Janet Bloch is an artist residing in Chesterton, IN with her husband, rock and roll photographer Bobby Talamine. Since 2009, she has been Education Director for the Lubeznik Center for the Arts. Bloch was Gallery Director for Woman Made Gallery in Chicago from 1993-2000 where she also led workshops on professionalism for artists. Author of Strategic Marketing Tools for Visual Artists, Bloch conducts seminars in grant writing, proposals, and artist statements. She is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Visual Artists Fellowship and an NEA Regional/Midwest Fellowship. Bloch is represented by Linda Warren Projects in Chicago, and her work is in corporate and museum collections, including the Illinois State Museum, Eaton Electric, and Deloitte.
Q: You have worn many hats—artist, gallery director, author, lecturer, education director. How have these various career paths prepared you for this current job?
A: I didn’t know something existed that had this job description, but I’m perfect for it! I’m lucky because I could never figure out how to take my expertise in all these different areas and put it into something where I can make a living. I couldn’t make a living from my artwork that is a labor of passion. It’s such a relief to have my insurance paid and not worry about bills. I’m a natural teacher. In this job you must like people and have a spirit of service, which is more unique than you realize, let alone in the art world. I like empowering people with useful information.
Q: In your seminars, your concise analytical skills help artists get right to the point with their proposals and statements. What is your college background?
A: I received a BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I had a broad liberal arts background and strong verbal and writing skills; and I credit my education to growing up in public schools at a time when there were really good teachers and programs. It was an era when you got a great education regardless of economic status.
Q: What are your Chicago roots?
A: I grew up in Rogers Park before moving to the suburbs. Both of my older sisters went to Mather High School and I went to New Trier West. My dad was a lawyer in downtown Chicago. I wasn’t afraid of the city, and we often would take the train downtown. When I was little, my older sister went to the School of the Art Institute for Saturday classes. I remember she drew me a map of downtown Chicago, and the intersection of State & Madison was zero. Now I know how to get around in Chicago, it’s an amazing grid. I like the vibrancy of the city, and feel strong connections to Chicago. For twenty-some years I lived in an Edgewater 2-flat, with my sister as the other tenant, and our husbands. I’m happy living in Chesterton, and appreciate having more space and being in a smaller environment. I never appreciated that until recently; it was the right time for me.
Q: How was creativity nurtured or encouraged when growing up?
A: I had a happy home environment with a stay-at-home mother and two older sisters. Our parents had an interest in art and there were art books at home. I loved to draw and learned from my sisters. We would copy comic books, and they worked with me on my handwriting. We all liked going to museums as a family, it was exciting. I remember going many times to the Art Institute at a very young age. My oldest sister is 11 years older than me and the museums catered to that age. We traveled to Europe when I was 7, and visited several museums and a glass factory. My parents sent me to Saturday classes at the Art Institute and bought me art supplies. There was a sense that I was talented. I don’t think they expected me to have a career as an artist, but they thought I was very good at drawing.
They thought I would grow up to be a teacher. The viewpoint in my family was that you got an education so that you could be smart when you got married. It was always a given that you would go to college and then get married; and you would give up whatever. My mother didn’t work outside the home until my dad died, even though she had a good education. I think she couldn’t wait to go to work, as she did really well! My dad never wanted my mother to work: If the wife worked, it was a symbol of not being able to support the family.
Q: Do you still practice your art? If so, where is your current studio space?
A: Yes, but not nearly to the extent that I had been. I am still making art at home but do not have my Chicago studio anymore. I can’t make it work, although I miss a studio environment with other artists. I would go 1-2 times per week when I first moved to Chesterton.
Q: Describe your position as Education Director at the Lubeznik Center.
A: What I do here is a lot! There are 11 school sites in Michigan City that we visit twice weekly, and we do programming for art, music, and dance in the after school programs. We also have a site in La Porte where we do community outreach once a week after school. Their back-to-school rally serves 800 kids with a project. When I say we, I hire teachers vs. volunteers. The teachers are paid a low wage yet above the minimum. However, we pay more than we are reimbursed by our state grant. Here, it doesn’t work to use volunteers; we can’t afford the ‘no-shows’.
