With our second Lillstreet interview we thought it best to introduce you to Gallery Director, Brian Malnassy. He's spent a large portion of his creative career growing and learning at Lillstreet. His passion for the art center shines through every conversation. It was truly wonderful watching the excitement across Brian's face as he shared stories and memories while walking us through the space. After observing all the energy we can't wait to see what else he will create and grow in this inspirational environment.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.
My name is Brian Malnassy and I am the Gallery Director at Lillstreet Art Center. I’ve worked at Lillstreet for 11 years (basically as long as I’ve lived in Chicago) and have had many different roles within the company. My job consists of a lot: I curate 3 exhibition programs and co-curate the sales gallery (along with Michelle Brooks), work on artist commissions, talk with customers and students, do community outreach, sales, and a bunch other things. I actually went to college for contemporary classical music composition (composer) and graduated with a Bachelors in Music, not fine art. I have learned everything about ceramics and art through my time at Lillstreet. Along with being a musician, I am also a ceramic artist/potter. I currently have a ceramic studio at Lillstreet. 

Walk us through a typical day in the life of Brian.
I’m the early one, I wake up around 7 every day, have breakfast and quiet time with my cats, then walk to work. When I get to work, I like to check-in with people and see what everyone is working on. Then the emails. Then packing and shipping work. Then sales floor. Then meetings. Then maybe a tour. If I see a collector or student, I always go talk to them. I literally stop what I’m doing and talk to anyone that shows interest in artwork. Honestly, I’m all over the place sometimes and my colleagues reign me in when needed. There is no typical day for me at Lillstreet which is one of the many reasons I love it.


Where do you find inspiration?
It’s not hard to find inspiration for me, as a curator and artist, because I’m surrounded by art, incredible people/artists, and conversation. I regularly have long conversations about the current state of art and craft and that gets my wheels spinning. 

I also find inspiration through the music I listen to. I don’t typically listen to popular music (although I am currently in love with Chance The Rapper, thanks Michelle, and that is a common office jam) and listen to mostly contemporary classical music. For example, I’ve been listening to John Cage’s “Thirteen Harmonies”  a lot this year and it helped me with the layout for a minimalist exhibition that featured two ceramic artists who work in porcelain -- which mirrors the two instruments’ relationship (keyboard and violin). Classical music is in my marrow and fuels my passion for all other forms of art. Not a lot of people know how “musical” I make my job but I relate a lot of what I do back into my musical vernacular and imagination. 

How do you make time for creativity and collaboration?
It’s necessary. I don’t live in a vacuum. I don’t live in the middle of nowhere. I don’t make time for it, I have to do it. Maybe I’m one of those people who is always “on” and is constantly thinking of the next creative thing (whether that be in my job or my own ceramics practice). Being at Lillstreet and living in Chicago, I would literally have to tune-out my surroundings to stop the creative ideas from coming to mind.

What tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started?

  • Get started: if you say you want to do something, then do it. Whether you are gathering data/information or you hit the ground running, just take the first step as soon as you are ready.
  • Get educated, like really educated. If you are truly passionate about something, this should be extremely enjoyable and satisfying.
  • Don’t give excuses: they are tools for the weak. Be responsible. 
  • Be professional: make a schedule and keep it (even for something as simple as emailing, set aside time every work day to answer emails, I can’t stress this enough). 
  • Be open to change. I’m actually a routine-based person but working at a place like Lillstreet has made me a more flexible person (at work at least). Not every day is the same, adapt.

Who is your role model, and why?
Well, this is tough. I would say it has to be two people but they kind of overlap: John Cage and Peter Voulkos. The composer John Cage is one of the most influential composers of all time (he’s that dude who wrote that piece where the orchestra is silent for almost 5 minutes, 4’33”). The guy was brilliant and his music encompasses everything: humor, intellect, beauty, the unknown, dissonance, etc. The other is Peter Voulkos who is mostly known for his impact on the ceramic arts, from his early ornate functional pots to his incredibly heavy crusty visceral stacks and platters. Both Cage and Voulkos attended the historic Black Mountain College. Why are they my role models? Because they are fucking fearless, brilliant, truly original, and unapologetic.  

What keeps you motivated and making?
Watching my peers, Instagram (yeah I said it), keeping my eyes clear and my ears open. Within my own ceramic practice, I continually experiment. I push my work forward and take a lot of big risks (often pushing too far). Also, I talk with a few of my very close friends who are incredible artists and they inspire me through their work. And my girlfriend who has seen me change from a music career to a career in the arts. She supports all of my eccentricities and knowing I can come home to that makes a big difference in how I approach my own work. 

How important is it for you to give back to the community?
Community is everything at Lillstreet. The support I’ve received from this place is overwhelming. So I do everything I can to give back in whatever way I can. I act as a bridge between artist and venue (whether that be at a fundraiser, art fair, store, restaurant, etc.). One of the most satisfying things I am working on currently is I partnering up with Project Fire via ArtReach (Lillstreet’s sister not-for-profit organization). Project Fire “is an artist development employment program that offers healing through glassblowing, combining glass arts education, mentoring, and trauma psychoeducation to support trauma recovery and create jobs for youth injured by violence.” ArtReach approached me about giving a lecture on entrepreneurship and pricing artwork. I went down to the old firehouse where they are located and started talking with them. I quickly realized I COULD DO SOMETHING TO HELP. “So where do you sell the stuff you make?” I asked. The group didn’t really have a concrete answer. I told them that I would sell their glass wares in our highly successful holiday show and instead of giving them the normal artist/gallery split, we would give them a much higher split. I am also at the very beginning stages of potentially selling work that funds a scholarship fund for kids to take art classes at Lillstreet. 

In short, I would say it isn’t important to give back to the community, it’s a responsibility. 


You wear many creative hats-do you have a favorite?
Educator (which I consider a creative hat). I love getting people educated and passionate about clay. It is literally my favorite thing to do. I dare you to talk to me about clay and NOT get into it. I don’t think it’s possible for me to “reign it in” when talking about ceramics. I feel like I have this weird ability to make people interested in this material and community in a way that is fun and educational. 

If you weren’t doing this what else would you do?
I have truly considered becoming a sommelier. I had a very close friend who recently passed away that wanted to open a wine store with me. I feel like it would be similar to working with artists and art. Get to know the producer and their mission, get to know the product, fall in love with said product, help others fall in love with the product. 

What do you do in your free time?
When I am not in the gallery or in the studio, I try to spend time with my girlfriend. This is going to sound corny but we really like going on long walks and going to antique and resale shops. I also love grocery stores. A lot, I love grocery stores a lot. Hence, I love cooking. I especially like cooking for my friends. Other than that, I spend time composing and playing piano…..and playing with my cats.

Photography by Mike Killion and Olivia Ozner