Nestled among unassuming updated row homes and modest apartment buildings on a quiet stretch of Damen Avenue is Fernwey Gallery, one of the newest additions to Chicago’s art gallery scene. Started by four recent SAIC graduates—Ilan Gutin (MFA Printmedia 2014), Boyang Hou (MFA Painting 2014), Kate Conlon (MFA Printmedia 2014), and Richard Blackwell (MFA Printmedia 2014)—the space is hard to miss with its large storefront windows and feline gallery attendant, Elliot.
The gallery’s curious name is derived from the German word fernweh. Translated as wanderlust, or the longing for far-off and unseen places—essentially the opposite of homesickness—it suggests a state of unfulfillment. “I think we wanted to focus on doing things that we hadn’t seen in other galleries,” says Gutin, co-founder and leaseholder of Ferwey. “At least for me, this is the chance to put on shows that I wish I’ve been wanting to see, or offer something that you don’t generally find in other spaces.”
Both a residential and a commercial space, the gallery was created for artists by artists. Given the numerous small, alternative and hybrid exhibition spaces that populate the Chicago art scene, Fernwey is perhaps not exceptional in its conception. For instance, threewalls and Roots and Culture started similarly and have become mainstays of the city’s alternative art venues. The Hills Esthetic Center boasts separate exhibition space and artists’ studios in addition to its lofted living area. This is, however, a geographically specific breed of gallery that relies on Chicago’s unique grassroots, community-driven art infrastructure.
Now into their sixth exhibition of the season, the space has developed rapidly in just under a year a planning. Reflecting on their journey thus far, Gutin, Conlon, and Hou share their thoughts on starting an art gallery, working with other artists, and being part of the greater Chicago art community.
Gutin moved into his apartment in March of 2014, the living quarters of which are deftly hidden behind a white door on the gallery’s far wall. Given its classic neighborhood shop design with large street-facing bay windows, Gutin originally planned to make use of this unique slice of real estate by creating a studio-cum-printshop. But come May and with help from Hou, the plan grew from a studio with space for exhibitions, to a full-fledged gallery. By fall, the team had grown to four members, walls were re-plastered, new lighting was installed, and Fernwey opened its doors.
Despite the physical labor it required getting a new gallery set up in just a few short months, the biggest challenge was figuring out their exhibition plan. “We’re kind of a hybrid,” says Conlon. Because of the separate storefront space, Fernwey appears like a more traditional commercial art gallery—you don’t feel like you’re in someone’s apartment. This allows the gallery to offer the physical and temporal visibility of a commercial venue—the artwork can remain on view without restricting Gutin’s living space, a factor that often limits the duration of most apartment gallery shows. Inevitably, the expanded exhibition time frame serves the artists better since there is a greater chance of more people seeing their work.
“Duration is a big thing for us,” Conlon notes. “Apartment gallery shows are often up for a night or a weekend, but we can offer several weeks, plus some street presence due to the big windows, but with the accessibility of an apartment show.”
Fernwey’s accessible casualness is perhaps one of the greatest perks of its current location. Despite the sleek, striking storefront, the gallery is still part and parcel of Gutin’s home, which is evident during openings when he opens up his kitchen for beverage service or when passersby spot Elliot bird-watching from the front window. “She’s become an Instagram celebrity,” Gutin jokes, “just search #fernweycat.”
Yet this hybridity has proved complicating as well as advantageous. According to Conlon, the team was under pressure to come up with a business plan or mission statement while they were getting started. Unable—or at least unwilling—to firmly categorize themselves, the team was unsure as to how to approach funding, whether to rely entirely on sales like a commercial gallery or seek third-party funding and donations like smaller project spaces. “You don’t want to undersell an artist, but you also don’t want to price out your audience. We’re still trying to find our niche and their price points.”
As the gallery’s physical space actualized, the need for role differentiation became more and more apparent among the Gutin, et. al. “We were tripping over each other, so we decided to design roles based on our pre-existing strengths and interests,” says Conlon. She assumed the post of director of content, which includes coordinating the exhibition-specific print collaborations and any other informational material that comes from the gallery. Blackwell took on installation and design duties as director of production.