We are currently developing the curriculum for the exhibition, X-Ray Vision: Fish Inside Out. Also, we get requests for tours from the entire region—New Buffalo, Westville, Valparaiso. I am the tour guide and docent, and during the last exhibition we gave approximately 30 tours during its run. The main gallery exhibitions are curated by the Exhibitions Curator, CarolAnn Brown. My position does not involve curating except for the community gallery, which only happens occasionally. I put together educational shows, i.e. school shows or project-related exhibitions, for the community.
I program all of the classes held at the Center. We offer drawing, watercolor, hat-making classes; new things all the time. We will be offering glass fusing workshops as a kiln was donated. The education department has grown from floundering to bustling. In fact, we are out of space for room usage. We have discussion panels, hold cultural events, and Poetry Slam night is held twice a year.
Q: Does the Lubeznik Center have a permanent art collection?
A: Yes, there are approximately 375 pieces in the permanent collection. There’s a rich history of landscapes from Indiana that date back quite far with some famous names; we have some Kokoschka’s. When contemporary artists exhibit we ask them to put a piece in our collection to build it. We have temperature and humidity-controlled storage facilities and galleries. In another phase, we want space to exhibit our permanent collection all the time—the ultimate education.
Q: Is the Center hoping to be part of greater metropolitan Chicago, or is the focus local/regional?
A: We want to serve Chicago as well, and we do. People travel here from Chicago and other cities. One third of our patrons are from Chicago, have a second home here, or a Chicago connection. We are like theGateway to Chicago. People come from the east coast or are returning to Chicago from Michigan. They all have to do that loop around Lake Michigan. The exhibitions in the summer attract many visitors, and those attending for the first time are astounded at the quality of the work. We receive a lot of local press, and are trying to target more Chicago press. Getting reviews is our next step. James Yood was recently moderator of the glass panel. People are starting to know about us more and more. Currently there are 6 fulltime employees: Executive, Education, and Marketing Directors; Exhibitions Curator; Facilities and Administrative Managers; and a part-time staff.
Q: Are you currently involved with any arts organizations locally or in Chicago?
A: I’m still involved with Woman Made Gallery in Chicago.
Q: What is your history with Woman Made Gallery?
A: I was Co-Director with Beate Minkovski from 1993-2000. Basically I did everything—taking the garbage out to being contact person for hundreds of artists who would call or email, procuring jurors, programming exhibitions and events, writing press releases, fundraising, and writing grants. Beate had the technology and database skills; I was better with writing skills. We really had fun; we also had fights, but we did things as partners. It was a shared passion, and I give her credit for staying with it.
Woman Made had been open for 6 months when I arrived, and Beate and I became close friends very quickly. I had all these ideas for Woman Made but wasn’t involved in the gallery yet. I would say, ‘you shouldn’t have your studios here; we need a logo; we need this and we need that’. The original founding partner that Beate opened with, Kelly Hensen, never really intended to have a gallery. She bowed out quickly and I stepped in. Our idea was to create a place that attracted people to come and show. It was not so much we were going to be important or fit into the art world, but whatever we did, or whatever women we thought were doing great things, we were going to create our own place of power; and people came.
We felt that it was important to do everything perfectly and professionally. There couldn’t be a typo and there couldn’t be dirt on the wall; everything would have to get repainted for every show. What we observed about women was how they acted about their work, how they would bring stuff and it was falling apart; or their pictures were just so terrible or their attitudes were unprofessional. We weren’t really sure if men were having these issues, but it wasn’t that we really knew what being professional was, rather we learned quickly by all the mistakes other people made.
Q: Was that helpful in gathering material for what not to do in your professionalism workshops?
A: Exactly. I also used it to my advantage in my own career because I could see quickly if your behavior came across a certain way, either arrogant or too meek, it was a real turn off. You had to have your act together. We did it with empathy, however, because we realized that no one had really been taught these things; we had never been taught this in school. Beate and I looked at it as a way to help other artists.
Q: Back to your educational interest.
A: That was my aim. We wondered if the people submitting for shows had any clue as to what they were doing wrong. The reason our workshops were successful is that they are self-explanatory when you tell people what you experience. The workshops on professionalism were developed to show by example. The key to the learning process is to say their artistic statement out loud. You can hear it right away. I’m repeating it five times and I’m not saying anything important. It is a gentle way of giving a lesson vs. saying this is bad.
Q: That you can realize that’s how to give the lesson is vital.
