Run by Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam
EL: Is the entire project funded out of the economy of your household? Or do you have other sources of funding?
MG: No other funding at all. We underwrite the whole project out of our personal income. That said, sometimes european artists can get state funding for their projects.
The Suburban offers very little in real estate, but it looms large as a site that believes in artists and their ideas. Ideally we hope The Suburban is comparable to the proverbial sketchbook. We frame projects at The Suburban as a logical extension of artist’s studio practices—a site where artists negotiate every raw and refined aspect of an idea. No curator, no preparator, no dealer, no money. The Suburban offers a small audience of intelligent and articulate viewers. It also comes with safety features such as its proximity to our home complete with kids and a yard. And of course it is located in the unfashionable suburb, a site not conducive to avant-garde activities. Most simply, The Suburban is an argument that favors artists and their thinking, not their careers.
The two of us— Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam—founded The Suburban in 1999 because The Suburban is certainly a child of institutional critique. Unlike many of today’s so-called alternative or independent spaces that are cloaked in careerist pursuits, we here at the Suburban are old school and old (literally, as we were art schooled in the 1980s and ’90s), and we are gratefully imprinted with the virtues of critique. Yet pragmatics also plays a large part in The Suburban. It is built into the economics and daily life of a working household. Beginning our tenth year, we have initiated over 125 projects.
Ten Years Later
As 2009 marks The Suburban’s tenth year, it also marks the beginnings of a new, although similar project for us. The Poor Farm, located in the farmlands of Central Wisconsin, will take on the role of The Suburban’s rural cousin. Here we will mount yearlong exhibitions in its many varied spaces. The Poor Farm structure also hosts a massive dormitory building were artists and writers can visit for extended lengths of time.
A product of the nineteenth-century American Poor Farm System, a social establishment modeled after the English almshouses, our Poor Farm was erected in Waupaca County in 1876. Historically these were county government–supported institutions. As an alternative to indentured labor, these working farms were populated with the region’s destitute until approximately 1935 when the Social Security Act was established, marking the decline and ultimate dissolutions of the American Poor Farm system. During its time poor farm residents were assigned inmate status and required to work under strict conditions for minimal living accommodations. The Waupaca County Poor Farm has a jail in the basement and a cemetery in the back cornfield, underscoring the social and economic complex comprising the poor farm system.
Like The Suburban, The Poor Farm will be dedicated to artists. In a recent interview we stated that, “we believe in artists and we believe in the imagination.” We also happen to delight in and value our midwestern, middle class, middle-age life with a mortgage and three kids. Voila: The Suburban. So now we have two mortgages and a place in the country where we can further negotiate our beliefs, share our resources, and widen a space for artists and other curious minds.
An Essay on growing up in the Suburban by Peter Ribic:
One of the first things my Advanced Placement European History teacher, who I have grown to thoroughly respect, said to us, came in a class discussion about about the children of historical figures. "I want each of you to go home and thank your parents for not being artists," she said. "The children of artists are the ones who lose their minds, fall into madness or commit suicide, and I wouldn't want any of you to turn out that way."
Her commentary was obviously striking: I am not only the child of two artists, but I am constantly surrounded by art and its supplementary activities (its viewing, selling, and making). The nucleus of this part of my life lies in the tiny yellow building formerly attached to my garage. My parents call it The Suburban.
The Suburban is a social perculiarity that I have not yet learned to cope with. Since its conception in my preteens, The Suburban has created a varying array of effects on my life, the majority being positive. I have dissected my entire record collection with a British artist named Simon, I have shared fruity non-alcoholic drinks with my friend Sam at a fully functional tiki-bar-cum-art-installation, and developed to some degree, an understanding of what constitutes contemporary art.
However, life within intimate proximity to an art gallery is not entirely beneficial for a self-conscious teenager and his ten-year old brother. While awkwardness does arise when sharing a house with half-a-dozen large, unshaven Scandinavians, the major difficulty of living with The Suburban is explaining the idea and function of it to the more tradtionally "suburban" mothers of my friends.
"Were your parents throwing a party at your house on Saturday?"
Yes, it was an art opening."
At this point I try to convince her that The Suburban is a serious pursuit of my parents, and that is has a "real" significance in the art-world. What this significance is I do not know.
Among my peers, The Suburban has brought me neither recognizable fame, (I can't imagine "My garage is also an art gallery" would serve as a successful pick-up line) nor overwhelming scorn. My general rule is to discuss the gallery and its work only with close friends or those who question what "The Suburban" means on our household's telephone answering machine prompt. My reasoning for this is simple; debates about the artistic merit of a fictional Swedish Citizen Recruitment Center are not something I enjoy taking part in, let alone fully understanding.
Because of The Suburban and my parents' choice of career and life style, I have seen and learned to appreciate art on levels unknown to my peers. From Marfa, Texas, to Budapest, I have traveled the world to see it. I have eaten bratwurst in my yard with those who make it. I have traded my bedroom away for weeks to Englishmen for duty-free tubes of Toblerone chocolate. For this uncommon exposure, it should have been the request of my history teacher to come home and thank my parents for becoming artists.