photo: omar robles

From Willy Chyr's "Systems/Process" at High Concept Laboratories.

If a place where career artists from painters to pianists to puppeteers can seek fully funded workspace and pro-consultation while simultaneously expanding their networks sounds too good to be true (or a bit like gratis art school) that’s because it is—but only to a degree. Birthed in 2009 by Kevin Simmons in collaboration with fellow performing artist Molly Feingold, High Concept Laboratories is Chicago’s premier for-artists by-artists creative incubator. And, while the hefty applicant pool keeps just any old dreamer from ditching the day job to finish that novel, High Concept Laboratories offers a residency as no-strings as it is no-frills to any artist whose project lights peaks their interest.

photo: matt hollis


Physically, High Concept Laboratories is little more than a warehouse. Nestled just north of Goose Island between the Chicago River and I-94, HCL’s brown brick headquarters boasts two levels of wide-open legroom. "I worked in collaborative theatre," says Feingold, who Simmons selected to be HCL's first managing artistic director. "Space was extremely important, because we were creating our work on our feet." Though Simmons originally launched HCL to address Chicago’s dearth of performing arts residencies, it wasn’t long before he and Feingold opened the doors to other art forms. Today, a stroll through High Concept Laboratories might reveal a string quartet, dance troupe, sculptor, and film crew all at work on various projects.

"It’s growing every season," says Feingold. "We get 35 to 40 applicants per [four month] season, and take one of every discipline—it ends up being nine to twelve."

photo: matt hollis


Michael Golas of Exit Ghost—the first-ever rock band to track an album at HCL—recalls the space with giddy incredulity. "It’s as far from a studio as you could get." Discouraged by the prospect of buying studio time for their follow-up to 2010's Pony Soldier, Golas & co. set up shop at HCL in May. "The Inconvenience, a really incredible dance troupe, was upstairs. For the last two weeks of [our residency], there was constant stomping and running around, which was actually great." And he doesn't mean that sarcastically. HCL’s hyper-urban setting, including the echoes of the dancers upstairs, only enhanced Exit Ghost's DIY recording sessions. "That area is industrial. There’s garbage trucks, fire trucks, ambulances constantly screaming by, so there’s almost white noise on some of the quieter tracks."

photo: Ryan Bourque

Exit Ghost at High Concept Laboratories.

On top of housing seasonal artists-in-residence, HCL uses its headquarters as a social arena for artists and audiences alike, hosting culture talks, open houses, seasonal exhibitions, and, on occasion, a Valentine’s Day square dance. "We try and make a comfortable living room environment and invite people to come get engaged," says Feingold. "We do events that bring the community together."

Photo: Omar Robles

Willy Chyr's solo show, "Systems/Process," at High Concept Laboratories.

Art talks and Valentine’s galas aside, High Concept Laboratories’ most outstanding feat is financial: They fund the arts in an economy increasingly unsupportive of creation. HCL’s flagship Sponsored Projects Program has funded over 150 projects in the past five years, including Theatre Seven’s entire 2012-13 season and the aforementioned choreographic/culinary collab by The Inconvenience and Chef Jeremy Leven.

"We are project-based," says Feingold. "So, while we do consider the artistic merit of each artist in our review process, we are looking for projects that we feel will benefit from our services in particular."

And benefit they do. Having wrapped production at High Concept Laboratories, Michael Golas has nothing but praise for the operation: "It’s a beautiful opportunity to converse with your collaborators and learn from one another—not being so constrained to getting in, doing a performance, and getting out. We had time to deconstruct a lot and rework things in ways I don’t think any of us anticipated.”


From Willy Chyr's "Systems/Process."

Exit Ghost will play music from their HCL-sponsored LP Elston (out November 5) at The Subterranean on September 18. Information on HCL’s fall open house forthcoming at