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Interview with Budgie Birka-White

I’m always amazed at Chicago’s inclusive art scene which provides countless opportunities for young artists. Especially a great place for emerging artists to get started in their career. There are so many quality artist-run DIY galleries, and so many art graduates stay in the city to get something going. I would like to introduce one of the top galleries that provides rigorous intellectual shows and events. A homey apartment gallery located in Ukrainian Village is Extase. It’s run by an art historian and writer, Budgie Birka-White. We graduated in the same year from School of the Art Institute of Chicago and she was my graduate curatorial fellow for our annual MFA show in 2019. She has hosted nine amazing shows so far at Extase so I asked her experience of running her own gallery space.

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Polina Protsenko Performance, Coming Asunder, all images courtesy of Jesse Meredith and Extase Chicago. All images courtesy of Jesse Meredith and Extase Chicago.

What was your thought process when you decided to open Extase?

I was a first year MA Art History student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when I opened my space. During my first semester, I found myself organically meeting and befriending artists, and generally being curious about the SAIC MFA programs and their interdisciplinary nature. I found myself naturally conducting a lot of studio visits and realized I should do / make something out of this passion of discussing art with emergent artists. In graduate school, the combination of researching and writing about Art History and then doing studio visits with artists whose work I admired is what ultimately led me to open Extase. And with these intertwined practices, curating was the feasible next step. I had an extra room in my apartment that I really wasn’t using. I converted this room into a gallery space, and nearly two years later, that’s all it’s ever been used for. I wanted to then and still today curate mostly solo exhibitions, because the small room lends well to the work of one person, and because I enjoy working intimately with a single artist. It allows me to get to know their work extremely well, give them and the exhibition the necessary attention and support, and also form a relationship with the artist if we don't know each other already. Because my space is in my home and the artist inevitably ends up being there quite a bit, I do consider that last factor. In addition to predominantly doing solo shows, I focus on local and emergent artists. There are so many incredible artists based in Chicago, that, at least for right now, I don't feel like I need to look further. I keep up with the art that is happening nationally and internationally, but in terms of what I show in my own space, I tend to keep it local. There are already so many people I want to work with here.

I also often try to give people their first solo exhibitions, and not just work with artists because their work is well-known. It's more interesting for me to discover someone in the beginning of their career, regardless of age, instead of following trends dictated by a gallery, etc. This is what is exciting for me and my own visual art interests manifest through who I choose to exhibit.

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Garrett Fees, Infernal Court: One Year Anniversary Exhibition

How do you feel your gallery is impacting the Chicago art community?

I have always felt that Extase is a safe, welcoming, intellectually stimulating, and fun space. I have had nine shows, most of which have an opening and a closing reception, and then hours my appointment. Sometimes I'll have regular viewing hours during the week. But the reception has always been great, in terms of turn out to openings and in terms of press / reviews; the community has been incredibly supportive since the inaugural show in April 2018, and that support has remained constant. Chicagoans in the art community are typically supportive of alternative spaces in general, and I have definitely felt that support from the community with Extase. So in this way, and of course I am biased, but I do feel the gallery has had a positive impact on the community. Lots of artists, writers, curators, professors, scholars, art-adjacent individuals, and people who randomly read about an Extase show on something like the Visualist, have visited the gallery and in this way demonstrate their curiosity and offer support. I think people know they can come to Extase shows and that the work will be strong and surprising; the artist is very well someone they know or know of from the community; and that they can relax, get comfortable, and have a good time at someone's home.

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Polina Protsenko Performance, Infernal Court: One Year Anniversary Exhibition

What do you feel is unique about Extase?

I think the programming is unique and the artists that are chosen to be exhibited are unique. More recently I have also been holding lectures in conjunction with exhibitions. This isn't unique but it does make the programming more compelling. For example, at the Martha Poggioli November/December show, Michael Golec, former SAIC Art History chair and current professor of Art History and Design at the School was in conversation with Patron Sales Director and independent curator Olivia McManus and the artist, Martha. For the upcoming April solo show of new work by Efrat Hakimi, Efi will be in conversation with School of the Art Institute of Chicago Photography professor Jan Tichy during the closing reception. These lectures, which will continue to be organized, add depth to the exhibitions, further contextualize them, and provide an experience outside of just viewing the work. I also write a thorough press release or exhibition text for each show, and that is a way I can continue to research and write art historically. The writing is an important element of every show.

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Mia+Máire Installation View, Reckless Comfort.

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Mia+Máire Installation View, Reckless Comfort.

Your decision to run an apartment gallery instead of renting a separate space?

Right now running a space out of my home is what makes the most sense, but this could change in the future. It's a tough moment to open commercial spaces right now, as it has been for a while, but Chicago is definitely a city where that is more possible than doing so in places like San Francisco, LA, or NYC. So for now I am happy operating things out of my home and I think that is part of the allure / success of the space, but I am open to running a commercial gallery in a rented space in the future. Time will tell!

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Danny Bredar Installation View, Lavender Vanitas.

Couldn’t help but notice, you have several books and objects on display in the apartment. In what ways are these significant to you? Do they tie into some of the other work such as the paintings on display in the living room?

I find joy in collecting objects, whether that be works of art, books, tchotchkes accumulated during travel, mugs, magnets, etc. Many of those books you’re referring to are catalogues from art exhibitions, which are themselves art objects. Other art books in my collection I encountered in undergrad and grad school, or came across on my own via more specific art interests. I was also an English major in undergrad, so many of the books are texts I read during that time - lots of fiction and also poetry. Other books are artist books I’ve collected from friends or artists whose work I appreciate. I love reading and research, which is part of my broader curatorial practice. It’s fun when I have openings to see people flipping through different books. They’re not part of any exhibition I host here but they do allow for more interactive moments in my home.

What do you have set in terms of exhibitions?

The next and 10th show is a solo by Israeli, Chicago-based artist Efrat Hakimi. We’re still ironing out some of the curatorial themes, but she’ll be showing new prints and will be making a collaborative, limited edition artist book with her twin sister who is a writer based in Tel Aviv. Other upcoming exhibitions are a group show and a night of performance, both in the summer.

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Jesse Meredith Installation View, Reckless Comfort.

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Jesse Meredith Detail, Reckless Comfort.