“Why is everything going on here?”: Nancy Whitenack Talks Dallas Art
Nancy Whitenack opened her first space in the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas in 1984, and has been a progressive force for the city’s artistic community throughout her career. Her various projects include Conduit Gallery, where she is the director; her recent committee involvement to facilitate the donation of art to The Resource Center, one of the largest LGBT HIV/AIDS community centers in the US; and her continued involvement with CADD (Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas), which Whitenack was instrumental in establishing in 2006. I sat with Nancy at her gallery to discuss her interests and projects.
DARREN JONES: What experiences learned in your earlier days, starting out in the 1980s, are still relevant to your work today? What’s been consistent from then until now?
NANCY WHITENACK: Everything remains surprising to me. When someone walks into the gallery, you cannot ever assume anything about them because of how they look or dress. That they are walking in means that they’re interested in art. Don’t discount people, and treat everyone with respect. I learned that early, and it has always been true. Also, we’ve had so many ups and downs, economically, and even if I’m wondering how the rent is going to be paid, something always catches; I have learned to trust that I can keep going, that I can tighten up, be lean if necessary, but I know that I am going to be able to continue to do this.
In my estimation it’s so little about commerce, it’s really about the artists, and how they create and the ideas that come out of that. It is artists who have sustained me. I work with artists long term, and when I take an artist on I place a great deal of trust in them and what they do, and I learned quickly that I have to take on work that I think is substantial, and interesting. Otherwise how can I show it in good faith, much less find someone to own it?
What are the main changes that you have witnessed during the years in Dallas, and how have they affected the art scene, and art dealing in the city?
When I opened, contemporary art and going to galleries was not something that people did. We had openings, and we’d have people in, but there wasn’t an enthusiastic embrace. Several key points made a difference. Certainly the Rachofsky family, the Roses, and the Hoffmans, who decided to give their collections to the Dallas Museum of Art, made a quantum difference in how people paid attention to the magnanimity of the gifts and material, and that caused people to look more, including at contemporary art.
The Dallas Art Fair has been a boon, not only to the Dallas public but to dealers coming into the city, who discovered that there are amazing collectors here, incredible wealth here, and great art being made here. Also the collaborative groups of artists who finally decided that they cannot sit back and wait for someone to come to them, and so they organize exhibitions and pop-up shows, which have revitalized the whole art scene and have filled it with activity. Several years ago curator Gabriel Ritter did a summer show at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) with a number of these groups, which was really helpful. It was sensational because it brought further attention to what is happening here and signaled to collectors here to look in more depth at what is happening in Dallas.
With all the progress that is being made, is there anything that has been lost, that you would like artists today to experience?
Years ago, a large group of artists used to meet every Saturday morning at Kuby’s Sausage House, and whoever got there grabbed a place at the table. It was a great time to get together, check in and talk. I don’t know if that happens anymore. Today, I get a sense that artists can often feel isolated; beyond the gallery-going they don’t perhaps get that kind of interaction. Frances Bagley, a sculptor, and a group of women would meet regularly for critiques; it’s been documented in a recent DMA show. So if those kinds of things were lost it would affect how artists connect to the community.
CentralTrak, a residency at the University of Texas at Dallas, has enlarged the parameters of what this city is and how artists perceive it. CentralTrak is a place where artists gather, hold panel discussions about artmaking, and talk about the difficulties that artists face. CentralTrak’s success in addressing such issues is down to the director, Heyd Fontenot.
Can you speak about some of the differences between the art scenes in Texas’ major cities and, I have to ask, whether there are any rivalries in their relationships?
Houston has always been the art center in Texas, and it has changed. Bill Davenport, who used to write for Glasstire, came to my gallery one day and said “What is it with you guys? Why is everything going on here?” He’s Houston-based. There was a sense that maybe Houston had lost some ground and that things were just really exploding here. He wanted to know what was making that happen, and we talked about the reasons. I loved that, because we’ve been the banking capital, not the art capital. And that has changed now. San Antonio is a unique city that has some interesting things going on in the art scene.
What I don’t understand is Austin: it has a lot of artists. It has some of the greatest art collections of any university, too, and an art library that puts NYPL’s resources to shame. But there are so few galleries. It is the number one city in terms of the coolest place to go, and for music, but not for visual art. I know why Houston was the art center. It has always had a very integrated sense of the city, in terms of ethnicity and urban development, certainly in terms of city code: a bar sits next to a residence building, sits next to frame shop, next to a church, next to a mausoleum. I think that with so few zoning laws, it made people more tolerant of their neighbors and more open. It causes people to think about how they are going to get along with whatever is happening next door.
