So You Wanna Run an Art Festival.

Tips and tricks from the director of 2nd Floor Rear
2nd Floor Rear Director Katie Waddell

One of the toughest parts of being an artist is navigating the creative culture in your city and figuring out how to promote yourself. Chicago has become somewhat famous for having a culture of underground apartment galleries that pop up and fade every few years—a beautifully ephemeral aspect of contemporary art-making that’s made many spaces and projects difficult to reach, but alluring nonetheless. More often than not, these fly-by-night projects are part of an in-the-know kind of scene, where you have to know somebody to get in, there’s no sign visible from the street, and there’s a slight chance the whole thing was organized by an art school dropout moonlighting as a self-proclaimed DJ. But if you’re not one of the cool kids, there is still hope. Once a year the doors to some of these mystical places fly open and the public is ushered in—all thanks to 2nd Floor Rear’s annual arts festival.

From noon February 1st until noon February 2nd, Chicagoans can visit a series of these apartment galleries, ephemeral projects and obscure performances in 2nd Floor Rear’s annual 24-hour festival. 2nd Floor Rear is unique for a couple of obvious reasons, the first being that it happens in the dead of the winter, and secondly, the festival goes for a full 24-hours, nonstop. Lastly, it’s not like your usual street festival; all performances, exhibitions, and projects happen in DIY spaces, making this fest less of a street spectacle, and more like a secret too good to keep.

Director Katie Waddell started 2nd Floor Rear when she and other do-it-yourself Chicago curators recognized the impossibility of sustaining DIY spaces in the current economy. Running apartment galleries themselves, they witnessed firsthand the difficulties of balancing business needs with a desire to innovate.

“Chicago’s art scene suffers from mid-career flight because Chicago lacks resources for financially sustaining professional artists… I wanted to find a way to re-frame these purported weaknesses as specific characteristics, and in so doing, celebrate Chicago’s DIY art scene for what it is: a creative incubator the  strength of which is in constant flux.”

After researching some little-known avant-garde art collectives, movements and groups in art history, Waddell discovered the Neoists, who ran an international apartment festival called “APT.” The 24-hour timeline was inspired by Mainx24, another one-day-only neighborhood festival that happens annually in Chattanooga, TN. In 2011, Waddell fused these two festival structures into something a little more Chicago-style, and aptly named 2nd Floor Rear after an apartment address that’s common among many buildings in Chicago.

“2nd Floor Rear is an effort to unpack the possibilities and potentials inherent in obscurity and ephemerality. It’s an attempt to celebrate the idea that, before buying and selling, cultural production is always primarily an act of making and sharing.”

The first year, Waddell’s main goal was to just make the festival happen. The bulk of festival production is establishing the overall framework, so if you’re planning to attempt such a feat, take the following questions into consideration:

  • Who should be included? How do we decide?
  • What is the standard for each participating group/event/performance?
  • How you expand the network of audience members and participants beyond your own friends?
  • How much essential funding do you need and how much of your own money are you willing to invest?
  • Will your event collide or collaborate with other cultural events?


Each year, 2nd Floor Rear puts out a call for proposals for DIY projects in Chicago, specifically to artists and organizations working on the northwest side of the city. Thanks to a $2000 grant from the Propeller Fund, Waddell was able to waive a participation fee, hire a designer, a photographer and an intern to assist with the marketing, production and documentation of the festival. Having some volunteers to post fliers, do crafty manual labor (in Waddell’s case, folding brochures and making pennant banners), help participants with installations and assist producers run errands, will make your life as a festival director a heck of a lot easier.

By staying connected with friends and acquaintances working in other Chicago institutions and art scenes, Waddell is able to broaden the network of participating artists, performers and curators beyond her initial SAIC group. She is constantly seeking recommended contact referrals and researching local arts organizations and projects happening in her neighborhood. By attending various neighborhood association meetings, Waddell was able to reach other artists and spaces she wasn’t already familiar with. She says the key to her networking success is “ … generally keeping my eyes peeled or jumping on an opportunity to attend events I normally wouldn’t. And, intense Internet stalking.”

