Random Gallery Spotlight- Gallery Swarm: Thinking Outside the White Cube

Carrie McGath

The mission of Gallery Swarm “has but one guiding principle: anyone can be an artist.” This young gallery was started in 2010 by painter, Samuel Gillis. Its short history already shows its deep cooperative spirit. “I would call it an artistic cooperative,” said Glendy X. Mattalia, who runs the gallery with Sam. “There is no pay to play.”

Gallery Swarm is run mainly by Sam and Glendy along with Matt Ristow who runs Olson Rug, the 6,000 square foot store that also houses the gallery. “The whole thing started because of my windows. I met Sam, I liked his art, and I asked him if he would put some of it in the windows,” explained Matt standing amidst rug and tile samples and art painted on everything from canvas to cardboard.

At first I was a bit shocked to see a gallery inside a store filled with rugs and tile, artworks peppered all over the large space, but it was truly great walking through and finding artwork at every turn. Sam said to me, “It’s like an Easter egg hunt for artwork,” as he gave me the winding tour of the Gallery Swarm. Matt says later, “It’s kind of like a mini art fair.” And it really is, reminding me of the hallways and cutaways one finds at Art Chicago.

When Glendy joined us wearing a proud smile and some paint splatter (she had been painting in the parking lot out front when I arrived), she explained the built-in convenience of the space that Olson Rug and Gallery Swarm shares. “From a pure convenience standpoint, you can come here and get a fine rug, tile, and art all in one spot.”

Matt chimes in seemingly delighted that his rug store has grown another extension of its personality. “A lot of people are taken by surprise.” I was surprised at first, seeing the Olson Rug sign above artists painting in the parking lot. But this daily action is an intriguing and attractive moment to behold. While I was standing outside after the interview, watching the artists resume their work, several passersby stopped and watched.

In addition to artists being nurtured by working with other artists, acquiring supplies from the gallery if needed, even sustenance (Sam and Glendy host dinners for their artists at their home several times a week), they also nurture collectors. Both beginning collectors and seasoned collectors buy work from the gallery. Sam talked about how this gallery had pieces for as little as fifty dollars as well as works in the thousands.

The nurturing quality of the gallery and particularly of Sam is evident as he tells me about the artists he has helped over the years with supplies, technique, a place to work, and a place to show. The gallery shows photography, sculpture, installation, and painting, whatever strikes the prolific tastes of Sam Gillis who is prolific in his own right. “We have to like it and there is very little that we don’t. If an artist has a piece that is really striking, I ask them to put it up.” Sam works in varying styles and paints on just about anything from canvas, doors, and cardboard.

Glendy discussed Sam’s nurturing spirit. “In Sam’s world the idyllic way to live would be if every artist could have a home and food and their needs taken care of and be able to create art all day.” As a result, Glendy said, “Our biggest budget is our grocery budget since we feed artists at our house all the time.”

Artists of all levels are welcome to work at Gallery Swarm. In addition to the parking lot “studio,” there is a makeshift work space in the back of the store. Among stored canvases, mostly work by Sam himself, artists will work on days decided among the artists. Gildy explained, “It’s basically where you can find a spot to paint. People are at easels, on the floor, out front. We fit them into anywhere we can.”

The success of the gallery is obvious when Sam and Glendy tell me about the events that take place once or twice a month at Gallery Swarm. At each event there is anywhere between 100 and 400 people in attendance walking around the store, listening to the band the gallerists asked to play. These events also have food as well as drink, a lot of it donated or acquired with a cross-promotion between neighboring businesses and the gallery. Glendy explains, “We do cross-promotions with restaurants in this neighborhood within a 6-block radius.” In addition to restaurants, bands play for exposure while also supplying entertainment during events. It’s a win-win.

This is about where the cooperative spirit comes in, and Glendy says, “In terms of business we see it as ‘everyone benefits’ kind of a thing instead of a ‘you’re my enemy’ kind of a thing.” She continues, “Sam and I are both fierce networkers. We see the value of network regardless of who it is with and that kind of speaks to our cooperative mentality. The point is that we don’t have the typical competitive viewpoint.”

It became apparent to me that Sam, Glendy, and Matt really had an interesting thing going, that this gallery’s young life was only beginning to blossom into a success. Gallery Swarm could perhaps even be an example for other galleries to take more risks and nurture both artists and collectors.