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Creator of safe haven for women, nonbinary artists in Chicago

Beate Minkovski says her art is “too in your face.” Through various sculptures and canvases, her message was always clear, direct and uncompromising. Her work was too controversial to be displayed at a university library, which forced Minkovski to rent a separate building to showcase her college senior project.

“The controversy, for instance, we had the Virgin Mary on a pedestal. And next to the Virgin Mary was the sex blow up doll that was man made in China,” Minkovski said.  “The show was called ‘Man Made Women.’ Everything from the Barbie Doll — even though the Barbie doll was made by a woman — but our culture is man-made”

A photo of “Two Perfect Women” by Hensen and Minkovski from the first exhibit at Woman Made Gallery. | Photo courtesy of WMG Website.

After previously living in Germany and later moving to the U.S., Minkovski opened Woman Made Gallery in Chicago in 1992 with her friend Kelly Hensen, another controversial artist. They cultivated their first exhibit with art that represented the control men have on the societal perception of women’s culture. 

Minkovski left Germany after finding out she was pregnant. She married and came to Chicago to start a life for her five children. Her youngest kid was 11 years old when Minkovski went back to school. At 44 years old, she accepted a scholarship to complete her Bachelor of Art at Northeastern Illinois University. 

As she now approaches 80, she reflected on the humble beginnings of WMG. She recalled the hoops she jumped through to make ends meet to the bagels she sold to keep the business running. Hensen and Minkovski owned WMG for only six months before Hensen decided to leave.

“Kelly left the first year because she said, ‘We’re supposed to make art’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m selling bagels to help with the rent and you can’t make any sawdust,’” Minkovski said. 

Hensen was focused on the art while Minkovski wanted to explore the opportunities she could open for women artists in Chicago.

Minkovski gives a tour of WMG during the 25th International Open Exhibition. | Photo by Maya Liquigan.

Their split did not diminish the spirit of WMG. The response to their  call for art for WMG avalanched with like-minded women artists. The gallery was able to host regular exhibitions covering different topics including aging, breast cancer, war and domestic violence. Since 1992 they have shown art from more than 9,000 women and nonbinary artists in 460 exhibitions.

Minkovski learned to work with a village of different women who were devoted to the gallery’s purpose. She served on the Board of Directors at WMG from 1992 to 2014 before retiring. The gallery has faced problems that have pulled Minkovski out of retirement four times. Even after the board voted to close the gallery, Minkovski ensured that the gallery would not close if she had anything to do with it.

Now, she worries about the future of the gallery. 

 “I don’t know how long I’ll live,” Minkovski said. “Is it then over?… I think it has helped so many people.” 

While she slowly rebuilds the foundation of the gallery, she devotes her time to inspiring the new and passionate staff members. She creates connections with the interns by teaching them everything she knows. Astrid Houze de l’Aulnoit started as an intern at WMG. Minkovski taught her how to hammer a nail to a wall.

Originally from France, Houze de l’Aulnoit has been interning at WMG for a year and a half. She is studying art history and currently serves as the membership and volunteer coordinator. Working directly with Minkovski has changed her perspective on the value of art.

“As much as I’ve always loved art, this really adds a new component to why I love art so much,” Houze de l’Aulnoit said. “Seeing that it is feasible and doable to only focus on the mission or the story, and not just the monetary perspective of art, which I really appreciate it.”

Houze de l’Aulnoit plans to stay part of the WMG family. Coming from a younger perspective, she is able to deeply appreciate the impact WMG has had on the art community. Houze de l’Aulnoit said it is  unbelievable that her friends in France are learning about WMG in school while studying art history.

Minkovski has always made it a priority to inspire the next generation of women and artists. Marisa Miles, a member of the Board of Directors at WMG, started as an intern. Through the years, she’s been a valued member of the board and has had Minkovski as her mentor and close friend.

“I still learn a lot about art from her, about running a nonprofit,” Miles said. 

Beate Minkovski describes a piece entitled “Thoughts” by Melissa English Campbell in a recent exhibit at Woman Made Gallery. | Photo by Maya Liquigan.

Miles is originally from Baltimore but has a special kind of love for Chicago. She feels like Minkovski’s story as an immigrant is a representation of the power and beauty of Chicago. She admires how people of different backgrounds are able to make opportunities for themselves.

WMG sits at 1332 S. Halsted St. where they continue to carry out their mission statement to, “support, cultivate, and promote the diverse contributions of women and nonbinary artists,” through workshops and exhibitions. 

Minkovski works with the board and the interns to ensure that there will always be a space for women artists in Chicago. She hopes that the home she made for women in the art community will thrive as they still have more work to do.

The newest exhibition at WMG is titled “Down There” and is on display until May 11. The exhibition explores the historically taboo ideas of the vagina and is part of what makes WMG stand out against other galleries in Chicago. 

“Can I say it is my ego?” Minkovski said. “If the time comes that this has to close, then so be it. I don’t think the time has come. Look at what’s happening in the country. Many of the themes that we have can’t even be shown at a commercial gallery! You can’t sell it. Are you gonna sell a bunch of vaginas?”

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