Curator Emma Robbins calls Clutch Gallery an “alternative space,” motioning towards the small brown box as we speak. The gallery, approximately 25 square inches and topped with a swinging wooden handle, is really more of a small picnic basket than a clutch, but that is unnecessary quibbling. Clutch Gallery is, by its own description, “dedicated to exhibiting contemporary art of all media.” The small space intends to provide snippets of ideas instead of miniatures–yes, this is a gallery inside of a purse, but that does not mean it will be hosting any tiny openings for tiny little paintings on its tiny little walls.

Meg Duguid is the mastermind behind Clutch Gallery, and owner of the purse. Duguid premiered her first show in December 2009, with plans to rotate programming for a year before closing the gallery for good in 2010. In December 2011, with the gallery still going strong, Robbins took over curatorial and transportational duties. For Duguid and now Robbins, Clutch is a way of life–it is a handbag in more than appearance. Even at her lowest points, Robbins explains, she carried Clutch with her three days out of every five, incorporating it into her busy (and often heavily encumbered) life as a student at the School of the Art Institute. Robbins, complexly tattooed and impeccably dressed, is a third year BFA student at SAIC working primarily in photography and fibers. When I inquire how the two combine, she readily whips out a small embroidery hoop with work in progress.

Robbins was kind enough to bring her current exhibition down to Hyde Park for a private show and an interview, and it soon became clear that this is the main method by which the gallery finds its way to a curious public–Clutch would lose some integral character if it were just a lonely box displayed on a pedestal in some room. Indeed, the curator-as-carrier is inseparable from the gallery in a quite fundamental way. “Maybe,” shrugs Robbins, “Meg intended this as a giant piece of performance art. I suppose it’s possible.”

By the time I’m finally able to look inside Clutch, I’m getting the impression that it is the gallery’s very existence and the interactions that it facilitates that are the real statement, more so than the actual content. Clutch’s current exhibition is “Beach” by American Academy of Art alumna Kim Guare. It is a take-off on the common practice of collecting stones on the shores of Lake Michigan; instead of the actual rocks, Guare presents a collection of synthetically recreated colors and textures in faux-rock form. Robbins has a prescribed role in the piece–when I ask to take a look, she gamely tips the gallery over to spill the multi-colored pebbles onto the table between us. Then she insists that I take one.

“What I’m interested in my own work as well, which I pull back into this, is juxtaposing the public and the private,” she muses. “It’s amazing to open something up that’s private, in the intimate space, and see it become public.” It’s true that watching Clutch literally spill out in front of me feels slightly taboo, and taking a small purple faux-pebble pushes that boundary further. Clutch relies on this abrasion between the private and the public–a substantial portion of Clutch’s reach comes from bold onlookers who take the chance of inquiring about the unusual personal item. Robbins responds to curious strangers and well-informed art seekers in the same way–careful explanation, bubbly small talk, and a happy smile.

Clutch Gallery acknowledges, of course, a certain amount of whimsy–“I CARRY A PURSE AND NOW I AM GOING TO USE IT,” trumpets its website–but it also carries a deliberate seriousness. Nothing makes Clutch a gallery so much as its own self-conscious proclamation, and it takes a certain amount of self-confidence to will a purse-gallery into being. The confusion and resistance surrounding this position start the conversations that Clutch is all about.