A: That comes from a lot of years of doing it. I have sat with people and looked at their work and thought about their work a long time; that is a benefit. I tell people if you’re not willing to look at a lot of art, to read about art, you’re not going to understand art as well as someone who does. I’ve looked at so much art and had to find ways to critique it that I feel I’m concise about it at this point. It’s a skill that you can develop. Maybe I just have the artist side too; I think I understand what the artist is trying to do. It’s always enlightening however when you do a critique with someone and all this content is discussed; then you read their statement and it has nothing to do with anything they sent us.
Q: What was your first break as an artist?
A: The person who gave me my first break was Michael Wier of Lyons Wier Gallery; he gave me my first solo show of note. But honestly, I really think my first break was meeting Beate because that changed my life in terms of the whole trajectory of what I would pursue. She really had an impact. I consider Beate a mentor and one of the most influential people in my life. We did empower each other. She believed in my artwork to a point that reaffirmed for me that I had something important to say.
Q: What challenges did you face as an artist when you started at Woman Made, and what challenges do artists face today?
A: My challenge was finding time for my work and also a place to show my work and get some sort of validation for it. I don’t know if it was so much that I was looking to differentiate myself; that was a given. Twenty years later, art schools are pumping out such good artists that it‘s mindboggling. People are coming out with so much ability in their painting skills. In that way art schools are doing their job. I should say the big art schools because, if you go to the smaller schools, that quality of work is not happening. With all the styles prevalent today and people being masterful in so many types of work, I wonder if it would be difficult to be an emerging artist today. I think some challenges remain: people still want their work seen, their voices heard, and they struggle to find time to do their work and make a living.
Q: Do you think there is still discrimination against women?
A: I really do think we’ve made a lot of progress. However, I don’t think that race and gender will cease to be issues. What has changed in the art world in the last twenty years is that there are many more women curators, female writers, museum directors. That has changed things a lot. It won’t change the history that has been, but it will change future history. There’s a new wave of feminism but in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a huge backlash against it. People didn’t want that label.
Q: Maybe it needs to be redefined.
A: I think it’s defined as equality for the sexes: gender equality in economic, social and political issues. Others think it means something else. In 1996, I taught Women in Art, Music and Literature at Columbia College. All the women in the class, young college students now in their 40s, were all of the opinion, ‘Aren’t all feminists ugly? Don’t they look like Betty Friedan?’ I was thinking ‘What century is this? Where are we living? This is Chicago.’ I found that shocking. Those kinds of attitudes are not gone; they can resurface at any point. We still have biases against aggressive women, whether it is Hillary Clinton or whoever. People don’t like pushy aggressive women, which is gender bias. Actually people don’t like pushy aggressive black men either, which is racial bias. So we have a very genteel president. There is a fear of black men. Traits that white mainstream middle-aged men would consider assertive and confident, are considered frightening and out of place when viewed in the black male.
Q: Who are your favorite women artists in Chicago?
A: That is really tough as I like so many. Martina Nehrling/ZG Gallery, her work is simple. I just love those brush strokes: I like that the brush stroke is what it is. Others include Amy Casey/ZG Gallery, Sarah Krepp/Roy Boyd Gallery, and Michele Thrane/FusedChicago. I like the whimsical work of Alicia LaChance who used to exhibit at Melanee Cooper Gallery. Some recent work at Woman Made Gallery knocked me out: It was a drawing by Wilmette artist Claire Rosean. I love Mary Ellen Croteau, and was inspired by her bottle cap painting that was similar to Chuck Close. I thought it was brilliant. There was also a dress made from collected objects by Judi Krew titled She was Labeled as a Child. A lot of the work at Woman Made makes me laugh; it’s a great gallery. I really loved Brenda Moore’s postcard for her new exhibition at Linda Warren Projects. I like happier work, and work that has complexity of space; I like work that has a contemporary feel and strong sense of decoration. I admire artists devoted to their vision.
Q: What are you currently reading?
A: It’s hard for me to get through The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. It’s a bit depressing and when I put it down for a couple days, I have to make myself go back to it. I almost know where it is going and I don’t want it to go there. But it’s a really good book. A lot of times I just read trashy books!
Q: If you could have lunch with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be?
A: Marcel Duchamp. I love that time in history when there was a surge of stuff going on that’s going to change the course of history. He was at the center of it, from the mastery of Nude Descending a Staircaseto the readymades. He’s also handsome; when I was younger I had a crush on him from the art books!
Interview by Kathleen Waterloo
Kathleen had an 18-year career in interior architecture in Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1996 and is currently an artist in Chicago.