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What nobody told Lucca Colombelli about opening a gallery

Last night, Chicago’s resident “gonzo gallerist” Lucca Colombelli unveiled the new home of Povos Chicago at 1541 W Chicago Ave. The space’s inaugural group show, “Bloom,” features 31 local artists and examines spring as a period for rebirth both pictorially and symbolically.

Lucca started producing pop-up group shows four years ago, after a collector (whom he met as a barista) asked him to produce a DIY art show inside his house. “It was a complete mess, because I had not thought about all of the things that go into doing a show,” Lucca says. “Down to the last 30 minutes, I was like, ‘we don’t have any food.’” Still, 400 people showed up at the collector’s house, and several guests purchased work, with proceeds benefiting RAICES. “I wanted to bring in this idea of activating the art space for activism,” Lucca says. “I didn’t want to do shows just to do shows.”

Lucca’s curatorial career has come a long way since then. In 2020, he launched Povos as an online gallery, because he didn’t think he’d be able to afford a storefront. (“Povos” is Portuguese for “people,” so he sees Povos Chicago as “the people’s gallery, in a way.”) But then COVID happened, and rents dropped enough that he could open a physical space. He and colleague Cormac Steinbock (now a part-owner of the gallery) did their first major production at 2000 N Milwaukee entitled "Meaning and a Lack Thereof." Once again, the line wrapped around the block. “People couldn't even get in. It was crazy. And it wasn’t even a particularly good art show,” he says. The pair knew they were on to something, and Lucca soon took over the gallery full-time. When a bigger, brighter space became available in November 2022, he went into business with a collector who funded the renovation, most of which Lucca DIY’d himself. “We started construction in November. We finished construction on Wednesday.”

Here, Lucca shares what no one ever told him about opening a gallery.

If you want something done right, hire a professional.

LC: There's a reason construction management is a discipline.  It's a whole field of study. You can have a degree in construction management. I did a lot of the building myself, and you can kind of tell…The way I see it, if someone’s looking at the baseboards, there’s probably something wrong with the art.

I feel fairly confident in my ability to open up an art show and bring people to it, but I'm not an electrician, I’m not a plumber, and I'm not a construction manager, I'll tell you that. I got pretty good at balancing everyone's schedules, but there were a couple of “order of operations” issues, where I had one guy come do his thing too early, and then the framer had to come back and do more drywall, and then I changed my mind about something. And then they did it again.

When you’re DIY’ing a gallery renovation, you learn a) how construction really works and b) how to balance the art-show side of it. Last Monday was installation. Wednesday was preview night. I was at Home Goods one hour before the show. It's how it goes.

Artists don't email you back.

LC: It's like pulling teeth. They're like, “I'm anxious today, I'll email you tomorrow.” And I'm like, “I'm anxious today. Email me now!” I didn’t announce the lineup of the new show until last week because I didn’t have all the contracts signed. Getting 30 artists to sign 30 contracts takes forever.

You learn the layout of Restaurant Depot.

LC: We do a lot of events, so I end up going and buying San Pellegrinos and little cups and stuff like that all the time. Twelve-packs of orange juice … you start to learn what you like at Restaurant Depot. On the way out, you can make a pit stop and pick up five pounds of pumpkin seeds and a couple pounds of smoked salmon. That’s what I did on Wednesday; it was all I ate, all day.

You need some good friends if you’re going to open a gallery.

LC: People came in and saved my ass this week. I can usually get away with doing a lot of work on my own. I won't complain about it. I'm happy to do it. I love what I do. But this week, I really needed help. My friends came and helped me paint the walls, clear the space out, screw in 80 light bulbs, and paint the floors. Modou Dieng Yacine — an international curator and artist I work with — came in and gave me a second pair of eyes on where I was placing things. Someone else (probably Val) gave me a checklist, like, “Okay, this is what you got to do tomorrow.”

You can’t do everything yourself. I think that’s an important takeaway. As someone who likes to do everything myself — or has a problem with that — it’s really impossible. You either need a very good support system, or a lot of money. Probably both. But as an artist-run, grassroots project, you need a team.

Artist Benito Quas Longoria and his work, available here.

It's about the room, not the wall.

LC: Last year, in July, during our third or fourth show, I was unsure if I wanted to keep doing this. I hadn't quite figured out the workflow. I didn't have anyone helping me. I was running out of money. I had a very good friend of mine — she's also from Brazil — who told me to make a pro-con list. Cons: 60- to 80-hour workweek, major burnout. Pro: a good room. And so I started thinking about why having a good room was so important to me. And I landed on this idea that all congregation is holy. That it is the only creative act, and that the idea of congregation is built into the gallery’s brand — the people dancing in the circle is sort of the whole point of Povos. I started reframing the gallery for myself as a meeting place instead of a business. I started recognizing all the things that came out of it, which at the time did not include money. But I had friends who had met their spouses in my room. And now there are all these other spin-off art projects from people I’ve connected with each other. So there’s real impact. If the work is good, and it’s serious, and the artists are serious, then the show will be good, regardless. It’s hard to get a good room.

You have to navigate a lot of art spaces very, very carefully. There's a certain sort of pretension, there's a lot of posturing. But here’s the thing: there were very few jerks at my preview. According to my door guy, 250 to 300 people came through on Wednesday night, and about 50 people came up to me and said, “everyone I met tonight was awesome.” That is why I do it.

My first big house show was four years ago. I was 20 years old, I had no idea what I was doing. Everything went wrong, but it still came together beautifully. That taught me that you just kind of have to do it. People are so excited to be in a space, they don't care if there’s a nick on your baseboard. If they’re looking at the baseboard, there's something wrong with the art. It must be a really bad room if they're looking at the baseboard.