Ed note: For this interview, Brandon Zech spoke to longtime Houston curator Sally Sprout about her years-long position organizing shows in the first floor exhibition space of the Transco Tower/Williams Tower, an office tower in Houston’s Galleria area. Sprout recently announced her retirement. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Brandon Zech: I was wondering if you could start by talking about the history of your time in Houston.
Sally Sprout: Well, I’ve kicked around here for a long time. I came to Houston in 1979 thinking I was coming to start a mid-level gallery for a couple of gentlemen who were in the oil-and-gas business and were familiar with the work I was doing in Denver, Colorado, where I was the director of a small gallery in the lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel. When I came to town, their partnership blew up and I was totally without a job, so I went to work for the then-Blaffer Gallery in 1980, and from there I did an interview with Jack Bowen, the then-CEO of the Transco Energy Company. The company held a big works-on-paper collection, the core of which was a collection of about 100 special watercolors by people like Burchfield, Sargent, Remington, etc. That collection was managed by the company’s curator, Martha Terrill. The Transco Tower was built in 1982 and then I was hired in 1983 to do an exhibition program in the lobby.
BZ: So Martha Terrill was the curator of the company’s collection?
SS: Yes. She was very influential. She actually started the whole thing and talked Bowen into formalizing the collection and from there they decided to have an exhibition program in the lobby. So she primarily worked on the collection and I primarily worked on the exhibition program. And I held that position until 1993, when Williams bought out Transco. At that time, Transco had tried to persuade Gerald Hines, the developer of the building, to take me on and keep the program going. While that point originally fell on deaf ears, within six months they asked me to come back because the whole downstairs had been outfitted to be a gallery. So in the interim I opened my own gallery, Sally Sprout Gallery, which I had for five years, from 1993 through 1998. Meanwhile, I had been invited to come back to the Tower and continue programming shows, so for a period I was doing both.
BZ: Where was your gallery in Houston?
SS: It started on Colquitt in a small building and then I moved to lower Westheimer and shared a building with another gallerist, Karen Lanning. In 1998 I thought I’d be moving my gallery to the docks, which is the old place where DiverseWorks used to be, but it would’ve been cost prohibitive to make the space comfortable for clients, so I gave it up. But I was back full speed at the Tower by then.
BZ: Throughout this time you were on a number of boards and involved in other organizations across Houston too, right?
SS: I was an early board member of DiverseWorks and an early advisory board member for the Houston Center for Photography. I wasn’t on a lot of boards because I was so occupied with my job at the Tower — I did everything single-handedly. I even used to install the shows myself until finally they gave me the budget for an installer. I also spent time on a committee for the Houston Area Women’s Center, advising them on an art program.
BZ: Can you talk about how you approached programming for the Williams Tower Gallery? I know as a curator the more you program a space the more familiar you become with it, but at the same time you’re dealing with challenges different than 99% of curators, because your audience is quite specific, your space is different, and the way audiences engage with yours shows is different. How did all of this impact how you went about your exhibition ideology?
SS: Well, I found out right away what corporate limitations were in terms of what I could show. The Tower has a conservative audience, although we involved the community quite a bit. We probably had more community support than we did of the tenants in the Tower. But you still can’t show certain things: works that are too “politically sensitive,” for example. And there were also the limitations of the space — the space is pretty eccentric. But I got to know it very well and I have to say we produced some pretty fabulous shows over the years.
You know, when I was working for Transco, sometimes we did as many as 14 shows a year. Of course I was a lot younger then! But since I went back and worked for the building’s owners, who’ve changed over the years, I did about 8-9 shows per year, which is more reasonable. I found that even within the philosophical limitations, I was able to show a great deal. And I always had an eye, frankly, toward the community rather than towards the building. There was lots of grumbling initially, but the building and its tenants eventually got used to my shows and the gallery became part of the building’s listing promotions when its owners advertised their amenities to prospective tenants. So they put up with me.
BZ: I feel like that’s the thing — you gradually expose people to things and they realize they actually enjoy what you’re doing for them, even if they didn’t quite expect to at first. And then they’re appreciative.
SS: I did try to do a lot of palatable shows along with the ones that were a little more edgy. And we got to the point where during the downtime between shows people would start grumbling because there was nothing on the wall. So I consider that a good sign. For the most part, my curatorial ideas came from me — we have such a wonderful resource of artists in Houston and in Texas that there’s no shortage of ideas. And I’m happy to say I owe everything to the artists and to the galleries, because I would source from galleries as well. But everyone was so cooperative and they worked with me just beautifully and I’m very grateful to the whole community and to the people who came to see the shows.
BZ: In line with that, throughout your time at the space you built up relationships with lots of Houston organizations, and it almost seems like Williams Tower became a hub for certain yearly shows.
SS: Oh yeah. We were an official site for FotoFest from its inception in 1986 until this year, only because for this biennial FotoFest wanted to consolidate everything around its offices. But we were a satellite site for years for FotoFest. Also, for years we hosted exhibitions for the Assistance League of Houston during January and Febuary. We also worked with other organizations off and on — we were always receptive to collaborating with institutions and organizations as long as I felt they met my standards of what I wanted to program for the building.