Gutin, as the leaseholder, acts as a kind of executive director, while Hou took on exhibition coordination and curation. He prefers, however, to be known as the facilitator of exhibitions. “It’s not that I have any negative connotations with the word ‘curator,’” Hou explains. “It’s more that I see myself as an artist first; I’m not denying my curatorial role, but I wonder how an artist functions in a gallery without being ‘the’ artist.”
“Really, I’m more of a batting coach. I just keep throwing pitches to Ilan until we hit an idea out of the park.”
As practicing artists themselves, each member of the Fernwey crew brings individual experience to the table that is both useful for the gallery, and for the artists that show there. “We have our own interests and tastes, which can create some tension, but ultimately results in really interesting ideas and lively discussions,” Conlon explains.
To that end, Fernwey wants to give more than exhibition space to their artists. For their November show featuring Nick Schutzenhofer, they produced a risograph print with a critical essay on the back for visitors to take. “We thought it could give [Nick] more exposure, and the audience more understanding,” says Gutin. Michelle Grabner, an artist and SAIC professor, agreed to write an essay for the December exhibition Poeisis by Nazafarin Lotfi. “[Richard] also constructed plinths for Lotfi’s show,” Gutin continues. “We offer to make things like this at cost for the artists, which they can take with them for future use.”
Chicago is often identified as a city of alternatively-employed artists, most often by the artists who are alternatively employed. Some see it as a woeful indicator that the local art scene isn’t robust enough to sustain full-time artists, thus provoking many to seek their fate in New York or Los Angeles. But a lot of area artists, both established and up-and-coming, value the DIY ethos of Chicago that fosters genuine creativity and collaboration based on empathy of the oft-shared experience of simply being an artist with a side job. “We’re all working artists, we all want these opportunities, too,” Conlon says. “We get to offer that while learning more about the other side of art business, too. It’s a good system.”
Fernwey’s dedication to doing more for the artist is perhaps born of the city’s ethos itself. “There’s a sense of support here,” Gutin says. “Michelle Grabner writing for us—that wouldn’t happen in a larger city like New York. People want you to succeed here.” Conlon agrees, noting, “So many prominent artists in Chicago are also educators, like Grabner, which I think contributes to this sense of support.”
Hou, an east coast native who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York University, assumed he would return to the Big Apple immediately upon finishing his Masters. The community aspect of Chicago’s art scene, however, coupled with the lower cost of living, has made him reconsider relocating. “I always thought I’d be right back in New York. But it comes down to that Chicago has resources that New York doesn’t,” explains Hou. “I don’t think you could do what we’re doing at Fernwey in New York. There’ s no way it would be feasible, financially at least, for artists fresh out of school to have the opportunity to open a storefront gallery.”
While Fernwey undoubtedly allows its directors professional and creative growth opportunities that might not otherwise be attainable in a different city, it also lets the team return something to the art community that they’ve relied on up until this point. “My biggest draw to this project is giving back to the Chicago art community,” says Conlon. “I’ve only been here two years, and I feel like it’s given me so much already.”
Gutin says the neighborhood-based, community-driven aspect of Chicago is what makes him want to be a part of the art scene here. “I never wanted to go to places like New York or Los Angeles. If others want to, that’s fine because it keeps Chicago smaller, more intimate,” he muses. “There’s a difference between changing and growing. It’d be great if the Chicago art scene could grow,” which is something that Fernwey is contributing to, “but I’d hate to see it change.”
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The alternative gallery roster in Chicago is never static. Some spaces grow into more professionalized versions of their original selves, while others remain out of sheer perseverance. More often than not, however, many close within a few years due in large part to funding and simple logistic concerns borne of their inherent hybridity as galleries “and…” venues; in Fernwey’s case, it operates as a wholly a gallery and wholly a residence. It is often the “and” that makes these spaces bastions of the unique sense-of-community that makes the city’s art scene valuable to artists at any career level. Only time will tell how Fernwey will evolve as they find their place within the ever-shifting landscape of alternative galleries, but one thing is for certain—they’re reading and willing to grow with Chicago.