus Ball, but I am really looking forward to checking out the Shadow Art Fair this year.
MARK: So, what’s it like having a gallery in your home?
MARY: It’s a unique experience, and one that I am continually finding things out about. Apartment galleries are abundant in Chicago, and they come in all varieties. The thing I love about this use of personal space is the character that comes with each one. Some people choose to white wall a room/rooms in their apartment, and have it so that, when you walk in, you feel as if you’re in a storefront gallery… the artwork is presented in a bare space with white walls, and they’ve strategically moved all of their “living” to the back of the space so that it is essentially hidden from the viewer. Others choose to highlight a certain part of the apartment… you may walk through their living space to get to a white wall room… or there are those that present the work in the actual living space, and you view it among their things. And anything goes for the spaces. There was a medicine cabinet in someone’s bathroom that served as a gallery. There’s another gallery that’s in a small clutch. The owner of that gallery carries it around with her and tweets where she is. I love the thought of using whatever space is available to showcase work. Providing alternative spaces only enhances the ability for creative projects and possibilities. I had been interested in starting an apartment gallery when I was still in Chicago, but, since I had a storefront space, I wasn’t sure when that thought might be realized. Our move to Ypsilanti seemed like a great opportunity to dive into that kind of project. When I was looking at apartments, before we moved, I was happy to find that one had a unique feature – these two 8′ tall double doors that literally opened up into a wall. I was sold. So we signed the lease and I went to work figuring out the details.
As it turns out, even though I had been to a lot of apartment galleries, there are a lot of issues and details that come up being the owner verses a visitor, and they’re different from those at the public space that I had before. For instance, having regular hours is an issue. Since it’s in your home and not in a public storefront, when do you feel comfortable having people come by? And making sure that your living partner (i.e. my husband), is cool with when that might be. So we decided on to have it be by appointment only, except for openings and closings, when the space is open to the public without appointment. This was also in part because I was moving from a community where I knew a lot of people and had a network, to an area where I knew no one. I had no idea what the response to this kind of space might be and thought that having appointments where I could have people come over for a kind of social visit would be an interesting way to show the work and start to build my new community. And that’s where I ended up, I have people email me with interest in coming to the space and I always provide snacks and beverages. Then we sit and talk about the work and whatever else comes up. I’m interested in making people feel comfortable with looking at work and the whole experience – which is kind of funny because it is by its very nature kind of uncomfortable when you think about having a stranger in your home or going to a stranger’s home. Usually it goes pretty well though, and I have enjoyed exploring this process.
Having art in your living space has all kinds of ups and downs, though, and you find that you have to keep your space a lot cleaner than you might be inclined to otherwise, which can be good, ha! Living with a work really does activate it, and you find that your continued exposure has you feeling and thinking a lot more about it. That is one aspect that has been really great for me as an artist myself. All in all I would recommend starting an alternative space to anyone who is interested. It never hurts to have more creative outlets in a community, and it can be a great way for artists to get exposed outside of the traditional venues. Apartment galleries in Chicago still get reviews and visitors, so its really more about how you as an owner want to approach the space. Just like any business, you can push it as much as you want. Here I should mention though that I do not make money off of this project. I wanted to meet new people in my community and bridge them with people from Chicago as a starting platform. So I have not had to deal with business licenses, taxes, etc. for my current space. I did that with my Chicago gallery, and, since sales were not my main intention with this space, I was able to forgo those details. If there are any sales, all the money goes directly to the artist. I provide the space, the website information and promotion for free. I am more interested in making sure that I show people or work that I feel invested in.
All in all having an alternative space is great and I encourage anyone who is interested to do it! I would love to see a bunch of apartment galleries pop up in the area!
MARK: I have an idea for a little museum that I’d like to start in a corner of my house, but I can’t get over the “I don’t want strangers in my home” hurdle. To be honest, it’s not just strangers. I get anxious when anyone is in my home – even close friends and family. Still, I daydream about it. In theory, I think it’s awesome, just opening one’s self up like that and welcoming new experiences. In a world where people are increasingly isolated from one another, I think it’s incredibly important. Maybe, if I ever get rich, I can get a second house, pretend to live in it, and open my museum. And, if I’ve got the money, maybe I could even hire an actor to play me, while I sit behind a curtain and watch. I know this isn’t really a question, but, if you’d like to comment on the irrational fear resulting from my OCD, please feel free.
