Ciera Mckissick and The Ten Year Journey of AMFM

Ciera Mckissick and The Ten Year Journey of AMFM

Photo by Rena Naltsas. Ciera Mckissick, founder of AMFM.

When thinking about AMFM, DIY fans may envision the bright, popping social media pages that showcase Chicago’s newest underground artists. For others, it might be remembered as the storefront gallery in Pilsen, usually loud and filled to the brim with people, paintings, and music. And recently, some may recognize it as a name stamped onto event flyers for shows and pop ups hosted at city venues and institutions both large and small. But this multifaceted entity has a single creator and proprietor who has been fueling and evolving the organization for a full ten years. I got the chance to speak with Ciera Mckissick, founder of AMFM, about the past, present, and future of this well known and successful Chicago arts and culture enterprise.

Originally from Milwaukee, WI, Ciera started AMFM back in 2009 as a senior independent study project at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. While in a web design class for her major in journalism and mass communication, she got the idea to make an online magazine highlighting the best emerging artists that she was already familiar with on campus. As someone interested in arts and culture, but not technically a working artist herself, Ciera used her website assignment to participate and investigate the scene that she already loved so much. The name AMFM initially stood for “arts, music, fashion magazine” and the initial site featured interviews with twelve different people in multiple issues, arranged with four articles each for the arts, music, and fashion sections of the site, respectively. Of the initial project Ciera said, “I just really loved it. I got an A on the project, my professor really dug it, and I kind of continued to work with it after that.”

With the skills to run a web publication under her belt, Ciera moved to Sacramento, CA after college and continued adding to the website that she had originally created at school. Although it is more Chicago-centric to this day, Ciera explained how the original concept of AMFM was never tied down to any one geographic location: “Whenever I would travel to a new city, I would try to find out where the movers and shakers were, the artists that were doing stuff, and try to highlight them.”

She did a Sacramento issue while spending two and a half years living there, and after returning home to Milwaukee, she began to expand her work beyond its online format. Ciera described this building period, “I was trying to figure out how I could take things to the next level with AMFM, and while I was in Milwaukee, I started to do arts events, putting together different art shows and combining different music performances with them, trying to fuse together different art forms and keep people engaged at shows. I really got this bug of wanting to do events and put things together.”

As a larger city with an active arts scene that could help take AMFM to the next level, Ciera moved to Chicago in 2014. She described landing here as somewhat an accident: “I was literally only supposed to live in Chicago for a year. I was trying to think about ‘should I go to California? Should I go to San Francisco or LA? Or New York?’ But honestly I fell in love with the arts community in Chicago, and that’s generally the reason I wanted to stay. There was kind of this cultural artistic renaissance happening, and Chicago was popping in so many different regards. I definitely am grateful to have been able to be a part of that.”

The Chicago version of AMFM maintained its same online magazine format with articles and interviews, but also added ongoing events and pop ups like their Jazz Series, which showcased artwork alongside musical performances at galleries and spaces across the city. A landmark change for the organization happened in 2016, when Ciera opened the first AMFM storefront gallery space in Pilsen.

“That just really catapulted things to a completely different level. We had a home base, and a lot of people were hearing about AMFM for the first time because of the space” Ciera said.

The grand opening was a success, and the gallery was booked every weekend after the launch. The storefront area served as the main gallery and performance space for events, and the back had four resident artists in studio spaces. Resident poets, visual artists, and musicians were able to utilize the space for their art form, and the gallery also housed a private living space that Ciera stayed in for multiple months at a time. Soon, the AMFM team was growing with regular volunteers, interns, and residents that all helped maintain the brand and supervise the ongoing events and showcases.

Ciera describes the operation of AMFM, “What I try to do with AMFM is ride the line between DIY and an official kind of business. I like the ideas and ideals of DIY space and how radical it is, bringing people together and doing things grassroots and stuff, but also being able to work with these different organizations and on the caliber of some of the work that we were doing.”

As the AMFM brand continued to grow, the Pilsen space was named best gallery by the Chicago Reader in their 2017 reader’s poll. Plenty of notable artists graced the AMFM stage as well, including Matt Muse, Tasha, LA Van Gogh, Saba, Jamila Woods, Iman Omari, and the nationally recognized poet and activist Alok Van Menon. As the hectic nature of living in the gallery became too much to bear, Ciera moved out and turned her former living space into a recording studio, with DJ Skoli and producer Prov using the area as a music lab from 2017 to 2018. AMFM also extended outside of the Chicago region, with a pop up happening in Atlanta and an artist exchange program with the artist collective YGB in Portland, OR.

“I’m definitely about planting those seeds, and we’re not just static to Chicago being our home base, especially with our website. We feature artists from all over the globe, we do Q&A’s and features with artists from all over”, Ciera said.

Major changes would hit the AMFM brand when they ended up closing the space in 2018, giving Ciera a chance to step back and rethink what she wanted to do going forward: “Since then, I’ve kind of taken a step back to re-envision what I see AMFM to be. While we’re still sticking to some of the same goals that we have, doing larger conceptual events and working with artists, I’m really interested in connecting artists with opportunities.” For the past year, AMFM has functioned primarily as an online entity and sponsor of events at the city’s larger cultural institutions, bridging the gap between the DIY ethos that the brand always stood with and the top organizations that can allow indie artists to take their craft to the next level.

Ciera Mckissick, founder of AMFM. Photo by Rena Naltsas

“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with smaller organizations and entities, like organizations that need artists for upcoming fundraisers, for example, but also being able to work with larger institutional spaces, like doing activations or pop ups at the Museum of Contemporary Art, or working with the School of the Art Institute, or like recently, working with Wndr Museum. So really, we’re just a vessel, connecting artists with opportunities”, Ciera said.

As for Ciera and her creation today, she’s open to new possibilities as the brand continues to evolve and is looking to the future to serve arts and culture in even newer ways. For future plans she says, “I hope to someday have my own museum for emerging artists, work and become a non profit so we can be more sustainable and support artists in different ways. Those are some of the goals that I have.”

From its simple beginnings as a university assignment to its involvement with some of Chicago’s biggest institutions, AMFM continues to be an authority on the newest voices both online and on social media, in Chicago and across the country. And although Ciera’s creation no longer exists strictly in a physical location, AMFM still stands as one of DIY Chi’s best legacies, and is a perfect example of the bright and diverse renaissance of culture that we all can participate in today/