words • Jake Krez
images • Joe Lu
On a bright Saturday morning in late fall, local curator and supporter of the arts Ciera McKissick is living her best life. Perched at a desk set atop the three-foot tall stage that sits prominently in the gallery space she has called home for the last year, she waves to neighborhood kids and chats with passerby who stop in for a moment in between tapping away at a laptop, often with a phone tucked between her shoulder and ear. As the owner and operator of AMFM Gallery in Pilsen, McKissick has offered an outlet for artistic expression and helped to establish her a unique corner of the scene actively participating in the Chicago Renaissance.
Since opening her physical space just over a year ago, AMFM, which first began as an online publication has since evolved into a welcome nucleus for the city’s consistently bubbling music and arts scene to have space and organizers to help put their work forward.
At 28, McKissick has existed in the presence of creation for the majority of her adult life, beginning with early curations and reporting on her hometown scene in Milwaukee.
“The Gallery speaks to the testament of that need for a space for artists and people who want to do shows and produce and curate,” explained McKissick in her characteristically cheery mood. “Starting out, I was doing pop-ups everywhere which was a blessing in disguise because even though I didn’t have that home base it allowed me to kind of hop around the city and get to know different spaces and do collaboraitons and partnerships with other spaces but also get people to go to different sides of town that they wouldn’t go to and bring people along with me.”
The passion for turning others onto one another manifested itself quickly upon her arrival in Chicago. Her monthly jazz series, now one of the brand’s marquee events, was also one of her first, finding humble beginnings as a traveling showcase. The popularity of that monthly, combined with McKissick’s consistent presence and helping hand in various associated and similar galleries and projects across the city, combined with the online presence of AMFM, did much to raise her profile around her adopted hometown.
A couple of years in, and with a healthy community in her periphery, McKissick decided it was time to find a space to call home.
After a lengthy search and some stressful math, she settled into her current location, a cozy, spacious storefront just east from the corner of Leavitt & 21st in a decidedly residential enclave of Pilsen. Knowing the disposition of Chicago neighborhoods, McKissick immediately went about ingratiating herself with those around her by knocking on doors for introductions, inviting her neighbors over for parties and cookouts and generally doing what she does best: becoming an integral part of her surroundings.
“It’s been super cool, its definitely not without its like hiccups and stuff. Any time you have a space coming into a neighborhood its super important to try to not be this foreign object or person in the neighborhood that’s been here for so long. I was really intentional in trying to talk to my neighbors and introduce them to who I was,” said McKissick. “The guys on the corner they’ve been there with their family store forever and they kind of look out for us but they also keep me in check too. It’s just having that sense of camaraderie but also its important they keep me in check too because this is all new to me, I’ve just turned into a business owner and stuff and when you have a bunch of people come to your space you have to think about that and the space and the safety of the neighborhood.”
Nowadays, the jazz series continues to make appearances around the city, generating a reputation as one of the more important ground-floor events for the scene in a city known for the founding of the genre. It’s also but one of the many plates that McKissick spins on a daily basis. Whether it’s putting together performances, concepting galleries, updating her website or simply getting out into new places and spaces to interact with the rest of the creatives in her periphery, the comfortable Chicago transplant is seemingly always in motion somehow.
At the core of her hustle is an innate sense, to serve a purpose both in her own creation and the ideas of others. In today’s age, talking is a depreciated commodity. In the era of social media, anyone can craft an image in the likeness of their choosing, often choosing the ideas of community building and adding to the culture as chest-thumping diatribes. Unlike the hordes of keyboard heroes and internet posers, McKissick is doing the kind of work that many wish they could. The authenticity that’s apparent the moment she steps into a space she’s curated or helped produce is underlined by the fact that she’s doing it for all the right reasons.
“You have your fans and your friends and stuff that follows you or fucks with your brand and stuff but I’m trying to reach outside of that realm and really have these rippling effects and curation is super important to that,” McKissick said. “It’s a lot of people coming in and giving space to people because that’s one of the main things: it’s affordable, you can anything from a listening party to a yoga class to an art show, a crazy concert. Its just been that free for all where if you have a good idea I want to help you bring it to fruition.”
This past weekend, McKissick hosted a panel of creatives at a cozy pub on the city’s north side. With a crowd gathered as part of the annual Chicago International Movies & Music Festival (CIMMFEST), she guided listeners through a panel of guests I was lucky enough to find myself a part of, along with Sean CK, Tara Mehadevan and rapper Matt Muse. For her part, McKissick was a welcome lead to thread together the varying sides represented for the event, aptly titled ‘The Chicago Music Renaissance’. Whereas many who identify a golden age, renaissance or some other period in time because of the art being created, often forgotten are those who provide the spaces and opportunities for that work to be showcased and integrated to the larger framework of the scene or city it’s come to represent. In many ways, McKissick and AMFM Gallery are proving to be just that for a scene that has been at the forefront of exciting new art and music for the better part of the last decade.
To ask her though, it’s all just another day.
“With all the connections and all the building and growth, I just love supporting other artists and want to be able to write about them too. It’s crazy because this is a dream come true and we’re now sitting in this space, having the gallery and the venue space definitely catapulted it to another level. On one side it’s trying to do hella events and then on the other side its trying to keep the magazine up and going, its just all about balance though.”