MARY: Ha! Um in all honesty I get crazy anxious every time. I am naturally an anxious person who tries really hard to hide it, because I’m also really interested in people…. but I think that the background of the storefront gallery before helped me with trying this project out. I am also in love with your idea of buying a second home and living a kind of double fantasy life where you hire someone to play you in your “fake” second museum home. I feel like that is a piece in itself. Perhaps you should make a performance about that.
And I’m totally interested in hearing more about your little museum! What kinds of projects/works would be curated there? Also if you have any suggestions of people whose work you love locally, I’d really appreciate the insight while I’m looking to book up the next few shows. I had rented a studio at SPUR up until February – it was an awesome place, but I had some equipment needs that couldn’t really be met there.
MARK: I’m not ready to go public with my museum idea, but, when I am, I’ll let you know. And I’ll give some thought as to artists that might be appropriate for your space. We have a ton of interesting people come out for the Shadow Art Fair each year. That might be a good way to meet potential collaborators. In the meantime, I was wondering if you could tell us what the response to the Parlour Room has been.
MARY: The reception has been good so far. The appointment traffic has been slowly increasing. A lot of the time people are really interested up front, when we are talking about it, but then the follow through on making an appointment has been 50/50. I think that the idea of coming over is appealing and still kind of out of some peoples comfort zones since it’s not how things are usually done around here.
MARK: How many shows have you curated at this point, and what do you have planned for the future?
MARY: At this point in The Parlour Room’s run, we’ve had three shows. The latest show, Midas Eyes by Chelsea Cossu just opened up. But overall I have curated over 30 shows in my artistic career. I have artists lined up through June, and, after that, I’m looking to fill spots through September. I’m hoping to get in a local artists in the next few shows. What’s next? That’s a great question. I have this space until October and, if we renew, I will continue The Parlour Room in its current format. And, if we decided to move, I will most likely see if The Parlour’s mission fits the next space, or if another incarnation will be born. I know that I plan on continuing to be involved in making my own work and providing a space for others as a part of who I am, but how that will manifest itself well into the future is continually forming.
MARK: As for medium, did I hear that you were focusing primarily on photography?
MARY: For my own work, I produce in a variety of mediums but my main focus is glass. I approach it from a material standpoint, where I explore its uses in lensing. So photography is a definite interest and inspiration in my own personal work. But as far as The Parlour goes, I am open to any and all mediums. I love things with a bit of a science…. but really it’s about finding a person or work whose thoughts and ideas I click with in some way. I am an avid reader and one of my favorite magazones is Cabinet, an art and writing publication based out of Brooklyn, NY. I feel like they are a good example of my interests in looking for work. Each issue contains articles and artists’ projects loosely based around a theme. The latest issue, for instance, is constructed around forensics. So the articles in the publication are on a huge variety of topics that are usually obscure parts of society or history with some kind of tie to the idea of forensics. The tie in to the Parlour is that I am curating around my interests and how something might interact in this alternative space, which can come from a variety of sources and mediums.
MARK: So, what do you think of Ypsilanti?
MARY: Ypsilanti is a funny place. I have been here 5 months now and feel like despite its small size I am still learning new things about it, which I love. Ypsi is great though. It’s a bit like the rebel little brother of Ann Arbor. I like a lot of the people that I have met so far and feel like there is a nice independent nature in Ypsilanti-ites. It’s a bit like if you took a small slice of a Chicago neighborhood, I feel like Pilsen or Bridgeport comes to mind, and plopped it down in Michigan. Rent is cheaper, there is a bit of charming derelict-ness to the area, and young people are running interesting projects and stores/spaces. All of those empty shops downtown are just begging for Pop-up Galleries to occupy them! I think Ypsi is awesome because it’s like a clay piece that is kind of forming right now, as far as I can tell from being a newbie, there are a lot of cool spots and attributes to the city that are kind of paving the way for it to become a really great creative destination.
More on the Parlour Room Project Space, including contact information for Mary, and information on the current show, can be found here.