Introducing ENGAGE Projects: A Conversation with Jennifer Armetta

Our Solo Show | Sharon Louden, Hasan Elahi, Edgar Arceneaux, Jean Shin, Melissa Potter, Miguel Luciano, & Alpesh Kantilal Patel | Installation Image | © ENGAGE Projects, 2021

“Change – whether we run toward it or away from it, it happens. Transitions and evolutions are all part of a new manifestation of what will be, and Aspect/Ratio Projects is changing,” reads the first line of ENGAGE Project’s latest newsletter. Members of the art community in Chicago are no strangers to the ever-shifting landscape of this thriving cultural hub. New galleries emerge as quickly as others close their doors. For better or worse, this constant and exciting evolution is what generates the pulse of the Chicago art scene. ENGAGE Projects, previously known as Aspect/Ratio Projects, is embarking on a season of shifting, developing, and changing. Ally Fouts spoke with the director, Jennifer Armetta, about what change will mean for this prominent gallery.

Ally Fouts: Bring us back to the beginning of you taking over the gallery: what did the genesis of this transition look like? 

Jennifer Armetta:It was born out of the pandemic. I was having lunch with a friend in August of 2020, we are both on the executive committee for Emerge at the MCA so we were discussing art. I missed seeing art in person, and he encouraged me to call up a gallery, see if they’re open, and go see the work. I happened to be having dinner that night around the corner from Aspect/Ratio Projects. I called up Jefferson Goddard who was in the gallery by chance, and headed over. Jefferson and I have been longtime friends, we were actually two of the founding members of Emerge. I came in and he showed me around. Then he just confessed that he was looking for a change, wanted to go back to being a curator, and likely would leave Chicago. This would result in closing the gallery or trying to find someone to take it over. I didn’t want him to close the gallery, so I said I’d help think about someone. 

Then, it struck me like a lightning bolt, why wouldn’t I do that? I had been looking for a couple of years prior to getting into something more formal in the art world. I had a gallery back in the late 90s and was a dealer for a very long time. I had wanted something more formal, but before the pandemic, there was so much travel associated with certain positions. I have two high schoolers and only a couple of years left with them in the house. But with travel restricted, I could see myself in this role.  I sat and thought about this and called him the next morning with my thirty-second elevator pitch. He said, ‘oh my gosh, I never thought you would do it, that’s why I didn’t ask.’ 

I was delighted, but there were lots of changes I wanted to make and wanted his approval of. I’m not as knowledgeable, nor am I a collector of, video art though I think it’s important. I love what Jefferson did by creating a program to support emerging video artists, it is not easy because it’s a very small market. He did a fantastic job of that and launched some wonderful people. My vision of this new program would still have video as a part of it, but move strongly into painting, photography, and sculpture, all conceptual and multidisciplinary artists. The other important element was to have both mid-career and emerging artists, because there’s synergy where they can really grow being around one another. There’s a lot of knowledge that can be shared through making those introductions. 

Every artist that I work with is completely and genuinely, a generous giving person. They’re wonderful to work with. I want to work with people that want to work with me. I’m not saying this from a place of ego, but I’m not going to beg anybody to work with me, because if that’s how the relationship starts, we’re not on the same footing. Each of the artists that we work with share the vision with me, we want to work together, and that partnership element is really important to me.

Intentional Attention | Cameron Gainer & Xie Hongdong | Installation Image | © ENGAGE Projects, 2021

AF: Sharing a vision with those you work with leads to much more fruitful relationships because you both have skin in the game. To help me imagine a timeline, when exactly did this transition begin? Additionally, how was the name ENGAGE decided?

JA: “Exactly. I hit the ground running back in late August 2020, but my official start date was November 1, 2020. I brought on a number of artists and what happened organically is that a lot of the artists that we work with either have a strong narrative in history or in science and the gesture is beautiful. I wish I could take credit for it, but it worked out that way naturally.

Engage was chosen to be the name of the gallery because it spoke directly to my core goal with the programming: to cultivate a space with active, deep engagement rather than passive viewing. When considering the importance of creating partnerships and encouraging community involvement, the term “engagement” kept surfacing. Though there are many different goals for the gallery, fostering engagement within the space was among the most prominent, so it felt right to name the gallery after this concept.

AF: Is the roster of artists going to be changing significantly or remaining the same?