BZ: When I’ve talked to people in the Houston community about curators who have had an intense focus on Houston and Texas art, the two curators who always come up are yourself and Clint Willour. I think it’s because the two of you have been around and curated countless shows, and you both have had generations of artists grow up under your watch.
SS: Absolutely. And I can say again, Texas is such a repository of the best artists. I concentrated on Texas partially because of budget, but it was fine because there was so much to choose from. And I’m so fond of so many artists I’ve worked with. There are lots of younger ones coming along now who are really exciting also.
BZ: Are there any shows you curated at Williams Tower, or any artists who you’ve seen emerge over the past couple years, that stick out in your mind?
SS: John Biggers — I did a huge retrospective for him in the 1990s and we had gospel singers and everything. It was a fabulous show and I’ll never forget it. We did a huge Dorothy Hood show too. Honestly, there are so many I can hardly remember. But in terms of watching people grow up, sculptors like Patrick Renner, Dylan Conner, and Alex Larsen — I showed those guys a few years ago and they’ve all grown up and are doing quite well.
BZ: It’s interesting talking about artists like John Biggers and Dorothy Hood — how a place like Williams Tower, along with other unexpected venues, like Sally Reynolds’ program at One Allen Center in Houston — how these sorts of spaces have become the hubs for big shows of deserving Houston artists, almost more so than the CAMH and MFAH. It feels like curators like yourself are the ones making the effort to do these large retrospective shows.
SS: I’m very interested in artists who are mid-career or even past mid-career because they’ve been in the trenches so long that they’ve got decades of solid work. I think a lot of spaces are looking for the kids who are the flavor of the moment, but a lot of the mature artists get forgotten because they’re sort of passé. So I’m interested in all of it actually. I did a big show in the early 2000s called Houston Sculpture Now, in which I showed about every sculptor I knew, both old and young. I’m proud of many of the shows I’ve done.
BZ: Since you’ve been in the Houston art community for so long, can you tell me how you’ve seen it change and the trends you’ve noticed?
SS: When I first came to Houston, the community was so much smaller in terms of gallery spaces. And the big complaint in the 1980s was that people were going to buy art in New York and weren’t supporting Texas or Houston artists very much. That has changed greatly — people really want to collect Texas and Houston artists now and I think a lot of the galleries who have come along in the last 20 years have been very instrumental in that. Houston collectors have finally gotten the fact that local and Texas artists in general are worth collecting.
Photography has gotten a much more prominent position thanks to Anne Tucker’s work at the MFAH and Clint Willour’s collecting and his work at the Galveston Arts Center. Partly because of them, a lot of curators are recognizing that photography is valid as an art form. I think Houston has really led the way in Texas, and even in the country. People like Volker Eisele of Rudolph Blume Fine Art / ArtScan Gallery and Sculpture Month Houston, and Tommy Gregory of the Houston Airport System have been great influences on the Houston community as well.
But I would venture that the real trend in the last several decades is the coming of age of the art community — a proliferation of galleries, non-profit spaces and more robust and exciting programming by our museums.
BZ: So, you’re retiring and leaving Houston. Where are you moving?
SS: Tucson. I grew up in Tucson and I inherited my father’s house, so I’ve gone back and forth many times during my tenure here. I hate leaving Houston in a lot of ways. I’m very conflicted, because I love my network and I love so many people here. But it’s time for another chapter as they say — I know that’s cliché but its time for something else. I was going to try to slip away under the cover of night, but you caught me.
BZ: You’ve been too prominent a figure in the fabric of Houston’s art community for us to let that happen.
SS: People keep reminding me of that and it’s really funny. You know, exhibition programs are relentless: there’s the next show and the next show and the next show, and each one is like Christmas in a way and you just do it. And when I stop to think about how many shows I’ve done in the past and how long I’ve been in the community I go, “Wow, that’s not how I viewed myself at all while I was doing it.”
BZ: If you had to ballpark it, do you know about how many shows you curated in Houston?
SS: Well, I was with Transco for 10 years, and that was 14 shows a year. And then after that, from 1994 to present I’ve done 8 or 9 shows a year. So I’ll let you do the math. (Ed. note: that’s roughly 350 exhibitions.) Exhibition production itself is just pretty daunting. I think every artist should have to do a curatorial stint to feel what its like on the other side.
BZ: So what’s the future of the Williams Tower Gallery?
SS: I wish I could tell you. I just asked again for the third time since March, but all I know now is that they’re considering a major remodel of the ground level of the building and they don’t know what they’re going to do with it. So that’s where it stands and I can’t get any more information out of them. Which is too bad because I think it’s been an important alternative space.
BZ: Yeah — thinking about an art gallery located in the lobby of an energy company — it’s the perfect symbol of art in Houston.
SS: It is, that’s exactly right. And you know, the building remains committed to it. In the 1980s there were lots of companies that had gallery spaces and collections, but a lot of that changed and we prevailed.
BZ: Final thoughts?
SS: Let this be a love letter to Houston, because Houston has been really good to me. And I’m grateful for all of my relationships and connections and especially for the artists. I leave this city which has been so good to me knowing that it is more than alive and well. It’s on the cusp of, dare I say, a bit of a golden period? I will always be looking in my rear view mirror with love and respect.