In Dallas we are incredibly separated, and constructed to divide neighborhoods. The consequences are that when you go to most any cultural thing, it is predominately white, and that is a tragedy. And that’s got to change. The DMA has changed radically, because of its former director, Bonnie Pitman, who came in initially in the education department and she set about making people feel welcomed there. And if you go on the first Friday night of the month it is packed with a diverse mix of visitors. That’s what has to happen if you want a city that believes in itself and believes in the artists who are here. People have to feel that they are part of the whole. That’s always been on my agenda. Fort Worth is very independent and down-to-earth, and they really support what is going on there without looking to what’s happening in Dallas, although they don’t have many galleries. And of course they have these great museums like the Kimbell and The Fort Worth Modern.
Is there a sense that an artist needs to leave Texas to gain notice, and has the forming of artist collaboratives arrested the movement of artists out of Dallas?
Earlier, I would have said yes, if your intentions are to be successful and make a name, you’ve got to go to New York, and find exposure, get in the galleries there. Now, I think that is less the case. The groups of artists that have come together have created a sense of community and a sense that there is something here worth investing in. When you look at artists such as Arthur Peña, Francisco Moreno, Eli Walker, and others, they’re making good tracks, and getting attention. They have stayed right here, and have been self-motivated to make things happen. That’s what it’s about.
Stephen Lapthisophon has been of enormous importance, at the University of Texas at Arlington. He’s mentored a number of people — Jesse Morgan Barnett, Michael Mazurek, among them — who have plugged in right here and are really making things happen. Stephen has been really important in being a mentor, pushing people to get out there and do it. Younger artists have a different sense of who they are, and what the potential is and that anything is possible. You’re here? Dig in! It has fomented a different sense of energy for what is going on in the city.
Then you also have the mid-career artists who galleries and museums need to pay attention to, guys like Jay Sullivan and Robert Barsamian, who have been working hard and doing great work all along. So there is a balance to be found between supporting more established names and newer artists. We’ve just taken on Anthony Sonnenberg, who is fabulous, and I’m very excited about that; we dance with him, but we also have to make sure that we’re putting on really good shows for guys who have been with us for a long time. Making a community happen takes artists who are committed to being here, and doing things that are not commercial and engage us in different ways. And then galleries have to take risks, too. Anything can happen here in Texas: it’s part of the mystique but it’s the truth. And I have seen so many things come together in the last eight to 10 years to promote Dallas as a cultural city.
What do you rely on, recognize or look for in an artist? What tells you that you can work with them?
I really want them to be decent people! [laughing] Why work with a cad? It’s my good fortune to work with artists who are the most generous people I know. I look for someone who I think is honest and who is willing to give as well as expect us to give. It is a two-way street! It has to also be work that I am stimulated by and causes me to ask questions and want to dig in more.
I want to make sure that one artist doesn’t overlap too much with another, so that each artist has some breathing room in their style or manner and there is nothing that is so close that it becomes uncomfortable. I like things to be distinctive. We have a broad spectrum of artists, and what delights me about that is that you never know what to expect here. I look for artists with a deep sense of craft, and that know how to put elements together. I don’t meant that it has to be meticulous because I also love work that is raw, but I am fascinated by intricacy and when it takes an almost manic energy to make the art happen, I’m very drawn to artists whose work consumes them.
What are you working on now, even outside of gallery exhibitions? What is exciting to you right now?
I stay involved with the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas (CADD), of which there are 12 members. I, with others, have been really involved in trying to make the dealer group impact the community in ways that help artists and promote the idea of contemporary art. We do two events a year, one is the CADD FUNd, which is a soup dinner where we invite people to listen to six artists make presentations about projects they want to do that they don’t have money to do. The dinner costs $40, which goes into the pot, and then there is a vote at the end, someone wins, and they take the pot home. That is about engagement, which is important to me. We work at community outreach, we do bus tours to get people into private homes too as a way of looking at how and why people collect art. The LGBT Resource Center has just built a wonderful new building, and it’s been fun to work with artists to donate work to the center.
Community is important to me. These interests are about what a community can be.