JA: ​​”It’s changing significantly. We already added around ten new artists last year, and roughly seven more that we haven’t announced yet. My intention is not to have a huge roster, because I want the artists to be able to show their work often. If your roster is too extensive, the artists are only showing once every three years. I want to focus on everyone having a chance to show their work every 18 to 24 months, both by being included in a group show and having a solo show. But there is room for outliers. If you think of artists like Sharon Louden, Chris Larson, Rahaleh Filsoofi, and Rob Fischer, they often do very intense, long-term projects, so they’re not going to show every 18 to 24 months. Then there are others like Jean Alexander Frater, Adam Daley Wilson or Edra Soto, who are often quite prolific and could easily show every year.

Reform | Jean Alexander Frater | Installation Image | © ENGAGE Projects, 2021

AF: This colossal transition happened in tangent with a pandemic. What was this combination of a new career adventure beginning amongst the restrictions presented during that time like?

JA: “Honestly, it actually worked in my favor. On the one hand, everything was shut down, you couldn’t travel, which I suppose was a hindrance. On the other hand, it completely simplified things for me. I didn’t have all the distractions of art fairs or having to go to different places, and got to focus on our own place and own community. It gave me the chance to get to know the artists and focus on putting together the program. 

Our first show last year, Fever Dream, was near the beginning of December 2020. It encompassed nine artists, including Derrick Woods-Morrow, Alec Soth, David Leggett, Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Pererra, Jovan C. Speller, Nick Albertson, Cameron Gainer, Adam Daley Wilson, and a print by Nick Cave and Bob Faust, the proceeds of which were donated to the Art for Justice Fund. This group show gave me a chance to get to know artists who I wasn’t already working with and figure out the exhibition schedule through this year. Another positive result of the pandemic was having to schedule an appointment to view work in galleries. It gave me time with the collectors to talk about the work. Though openings are fun for different reasons, there’s less time actually talking about the art and getting to know the patron. I am grateful for that component of it.

Eulogy | Jovan C. Speller | Installation Image | © ENGAGE Projects, 2021

AF: It’s hard to admit that good things came from a pandemic, but a lot of people can relate to that. Especially for creatives, having the time and the space to focus without these other distractions lead to tremendous results. Thinking back to the original ethos of Aspect/Ratio Projects, what is a specific element that you’re going to prioritize holding true in this transition into ENGAGE Projects?

JA:That’s a good question. Jefferson and I feel the same way about remaining true to helping emerging artists get established and make connections, either with each other, with more established artists, or with institutions. That will definitely carry on as it’s something that I am very passionate about. From the get-go, I told Jefferson that I wanted to change the name. Aspect/Ratio refers to the height and width of a video or photograph, and since the programming changed along with the introduction of new artists, some don’t fit into the original intention or mission of the gallery. Jefferson suggested I figure out what the program looks like now and then find something that actually describes that. Our current show, Our Solo Show: Sharon Louden & Friends, encompasses our notion of helping artists connect with each other, with patrons, and with communities. Hasan Elahi, Miguel Luciano, Melissa Potter, Jean Shin, Edgar Arceneaux, and Alpesh Kantinal Patel are all artists devoted to giving back to their fellow artists and communities. We are starting our first year as ENGAGE Projects on a really nice note!

© Jennifer Armetta

Jennifer Armetta has been dedicated to supporting and advocating for artists for over 20 years. She founded her first gallery in Chicago, Jennifer Armetta Fine Art in 1996, with the goal of providing a space for educating collectors and advocating for artists. Upon moving to Los Angeles in 2000, Jennifer continued her work as an art advisor educating clients on how to build meaningful collections through supporting emerging and mid-career artists. With a focus on both private and institutional collections, Jennifer became a founding member of the MCA Chicago’s acquisition board, Emerge, in 2004. Emerge is dedicated to bringing emerging artists into the museum’s permanent collection. As programming chair on the Executive Committee of Emerge, Jennifer worked to bring opportunities to both artist’s and collectors that encouraged engagement and sparked curiosity in the arts. In 2020 Jennifer took the helm at Aspect/Ratio Projects, changing the programming to include emerging and midcareer interdisciplinary conceptual artists focused on painting, photography and sculpture. In fall of 2021 Aspect/Ratio Projects will change it’s name to ENGAGE Projects highlighting Jennifer’s personal mission of engaging with artists, communities and patrons in order to make art, and the art community, more accessible to everyone.

Jennifer has been involved with a number of boards including the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Photography, PANDAS/PANS Advocacy and Support, The Founder’s Board at Lurie Children’s Hospital, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, to name a few. 

Jennifer lives in Chicago with her two children, Jaden and Siena.