Chicago Gallerist Easy Otabor Is Setting His Sights on Tokyo

Art Market

Maxwell Rabb

Portrait of Isimime “Easy” Otabor. Courtesy of Anthony Gallery.

When Isimeme “Easy” Otabor decided to open his own space on the West Side of Chicago, he thought that the name “Easy Gallery” didn’t have the right ring to it. Instead, the multi-hyphenate gallerist found a name that resonated closer to home: Anthony Gallery. The name honors his late father, who passed away during Otabor’s youth, and would also serve as a reminder of the ethos that continues to characterize the gallery today.

“Just dealing with the pain, [naming the gallery Anthony Gallery] helped me out,” Otabor told Artsy from his home in Chicago. “I hear his name every day. I see his name every day. I write his name just about every day. Anthony Gallery…it’s a constant reminder [that] this is bigger than me. This is bigger than just one person, just one artist. It’s like a community thing and a forever thing for me.”

Now, five years since it was founded, the gallery—now an established name in the Windy City’s art scene—will soon embark on perhaps its boldest step yet: a new outpost in Tokyo’s fashionable Shibuya neighborhood, earmarked to open later in 2024.

Installation view of “Goosebumps” at Anthony Gallery, 2023. Courtesy of Anthony Gallery.

For Otabor, the ambitious expansion is anchored by a commitment to inspiring dialogues between artists from his hometown and their global peers, and vice versa. “I want to be making it an even playing field for a lot of these artists in Chicago,” Otabor said.

After all, Anthony Gallery is a product of Chicago’s community-driven art scene, which thrives on a DIY mentality. Otabor grew up in Chicago, briefly attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and then, worked at concept retailer RSVP Gallery, founded by legendary Chicago designers Virgil Abloh and Don Crawley. He opened his apparel brand Infinite Archives in 2015 before entering the art world with the aim of making the art he was interested in more accessible in Chicago.

“Prioritizing connection and widening the net for contemporary arts engagement has always been important to me,” Otabor explained of his decision. “Our roots are different from a more traditional space in that Anthony Gallery developed from my previous endeavors in fashion and entertainment. I’d like to think of [the gallery] as a sort of bridge between all of the realms of art and culture in Chicago; a space where all are welcome to begin or sustain their contemporary art journeys.”

Anthony Gallery first opened at the brink of the pandemic in February 2020, presenting its inaugural public show, “1988,” a reference to the famous NBA All-Star game (which has a legendary status among fans for Michael Jordan’s performance), and featuring all-star artists such as Ana Benaroya, En Iwamura, and Sterling Ruby. The show underscored Otabor’s knack for weaving together Chicago’s artist community, including Tony Lewis and Chicago-born Sayre Gomez.

“I still consider Anthony Gallery’s journey to be in its early days,” Otabor told Artsy. “In the very beginning, though, it was all about going with my gut and staying true to the nascent gallery’s mission, even in the face of uncertainty. There was so much I didn’t know. I committed myself to taking the student approach—every day was a learning opportunity.”

The gallery has come to exhibit artists such as Alvin Armstrong, Barbara Kruger, and Nikko Washington, and has continued to grow its standing in the Chicago art scene, moving into a more expansive venue in the Fulton Market district on Chicago’s West Side in 2023. A landmark for the gallery came in 2022 when it collaborated with the artist Theaster Gates’s Rebuild Foundation—an initiative devoted to uplifting Black histories and communities in Chicago’s South Side.

The gallery hosted a residency with the organization, staging six exhibitions at its headquarters, the Stony Island Arts Bank. “This series of exhibitions provided a beautiful opportunity to bring so many walks of Chicago life together and collaborate with an organization,” Otabor said. The final exhibition in the series, “Come As You Are,” featured work from Chicago-based artists like Adeshola Makinde, Rashid Johnson, and Chase Hall, among many others.

“The opportunity to further engage and celebrate a historically neglected sector of Chicago’s vibrant arts community was once in a lifetime, no doubt,” Otabor said. “The work Theaster Gates has done with that space is brilliant, and I feel grateful to have contributed to its mission.”

Now, as Otabor prepares for his next chapter in Tokyo, the foundation it has laid in Chicago remains a solid base both physically and in its philosophy. The gallerist emphasizes that his approach in moving to the Japanese capital will mirror the one he has taken in his hometown. “I want to make sure when I come to someone else’s city and community that I’m also uplifting their community as well, and their artists as well,” he added.

While that move is on the more distant horizon, this month will see the gallery revive its 2022 “Come As You Are” group exhibition with “Come One Come All,” gathering the artists integral to its story and mission, including Issy Wood, Arthur Jafa, and Lauren Halsey. Simultaneously, it will host a solo exhibition by 30-year-old artist Michael C. Thorpe at EXPO Chicago 2024, which opens on April 11th.

As the gallery continues its expansion, Otabor remains a champion of the town whose creative community has led him to where he is today. “I’m partial to this city, of course, because I grew up here—but I mean it when I say that Chicago is one of the world’s greatest incubators for creatives of all kinds,” he said.

Maxwell Rabb

Maxwell Rabb is Artsy’s Staff Writer.

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