A Conversation with Arturo Palacios on the eve of his move to Houston

by Kate Watson November 4, 2009

Arturo Palacios

When I heard that Arturo Palacios was moving his gallery, Art Palace, from Austin to Houston, it felt like the end of an era in my adopted hometown. When I first moved to Austin in 2006, I worked as an intern for Arturo, cutting my post-college teeth doing anything that was asked of me. I fondly remember doing everything from serious grunt work and pouring beer to editing press releases and curating my first show. In return for my labor (glamorous and decidedly otherwise), he introduced me to a tight community of peers, many of whom have done well in Austin and far beyond.

I hate to wax nostalgic for such recent history, but I am struck by how much this community has grown up in such a short time. And in tough times that have seen so many galleries closing, Palacios is expanding.

I recently had a chance to sit down with him and discuss the past, present and future at the Eastside’s newest, swankiest spot, Justine’s Brasserie.

Kate Watson (KW): How have you seen Austin change during your time here?

Arturo Palacios (AP): In 2003-2004, I saw what Fresh Up Club and Camp Fig were doing and that got me excited about the prospect of something cohesive happening here. These two spaces had a DIY model: they were run by artists with a lot more energy than money, and they were making it work. Since opening Art Palace, I think what’s changed is that more and more people are now appreciating and collecting work by this group of younger artists.  Today, through the efforts of many artists, bloggers and artist-run spaces, this younger group of artists have made themselves a big part of the conversation.   

KW: What’s the future of the Austin art community?

AP: Austin needs a lot of things; however, it serves us more to stop thinking about what Austin is not and to start thinking about what it is and can be. For artists, this place is a great incubator, a place to be ambitious and take big risks. For someone like me, Austin is still a place where an Art Palace (or Monofonus Press, Co-Lab, Birdhouse, et cetera) can be born, nurtured and can grow without the pressure of a top-heavy gallery system.  The potential is great here. 

KW: What has your role been here? What will your role be in Houston?

Art Palace in Austin

AP: When I started, it seemed like the role was to bring the work in our community to the “grownups.”  And then it shifted when Camp Fig closed and Okay Mountain and The Donkey Show opened. Then I began to see my role as part of a triangle of art spaces, as we used our limited resources to cross-promote and to get the word out about what was happening on the Eastside.

In the last couple of years, the work has shifted to getting the art out of Austin via art fairs, collaborating with spaces outside of Austin, getting national attention and placing works in important collections.  By moving to Houston, I see a continuation of these efforts, and I will be aided by being in a city that can act as more of a “portal” to the outside world.  I will be collaborating with Eleanor Williams [former Director of Finesilver Gallery and Lawndale Art Center], who will help export my artists’ work into larger art markets. Also, I’ll be planting myself next to two well-respected commercial galleries, Inman and CTRL Gallery.

KW: The shift in physical space is striking and seems like a metaphor for our two cities.

AP: Totally. And what the space in Houston is saying is “we’re here.” I don’t think I could have opened in a domestic space in Houston. Coming from the outside (Houston is my hometown, by the way), I had to plant myself into the established community. And I think it’s going to come back to this idea of taking it to a larger audience.

The new digs: the Isabella Courts building

KW: An interesting cycle. Is your “stable” of artists going to shift?

AP: Yes. There will be a shift that will probably take two years. I already work with several artists that are from Houston, and many of my artists have left Texas altogether.  Most likely, the list will shift to artists who have a connection to Texas but who aren’t necessarily here now. These new artists will also be further along in their careers.

KW: Will you maintain any presence in Austin?

AP: Yes. With Art Palace, it became difficult for me to introduce new artists after a while. It became about representing a set group of artists in a two-year show cycle. I miss being able to work with artists who have never shown in a commercial space. So I’m currently exploring my options in terms of presenting several exhibitions a year here in Austin. This is where I need developers to give me a call and say, "I have this unused space: can you do something with it?"

KW: How do we build a strong collector base here? Is that the missing piece of the “sustainability puzzle” here?

AP: One thing I’ll say is that you need the support of the institutions in town, specifically the Austin Museum of Art, the Blanton and Arthouse. The patrons of these non-profits are the same people that will support the gallery scene. Without that support, you can’t have a gallery scene.  Dana Friis-Hansen [Director of AMOA] was the reason that Art Palace was able to continue existing. He saw what I needed and provided that in a very nurturing, genuine way.

One thing I’ve learned is that educating a general audience about contemporary art and then trying to sell to them may be too big of a task for a commercial gallery. And so without that support of the institutions, galleries are going to have a hard time.  It’s a symbiotic relationship. Galleries should help museums build their patronage, while museums help build collectors.

KW: How did you get the institutional support?

AP: It’s a funny story. I was on my way home on the bus one day. I had just gotten the AMOA quarterly newsletter in the mail and I was literally highlighting supporters’ names, wondering how I could connect with them. And at that moment, I got a phone call from Dana asking me to be on AMOA’s Advisory Board. And it was like, “of course!” Other institutions have followed suit, but Dana’s support came early enough to help me cross the hump and grow into a “proper” gallery.

KW: I often think of all the tech people in this town. But how to get them in the door?!

Installation view of 2007 Jonathan Marshall show

AP:  There needs to be a culture of patronage from within the corporate environment for that to happen: it’s got to happen from within the organization from the top down. I don’t see it happening from the outside in.

I went to a fundraiser at the Menil Collection and a friend asked me how many people I thought I would know there. And I thought maybe five or six. The event was for the Menil “Contemporaries,” a group that’s under the age of forty who support the Menil on an annual basis. There were four hundred people there!
And the whole time, people kept coming up and asking when I was moving the gallery to Houston. Over and over and over again. We were taken aback. I was talking to a collector and he said, “looks like it’s time for you to shit or get off the pot.” And that’s when I decided it was time. That was a month and a half ago. I knew the space [in the Isabella Courts building] had been empty for some time. So the opening will be January 15th with a solo exhibit by Jonathan Marshall.

KW: Your presence and your endless drive will be sorely missed in Austin.

AP: Thank you.

Kate Watson is a blogger for Glasstire. She also writes for the Austin Chronicle and …might be good. She currently lives in Austin.


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