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Studio Suite 920 in the Mana Contemporary building in Pilsen is home to the prolific Ciera McKissick’s latest venture: cam.contemporarie. With this new project space, one of Chicago’s most outspoken advocates for the arts is turning her sights both to the market and to promoting holistic artist support. She describes cam.contemporarie as a “micro-gallery” (36 square meters), a self-directed curatorial residency, and an experimental exhibition model.

cam.contemporary
camcontemporarie.com/home
instagram.com/cam.contemporarie

The bright, sunlit space served as an incubator, painting studio and office before opening to the public as a gallery and meeting place in March. As an independent gallerist, McKissick is excited to explore curation and exhibition production autonomously. “I’m just excited to have the freedom to do what I want,” she says. “I can be very spontaneous sometimes and get an idea or a spark from everything and really just wanted a space where I could realize those ideas, the way an artist might try out a new painting technique or explore a new subject. In that respect, it’s really a studio for my work, but curators are often not given the freedom to explore in the same way that artists are.” The space’s relaxed, warm aesthetic reflects this exploratory ethos, taking on an “urban matter” theme with homemade furniture made from cinder blocks and plants spilling out of vessels made by the gallerist herself.

Ciera Alyse McKissick sits on a red metal chair at a blue table in her new gallery cam.contemporarie. Wearing a long-sleeved houndstooth shirt, a white shirt and blue pants, she looks at the camera with her arms crossed. On the wall behind her hangs a figurative painting of people and a crocodile sitting in an abstract outdoor setting.
Ciera McKissick
Photo credit: zakkiyyah najeebah dumas o’neal

Cam.contemporarie’s inaugural exhibition, “mano a mano,” featured Chicago-based multimedia artist Carina Vargas-Nuñez. They work in painting and textiles, combining symbolism and magical realism with their Cuban heritage. McKissick’s unique approach to exhibition production ensured that Vargas-Nuñez had access to resources such as space/time (they used the gallery as a painting studio in the lead-up to their exhibition), professional development, and networking opportunities. McKissick arranged studio visits, facilitated feedback, and moderated Vargas-Nuñez’s first public artist talk. In an interview, she stated, “I was really proud to be able to present the work of someone I had worked really hard to mentor.”

To say it is unusual for a gallerist to offer all of these amenities to exhibiting artists would be an understatement. McKissick’s commitment to promoting the professional advancement and financial literacy of creatives is exceptional and rare. Her approach to exhibitions in this context is not overly didactic, but prioritizes basic marketing materials such as press releases, artist statements, and other documents designed to drive sales (which, it must be said, directly supports the exhibiting artists and ensures the gallery’s financial solvency). Artistic and creative production without financial support is finite.

A color photograph by cam.contemporarie shows a colorful painting on the wall depicting a lush tropical scene. On the left, a figure walks to the right with a butterfly perched on her hand. A crocodile walks at her feet. On the right, another figure sits on the floor examining a fossilized fish bone. Below the painting, a cinder block and a wooden bench are visible, with a cactus on the floor to the left.
Opening show “mano a mano” by Cam.contemporari featured work by Chicago-based multimedia artist Carina Vargas-Nuñez.
Photo credit: Natasha Moustache

The exhibition program at cam.contemporarie will continue to focus on solo shows by Midwest artists for the foreseeable future, and is not currently accepting unsolicited submissions. However, McKissick notes that she often discovers new talent while serving on juries—so, dear artists, perhaps your next rejection letter is not a door that closes, but a window that opens. “Reminiscing,” by Saint Louis-based artist Vaughn Davis Jr., opens June 8, followed by a solo show by Chicago/Milwaukee native Tyanna Buie, opening August 2. Between exhibitions, the space will serve as an exhibition space for collectors to browse during office hours Mondays and Fridays. She looks forward to offering supplemental programs that educate and nurture new collectors while continuing to advance artists’ professional practices and develop community partnerships—and announces an upcoming series called “Conversations with Contemporaries.” This series is designed to make collecting contemporary art more accessible for aspiring art patrons. By providing extensive resources to artists on the production side as well as collectors on the commercial side, McKissick hopes to make the transactional phases of collecting more transparent and enjoyable for everyone involved.

McKissick thinks broadly about the opportunities presented by programming, and attributes these skills to her four years as Public Programs Manager at the Hyde Park Art Center. She recently co-curated her first exhibition at the institution: a solo show by Candace Hunter. In 2023, she also served as the first curator at The Luminary, culminating in the exhibition Considering St. Louis. McKissick spent this fellowship exploring the arts ecosystem of Saint Louis and the Midwest, interviewing 30 artists about the resources they need to thrive, with the express goal of keeping creatives in the Midwest.

AMFM (Art Music Fashion Magazine), a web magazine, event organizer and promotional platform for artists and more, is a long-standing and separate branch of McKissick’s cultural production. AMFM had a storefront in Pilsen from 2016 to 2018, which served as an exhibition and performance space, recording studio, shop and community studio/residence. She told Canvas Rebel: “AMFM grew so fast that I didn’t have time to process what it means to run a real business, lead a team, manage artists and the day-to-day operations and administration – I was just in survival production mode. I felt this was a necessary moment to explore what the next phase of my work and AMFM could and would be, and to be able to take the necessary professional development steps to execute on that vision and be ready for it.” In 2024 – AMFM’s 15th year – she launched a quarterly evening talk show held at the Hoxton (events are also live-streamed and recorded) and manned booths at both EXPO Chicago and the Other Art Fair.

Two colorful paintings by Carina Vargas-Nuñez hang next to each other on the wall. On the left is a painting of two women in front of a light blue wall with two windows with detailed metal latticework. A black bird flies behind them. On the right in the foreground is a person eating a piece of watermelon in front of a lapis lazuli-colored wall. On the left in the background another figure in black holds up a watermelon with a black bird sitting on it.
Works by Carina Vargas-Nuñez
Photo credit: Natasha Moustache

Since the store closed, AMFM has continued to gain momentum and evolve as a pop-up store, but McKissick is clear that cam.contemporarie is a separate brand with different priorities. She describes the projects as multi-tiered; AMFM has launched the careers of countless emerging artists, and as McKissick and her vision mature, cam.contemporarie is a site for artists (and a gallerist) ready for the next step—though its overall mission remains to “support and promote the work and practice of Black and brown artists.”

For McKissick, this level of production and consistency requires extensive planning, discipline and delegation; she is excited to welcome a paid intern this spring. In an interview with the readerMcKissick articulated her professional goals, including going slower and more purposeful—taking on fewer projects to ensure higher-quality engagement. Of the pace she was setting before the pandemic, she writes, “I didn’t have enough time to process what I was really doing and to sit down and let things meander through my body.” With cam.contemporarie, McKissick and her roster of artists are taking time to let ideas percolate and process while developing economic infrastructures that ensure the sustainability of both artistic and administrative creative practices—while, McKissick says, “giving myself room to breathe so I can fully realize something.”


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