A handwritten sign in the bathroom of the Albany-Carroll Building at 319 North Albany instructs tenants not to flush, besides the standard prohibition of paper towels, wipes and sanitary napkins, “old phone bills, goldfish, and your hopes and dreams.” Though hopes and dreams might clog its toilets, this warehouse in East Garfield Park is the site of the aspirations and ambitions of many Chicago artists and curators.
Curator Elizabeth Lalley founded one of the city’s newest galleries, Slow Dance, next to Claudine Isé’s Goldfinch on the first floor of the Albany Avenue warehouse. Isé was, in turn, inspired by Dan Devening, whose gallery space Devening Projects makes its home on the building’s third floor on the Carroll Avenue side. Devening Projects, Slow Dance and Goldfinch are unique in that as part of a warehouse, they have no storefronts. The three gallerists write their personal phone numbers on notebook paper on the building doors to allow guests to buzz in—so anyone coming into their spaces does so with the specific intention of seeing it.
“At this stage, I’m very comfortable with the fact that people who come to Goldfinch intend to come to Goldfinch,” Isé says. Art fairs are how she interacts with collectors outside of Chicago, but in the city, she focuses on younger collectors and emerging artists. When you first walk into Goldfinch, the space greets you with a selection of art books (including “At Home with Art: A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting on Any Budget”) that make the room welcoming. The strategy has worked so well that the summer of 2023, Isé left her other professional pursuit of teaching to devote full attention to the gallery’s growth.
Devening Projects opened in 2007 while Devening, an artist, had his own studio space in the building. There was a windowless room near the center of the Carroll Avenue end of the building available, and Devening took it for his own gallery. No one else wanted it. “Since the very beginning, I’ve been surprised that people want to come in. Being on the third floor hasn’t made much of a difference,” he says. As we spoke, friends, colleagues and strangers filtered in and out to observe the work he had on display, a two-person show by Danish sculptor Alberte Tranberg and Detroit-based painter Sean Noonan. (“I planned it this way to make myself look popular,” he jests.)
Isé’s admiration for Devening was part of what inspired her to start a gallery in East Garfield Park in the first place in 2017. Coming from a background of museum staff and art writing, Isé wanted to try having her own space and allow it to grow organically with her interests. “It was great when Claudine came in, because we have a lot of shared interests but different tastes,” Devening says. “We both want to show underrepresented or emerging artists, but I’m sometimes more interested in older artists whose careers have waned a little. I tend to go more abstract or formalist, and Claudine goes a bit more figurative.” The studio spaces in 319 North Albany also allow for renovation troubleshooting between the galleries and the makers who work in the other parts of the building. “I’m always bugging the woodworkers!”
The Albany-Carroll’s creative hotbed made it the ideal environment for Elizabeth Lalley (who also serves as a curatorial director at Goldfinch) to start her own gallery. Lalley refers to Slow Dance as a “project space” rather than a commercial gallery, though she shares Isé’s interest in connecting with young collectors. So far, she’s shown textile artist Abbey Muza, for the space’s inaugural exhibition in October, and Fengzee Yang, a ceramicist and recent graduate of the Art Institute. Lalley offers me Topo Chico seltzer and oranges as I sit across from her on a bench with one of Yang’s ceramic pieces between us. “It’s so small, there’s nowhere to hide in here,” she says. “I got the name ‘slow dance’ from the intimacy of studio visits. I never get over how fast you skip past the fluff, and those moments are so awkward and vulnerable but so rewarding. I like the romantic part of the name, but also the nod to middle-school-like anxiety and vulnerability.”
The biggest challenge for Lalley was learning to manage the backend tasks of the gallerist lifestyle, like building a website or fixing paneling in the ceiling. Maintaining the backend while running the front-end on her own has required her to be conscious of her own energy levels. “Running a gallery is such a social thing, and since this is just me, when morale is low, it’s all up to me. I always want to be present and engaged, and I have to learn to generate that myself.” But being your own boss also has its benefits: “I also realized that I just don’t have time to overthink. There’s no time for me to agonize over things anymore. If I was part of a bigger team, I might, but I don’t have the luxury of dwelling on little things. Sure, I question myself sometimes, but I have a friend next door,” she says, smiling and gesturing to the wall adjacent to Goldfinch.
While it might be true that they wouldn’t exist without each other, each of the galleries in the Albany-Carroll maintains a distinct identity. In each area, Devening, Isé and Lalley’s careful use of space and attentiveness to each artist they exhibit proves that being a gallerist is an art in itself, one that isn’t just about running a business, but about understanding how intimate and significant the space you view works of art in is. “Chicago has such a long and rich history of apartment galleries and project spaces,” Isé says. “The DIY spirit here is strong. A key reason why Goldfinch has garnered audience attention over the years is because the art community is willing to support it, and I credit that all to Chicago. With the arts, Chicago is always like, ‘Yay, more!’ rather than edging people out.”
Goldfinch Gallery is open Friday and Saturday 12pm-4pm. Slow Dance is open Sundays 12pm-3pm and by appointment. Devening Projects is open Saturday 12pm-5pm and by appointment at 319 North Albany.