To market the actual event, 2nd Floor Rear’s strategy is to promote via social media, word of mouth, fliers and press releases.

“I also strongly encourage participants to market their own events and tap into their own networks so the marketing is targeted, but reaches beyond my own immediate circles.”

When it comes to choosing who can play, Waddell determines the participants based on the following elements:

  • Strength and originality of the concept
  • How well-developed the proposal is (i.e., Does it look like the producers know what they are doing? Do they have access to space? Will they be self-sufficient?)
  • Uniqueness from other proposals (There are a ton of exhibition proposals)
  • Whether or not the proposal fits in with the spirit of 2nd Floor Rear


2nd Floor Rear is strategically held in the northwest Chicago neighborhoods for a couple of reasons. There are already a lot of projects centered in that area of the city, which makes those resources readily available when it comes down to organizing a string of events. This also happens to be where Waddell lives, making it easier for her to do site visits and meet with the participants.

By holding the event in February, 2nd Floor Rear avoids competing with other major cultural events that are common in the summer months like Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, The Boulevard, Logan Square Farmers Market, Tour de Fat, Logan Square Beer Festival, etc. In fact, the 2nd Floor Rear is one of very few events that happen during the winter months in Chicago.

“I think it is also more intimate than a lot of other festivals, in that you, as an audience member, actually have to enter a stranger’s home in order to attend. The events are also all individually self-produced. As the director, I set up the framework and walk away once everything is in place. 2nd Floor is really a crossover between a public festival and a series of private house parties. It transgresses the boundaries between public and private in a funny way.”

On that note about boundaries: you’re probably wondering where insurance comes into play here. Thanks to some well-considered contracts and clear guidelines, Waddell figured out a way to avoid prohibitive insurance costs and liability. Waddell drafted a written agreement that states that she, the director, is not liable for any mishaps or damage that occurs during the course of their event, and that exhibitors are participating at their own risk. This written agreement is signed by one appointee from each space and/or project, and Waddell encourages each 2nd Floor Rear participant to consider renter’s insurance.

If you want to draft up something a little more official, you can reach out to nonprofit organizations like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. This group of attorneys volunteer their time to assist individuals in the arts, musicians and creative organizations at little-to-no cost. Additionally, if you have fiscal sponsorship through Fractured Atlas, they can help negotiate event-based insurance that could save you a bundle. Just in case.

Here’s a couple additional tips straight from Waddell:

  • Start small(ish) or at least be prepared to scale back your grand ambitions. You can always start with a modest “pilot episode” inaugural festival and build out from there.
  • Trust your (and other people’s) gut(s). You’ll know something is a good idea if thinking about it makes you really excited, and you’ll really know that it’s a good idea if other people have the same reaction.
  • Start with the resources you already have.
  • Whenever possible, collaborate. It spreads out the work and responsibility. It’s also way more fun than working alone.
  • Giving things your personal attention, while more time-consuming, is almost always more effective. A personal, targeted email always trumps a generic mass email, and a face-to-face meeting always trumps a personal email.
  • Reply to all of your emails as soon as possible. Always be respectful and kind. I am guilty of failing to do these things, and have reaped the consequences. You never, never know who you will run into again or whose help you will need in the future, so don’t be a flake.


2nd Floor Rear is a 24-hour festival of art in experimental contexts, apartment galleries, and ephemeral and migrant projects, celebrating Chicago’s vibrant community of alternative and DIY art spaces.

Each February, 2nd Floor Rear connects artists with new audiences, helps underfunded and under-appreciated alternative spaces get some exposure, and enlivens a dreary winter weekend at the peak of Chicago’s bleakest season. Past artworks, events, and happenings ranged from late-night studio square dancing to a guerilla sculpture garden, a site-specific installation in an underpass, and a nomadic gallery in a handbag.

Published by CAR_Editor on Tue, 01/28/2014 - 3:46pm
Updated on Tue, 07/15/2014 - 6:53pm