Outside The Dollar Store

Chicago’s Pedway is mostly notable for its urinal cake smell, panhandling musicians, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Over the years, though, the underground network of tunnels has inspired dozens of art projects from secret-history tours to site-specific installations. The Dollar Store, by Jennifer Mills, is a clever new performance artwork that mimics the ubiquitous discount retail shop. The grand opening last Friday was buzzing, as nearly half of the 800 displayed artworks—priced from $.99 to $5, or “less than a muffin”—sold out. There were flash auctions (a pair of Madonna-themed pieces went for $7.50) and eager customers eyeing the goods. Mills was at the register providing a signed certificate of authenticity for each “fun-sized” art object. “It’s a real bargain,” she said.

Three years ago, Mills lived in an apartment atop a dollar store in NYC. At the time she also worked for an art gallery. After hauling a trunk-load of tchotchkes to Chicago, Mills opened The Dollar Store, a project that blends her experiences.

“I make them until I can’t make them anymore,” says Mills of the items sold in the ad hoc dollar store. Like nearly no one in the commercial world, Mills makes every piece herself. Mills calls her pieces “efficient multiples.” The work may seem disposable, but each piece is original. The product line also includes postcard monoprints of celebrities and a painting by Ricardo Harris-Fuentes, cut up into roughly one-inch squares and repackaged and branded by Mills.

Although the contemporary art gallery scene seems a world away from discount stores, Mills says, “Since the recession, the class associated with dollar stores has shifted. More people are comfortable shopping in them.” Even though handfuls of cash were being exchanged at the grand opening, Mills expects to simply break even. Accessible price points, oddball trinkets, and cheap happiness—that’s enough to satisfy customers and art collectors alike.

The Dollar Store is located in the Pedway beneath the Chicago Cultural Center’s Randolph Street entrance. Hours are December 10, 5 p.m.–7 p.m.; December 11, 4 p.m.–6 p.m.; December 12, 4 p.m.–7 p.m.; December 13, 4 p.m.–7 p.m.

Jason Foumberg is Chicago’s contributing art critic.


Photograph: Jesse Butcher