Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in arts but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Whitney LaMora, Curator & Producer of The Martin, located in Chicago, IL, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
The Martin is an artist-first, full-service creative space. We function first as an art gallery and have regularly rotating exhibitions mostly highlighting Chicago-based visual artists. We also serve as an event space and a rentable, private room for any variety of events.
Our customers range from artists to passers-by to the community that we share with our neighboring businesses: Split-Rail & Dorothy. Folks who come through the space are typically there to support fellow artists, to experience an event we're throwing, or attend a private function they were invited to. We work to keep regular, free events open to the public so we can continually grow the community and expand our reach, especially in our neighborhood of West Town.
Tell us about yourself
I've been creative since my childhood. I was so eager to expand my brain and my world that I taught myself to read by memorizing stories my parents would read to me at bedtime, which only grew into an obsession with stories. This later led to me finding performance, and I pursued the art of acting through college. It's what eventually led me to find my roots in Chicago.
After graduating college, I moved to Chicago in 2009 to pursue acting in our vibrant storefront theatre scene. I chased that path for the first six years I was here until I sought out creation on my own terms and broke away from the audition hustle to chase my own visions. This led to creating my own production company, devising and hosting events, and renting spaces throughout the city to throw the events. The rental process was a chore, communication sucked, promises weren't kept - you name it. It eventually led me to pursue my path to opening my own creative space, now known as The Martin.
I opened The Martin in Humboldt Park in June of 2018 and ran the endeavor in the DIY event & performance scene until COVID-19 hit us in March 2020. I gave up the storefront by July and remained closed until given the opportunity to reopen in a new location in June of 2021. The Martin is now a mid-tier gallery and event space attached to a restaurant my partner owns called Split-Rail. We share community, work, and events across both businesses daily.
I truly never thought I could create an independent creative lifestyle for myself and get the direct opportunity to directly influence emerging artists in our city - so the thrill of that continues to drive me daily. I know my position is unique, and I've worked hard to get here- so the desire to keep it going, to continue to have a creative playspace of my own, and to provide for the community that has developed here (especially as a safe space for queer artists) is what allows me to keep going on the hardest of weeks.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
Reopening after COVID. I didn't have a direct path or plan - my heart was completely shattered after so abruptly closing due to the pandemic, and after working for years to open the space and to only dream about that - I struggled to reorient myself and try to dream for something new. When my partner Zoe and her business partner Michelle approached me pitching the idea of constructing The Martin into the restaurant space I had worked in leading up to the pandemic, it was an overwhelming opportunity that seemed impossible to imagine. I had a lot of emotional ties to the previous space, lost a lot of my community, and didn't have a vision for 2.0, but I agreed and went for it, and I am proud to say that The Martin has now been reopened for a year and two months and I've learned, grown, and changed so much.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
The loneliness of it. I'm fortunate that my partner is also a business owner, and we work together daily- but our jobs are often completely separate in function, execution, and location. I find a lot of loneliness in the stress of it all, in the physical execution of it all, and even in the excitement or in the idea phase when it's all just bouncing around my head. I don't really ever "clock out," both mentally and physically, so that can take a lonely toll. It's important to surround yourself with people who not only understand but who want to take care of you along the way - and who can give you accurate advice on how to handle an endless variety of situations.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Ask a lot of questions.
- Do it right. Whether that's in the legal sense, the proper sense, or just the way you really want it to be - commit to it.
- Trust your instincts.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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