Seven Questions for Kim Davenport, Director of the Rice University Art Gallery

by Christopher French February 7, 2002

Kim Davenport, director of Rice Gallery, at Karim Rashid’s installation Pleasurscape, 2001

1. Tell me how you came to be director of Rice Art Gallery.
I had been at the Wadsworth Athenaeum as associate curator of contemporary art a little over three years. Before that I worked at the department of European paintings at Yale, where I had stayed on after doing my graduate work. In 1994 I was giving a paper at College Art Association, which was meeting in NY that year, and heard that Rice would be interviewing candidates there. My whole educational and professional experience had been on the east coast, so my first response was, ‘Houston — where’s that?’ But I decided, ‘Why not?’

I left for my second interview in a March blizzard, and here the azaleas were blooming. I really liked the people on the committee, especially Bill Camfield, who was the driving force behind the gallery. The gallery had been in operation for at least 30 years, but there wasn’t any real focus to the exhibition program, so the committee had decided that they were either going to get the gallery on track or close it. The people who hired me were very optimistic, and they thought that the budget would be raised, which it wasn’t, right away. But they gave me a mandate, which was ‘do something different.

2. Your program is one of the only ones I know that consists entirely of site-specific installations — talk about your thinking behind that approach.
When I got here I didn’t see any institutions devoted to site-specific installations. I knew that we had to have something really large-scale, and that it had to be incredibly inexpensive, because the entire budget for the first year was $10,000. I was groping in my mind for something when I visited the Black Male show at the Whitney [Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary Art, 1994, organized by Thelma Golden]. There I saw Leon Golub‘s new work — huge canvases that were grommetted and hung on nails. I thought: ‘not bad! Golub is a great artist, and the shipping is cheap because you can just roll up the paintings.’ I had always remembered Adrian Piper‘s installation Cornered (1990), which I first saw in the street window at the New Museum a long time ago, so I got it to open with Leon’s work in January 1995. I decided to spend the money to bring Adrian down to Houston, and the response was great — our first program was jam-packed! So I began to look for other work that had a strong visual impact. This is still pretty much the way I look for art now.

3. Does the space itself dictate your choice of artists?
I always feel that the space is primary. When I first saw the gallery, a photography show was up — rows of 11-by-14 or 16-by-20 inch, silver framed photographs marching along the perimeter of the gallery, leaving the rest of the gallery empty. And the space itself rose up, and seemed to beg for something other than hanging things in a line. It’s almost a square, 40-by-44 feet, with really high ceilings and a limestone floor, with one glass wall that is essentially incoming light. Its beauty is such that it calls out for responses. I get ideas from it, and I think the artists do, too.

On the other hand, the scale of the gallery, even though it is contained within a single room, is massive. And not all artists are good at conceiving work around this kind of spatial unit. There aren’t that many artists who we can afford who are able to work in that kind of scale.

4. Do sited installations present special problems?
Sometimes things work out perfectly. I first saw the work of Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, the French artist we showed last year, at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. It was summer, and New York was hot; walking around Chelsea with absolutely nothing to see, his work was extraordinary refreshment — a beautiful installation, in perfect harmony with the space. And the people looking at the piece were mesmerized. I just knew it would work for the gallery.

Some installations, though, make me long for the regularity of a ‘normal’ show. It’s not always that cut-and-dried; there is often a negotiation. Sometimes the artist makes a proposal that won’t work, but they are willing to resolve it, so you work it out together. Sometimes they aren’t going to change, and you have to decide whether to take on the project or not. This was the case with Jennifer Steinkamp. Jennifer had an idea for the piece, which I didn’t necessarily think would be the best piece for the space, and we had numerous conversations, but she wasn’t going to change her mind. So I made the decision to accommodate her idea. Your commitment is always to the artist first, even if you don’t always know what you are going to get, even if getting there means a lot of give-and-take.

The designer Karim Rashid wanted to paint the gallery walls and ceiling with fluorescent paint. When he presented his idea, it was so basic — white platform and brightly colored walls, but paint, which required numerous coats, was $100 a gallon. We could have sought a cheaper solution, but you have to know when the artist is absolutely right. And the color was extraordinary, and Rashid’s show was one of the most popular that we’ve had. So fulfilling an artist’s vision while making ends meet is one of our challenges.

5. Outline your curatorial approach, and how you make your programming decisions.
For me curating is always an intuitive, and not an overtly rational process. I still love looking at painting and sculpture; I’m still very much interested in the idea of things on the wall. But institutionally my job is to keep the identity of this space going forward. We do four exhibitions a year, plus our new Summer Window series which we started last year, for artists to make a work that can be seen through the window, during the summer, when the gallery is closed. These are experiential art installations, and you can’t curate them out of a magazine.

I try to select people who haven’t show in Texas, to bring the best ideas I see in my research travel. Frankly, I also look for people who are good to work with, because time is short. Our lead-time is usually less than a year, which can be nerve-wracking. What I learned from working in a big museum is how insane you can become if you try to do too much without the resources to do it. Until recently our staff consisted of two people, so our first priority has been to make something really good without killing ourselves. I never want it to feel like I am sticking something in the space because it’s time for the next show — it has to be very good, and that means clear parameters.

6. Do you work with Texas artists?
The gallery’s primary mission is to show installation work by artists living outside of Texas. In the beginning I made visits to the local spaces and talked with a lot of different people about what Rice Gallery’s new mission should be. Part of that feedback was about the need to see works by artists from outside, as CAM and the Houston galleries were paying so much attention o Texas artists at that time. So following the mandate to create a unique niche for the gallery I focused on importing ideas and visions. I think this has sometimes been interpreted as if “Rice Gallery thinks that Texas artists are not good enough,” which of course is not the case. After six years of programming, it may be time to reevaluate that part of our program, but on the other hand we have this clear identity. I don’t know yet how it will evolve.

7. Can you give me a preview of upcoming attractions?
What I am most interested in now is the forms that are being created at the boundary between art and other disciplines. One person we will show next year is the young Spanish artist Ester Partegas, who is now living in New York. She is working with ideas of scale and the urban environment. Another person we have been in contact with is Petra Blaisse, a textile designer who works with Rem Koolhaus. I would also like to work with Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect who has designed housing for disaster relief made out of cardboard tubes. This aspect of his work, for instance, combines architecture and sculpture — it is neither and both.



At Rice University Art Gallery this spring:
The Tourist Project, by Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei, through February 24.
The Precious Stone and Gold Factory, a new video installation by Colombian born, New York-based video artist Adriana Arenas Ilian, March 7-April 14.
Rice Student Art Exhibition No. 39, curated by Houston artist Patricia Hernandez, April 26-May 11.

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