Rising Gallerist Graham Wilson on His Community-Focused Approach to the Commercial Art World

Swivel Gallery founder Graham Wilson has had many lives in the art world—artist, art handler, artist manager, assistant. “Gallerist” was added to this varied background when he opened his own commercial space in Bed-Stuy over a year ago. “I was pretty stagnant in my own career as an artist, but I had a creative foresight to do bigger projects,” he told Artsy. After his own solo show, “Splittin at the Seams,” at Paris’s Galerie Valentin in 2019, Wilson decided to quit painting. But that wouldn’t be his end with the art world: “If I was not going to continue taking up space, then I could provide it for others,” he said.

The idea for Swivel started when Wilson noticed a new form of collectorship that had grown out of the online accessibility of art during the COVID-19 pandemic. From online viewing rooms to collectors who connect with artists through social media, he thought the trends signaled the need for a gallery that catered to the moment. “I realized emerging collectors are not only millionaires who shop in Chelsea,” he said. “They buy maybe two or three pieces a year, so they would like to do it in the right way.”

Recess (Blue), 2022
Kiah Celeste

Swivel Gallery

“An Ode To The Ancestors” , 2021
Ryan Cosbert

Swivel Gallery

His background in the art world meant that he already had connections with numerous artists—“a melting pot of different talents,” he called them—who had not broken out in their careers yet. The fact that many of the artists he first approached to show, such as Kia Celeste, Emmanuel Massillon, and Ryan Cosbert, now have growing profiles is a sign of Wilson’s curatorial savvy. That extends to Swivel’s successful showings at the NADA fairs in New York and Miami, as well as its ambitious programming that included a month-long film series last summer, and a community-engagement project called “Basket House” that turned the gallery into a space that was part art studio, part fundraising hub.

This summer, Wilson expanded beyond Brooklyn, opening a new location in a former bank with—of course—a vault space in upstate New York. Located in the town of Saugerties in Ulster County, the outpost functions as a traditional large exhibition space, with the smaller vault hosting what Wilson calls Safe Room Projects with up-and-coming artists.

Fiction, Faith, and Fact, 2022
John Denniston II

Swivel Gallery

The first of these Safe Room Projects is a show of paintings by recent Pratt graduate John Denniston II; next will be a presentation of Eric Oglander’s small-scale manipulated sculptures. A residency program is planned to start in September, and will exhibit work by participating artists inside the vault.

While the Brooklyn gallery focuses on solo presentations, Wilson inaugurated the main space of Swivel Saugerties with an Americana-themed group show during Memorial Day weekend to celebrate “the camaraderie between the artists and the community,” he said. “The Cowboy Made Me Cry” is not only an homage to Wilson’s upbringing in Kentucky—where he grew up shoveling horse stalls at the racetracks—but also suggests a cheeky look at the depiction of horses in contemporary art. “Many young artists who came of age with technology have started dealing with horse iconography,” he explained. “Horses symbolize the history of humanity, but they also clearly respond to the culture today.”

The show’s title comes from Post Malone’s 2021 version of the Hootie & the Blowfish hit “Only Wanna Be with You,” in which the rapper admits: “I’m such a baby ’cause the cowboys make me cry.” The exhibition, running through July 10th, features works by Asif Hoque, Camille Rouzaud, David Surman, Amy Bravo, Melanie Luna, Debra Broz, and Emma Rivera. Broz’s two quirky small-scale horse sculptures sit on pedestals, accompanying Aris Azarmsa’s chaotic western painting Once Upon A Time in the West (2022) and Melanie Luna’s innocent acrylic-and-ink drawing Juvenile Horse (2021). NH Depass’s mixed-media sculpture Joan & Snoopy (2022) features found objects that salute horses and Americana, such as a steel horse bit, vintage postcards, and an equestrian tack trunk.

The upstate space continues the unique financial model that Wilson launched with the original gallery, donating a percentage of the sales to local nonprofits. Additionally, another portion of revenue will be used to fund the new residency program. “Very daunting” is how Wilson remembers the initial reality of opening a commercial gallery in the first month of 2021. “It takes a long time for collectors to trust your vision, but I’ve so far been lucky,” he admitted.

Wilson’s strategy along the way has drawn heavily from his former careers in the art world. “After taking part in so many aspects of the game—creatively and technically—I am familiar with what artists need,” he said, “and make their lives easier during an installation and after.” His familiarity with the language and approach that puts collectors at ease has also been helpful: “When the work is difficult for whatever reason, whether a logistical challenge or content that needs to be explained, I am aware of [how] to make that process easy for them.”

Gilbert, 2021
Debra Broz

Swivel Gallery

Samuel, 2021
Debra Broz

Swivel Gallery

Even with more utilitarian matters, Wilson’s experience has helped smooth the process of starting brick-and-mortar spaces. He had been installing exhibitions for other artists for 16 years before opening the flagship Swivel. That Brooklyn storefront has exaggeratedly wavy walls that provide both a memorable aesthetic as well as a technical challenge when it comes to hanging and curating shows.

But thanks to his skillset, Wilson has turned this quirk into an advantage, as could be seen in his striking installations of exhibitions by Joseph Cochran II or Corey Wash. In the latter, for example, the space was transformed into a psychedelic universe with large flowers painted on the walls. One of his considerations when expanding to a space with traditional walls, however, was the opportunity to exhibit larger-scale flat paintings.

Wilson’s unique approach extends to his representation, as well. Rather than the traditional model of signing with artists, Wilson follows a rather organic “family style arrangement,” which includes helping them with the logistics and infrastructures of their shows elsewhere. “I’d rather not keep them away from other opportunities,” he said.

Once Upon A Time In The West, 2022
Aris Azarmsa

Swivel Gallery

Juvenile Horse, 2021
Melanie Luna

Swivel Gallery

Wilson’s close relationship with artists as both painter and dealer naturally led to starting his own collection. The gallerist’s first purchase was a work on paper by James Lee Byars in 2019 through a private dealer after seeing the artist’s MoMA PS1 retrospective and “getting obsessed with his work,” he said. Between that initial buy and his most recent acquisition of an Ivana Štulić painting at Future Fair, Wilson has collected works by Kyoko Hamaguchi through ATM Gallery; a painting by Obi Agwam at Regular Normal’s recent NADA booth; a Bianca Fields painting; and even a limited-edition George Condo print.

Following the gallery’s equestrian-themed inauguration, its programming is gearing up for the high season as New Yorkers escape the city and head upstate. Swivel Saugerties’s next exhibition will be another group show timed for the Upstate Art Weekend in late July, and includes works by artists Wilson has previously shown, such as Celeste, Massillon, and Cosbert, along with newcomers Donté Hayes, Kennedy Yanko, and Ernesto Burgos.

“Putting some of my more established artists next to their contemporaries will be an interesting next step,” said the gallerist. “Hopefully [the artists I work with] will be here for a long time, and with their and my growth, there will be a constant filtration and new names will join.”

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