Alden Pinnell's Power Station: Where the Art Elite and the Riffraff Meet
He's one of Dallas’ more wealthy and prominent art collectors, and he wants to invigorate the city.
This approach means The Power Station will bring work to Dallas for which there is no other natural venue. Indeed, the artists exhibited so far have veered toward work that appropriates everyday or industrial objects that engage the space with a light, minimalist touch and conceptual rigor. That approach also makes The Power Station stand out in Dallas, which is one of the reasons Pinnell returned to this city from New York, where he lived for a number of years. “Dallas is at that point,” he says. “Where else could you do this and have a big metropolitan audience but an ability to buy a building close to downtown and actually make it happen?”
In New York, a project like The Power Station would just get lost among a sea of similar projects, and it would be prohibitively expensive to pull off. Dallas offers the right combination of audience and affordability. And all those clichés about Texas swagger, big hair, and big pockets? Pinnell says they actually help attract artists.
“Every single person that we’ve asked has accepted, and I do get the sense that is because it is a not-for-profit and it is not in New York or Los Angeles,” he says. “I think one thing about Dallas that people who live here underestimate is the allure that Dallas has internationally. I don’t know if it is the television show or the Dallas Cowboys, but there is no doubt that people have a fascination. We hear that a lot.” Another advantage The Power Station offers its artists is a way to escape the intensive environment of the major art centers and experiment with ideas that are outside their usual practice.
“There’s an issue with the way art is displayed, a way the machine works that I’ve always had a problem with,” Pinnell says. “And that is that artists are, in an artificial way, forced to make work for a gallery show. They put the work in there—into a space that may or may not be ideal for the kind of work they produce. Then that work goes off and is sold somewhere.”
Pinnell’s thoughts about The Power Station are counterintuitive. It’s a collector-run space, but not only does it not show work from its owner’s collection, it specifically focuses on work that is almost uncollectable.
(clockwise from left) Virginia Overton’s installation at The Power Station included football on a flat-screen and a whole roasted pig; Alden Pinnell in his office; guests chatting about Overton’s bass window decal and her sculptural boards leaning against a brick wall.photography by Trevor Paulhus
In the summer of 2011, one of the city’s top collectors hosted a small backyard reception for two artists, Aaron Curry and Thomas Houseago, who were in town from Los Angeles for an exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Guests filed through rooms filled with pieces by a number of boldface artists—Liam Gillick, Amanda Ross-Ho, Curry, and others. Outside, we took our places at white-clothed tables set up on a neatly manicured lawn, an eclectic group of patrons, curators, artists, and writers.
These kinds of mixers are not very common in Dallas. Since the arrival of director Jeremy Strick, however, the Nasher Sculpture Center has worked to create opportunities for cross-pollination between the various strata of the Dallas art world. The backyard party, like the Nasher’s opening dinners, are often fizzy events filled with spirited conversation between the top tier of the city’s patron class and the grunts: artists of all ages with firsthand knowledge of navigating Dallas’ sporadic cultural vibrancy.
But this kind of mixing can be dangerous, too. After dinner, I spotted a Dallas artist who had separated himself from the pack. He was chain-smoking next to the pool and downing glasses of wine as he chatted up one of the waitresses. Naturally, I joined him. The artist had been sandwiched at a table between two elderly collectors and one of the visiting artists, and he was suddenly barraged by questions from the patrons. Why was he still living in Dallas? What was he working on? Why hadn’t he staged a show in so long? One of the elderly collectors even went so far as to call him lazy, a mortifying accusation, particularly in front of the L.A. artist. The attack sent him into cocktail exile. “I don’t need to listen to this,” he said, taking a drag on a cigarette.
Earlier in the night, another collector had admitted to me that he thinks artists who stay in Dallas and don’t try their hand at making it in places like New York or Los Angeles don’t take their careers seriously.
Today, the contemporary art world, like every other industry, is globalized. Collectors are as much members of a nebulous, international art community, convening regularly at important art fairs, gallery openings, and biennials around the world, as they are residents of their home cities. They don’t usually purchase work from local galleries because they don’t sell work by the tier of artists they collect. Occasionally there is an overlap. Howard Rachofsky owns works by Annette Lawrence, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and other locals. Deedie Rose just purchased pieces by an up-and-coming young local painter named Bret Slater. But social habits tend to congeal into a multitiered culture. There are the patrons, surrounded by a flock of museum directors, curators, and socialites, and then there is everyone else.
That’s why I keep having to rub my ears when Pinnell speaks about The Power Station. For one, when he describes his long-term vision—staging exhibitions; publishing complementary catalogs with essays, photos, and poetry; and creating events that try to provoke conversation and dialogue around art and culture—it sounds more like he is creating his own Kunsthalle, a European art institution that allows artists opportunity to act out a singular vision in an unfettered space. Pinnell isn’t just buying art, he’s directly investing in artists’ careers.
The exhibitions at The Power Station are only a part of the collector’s long-term plans. The key, he says, is figuring out ways to create more vertical connections through the local art scene, getting everyone in the same place at the same time in order to eliminate social barriers. Those barriers help bolster the impression that Dallas art is ruled by collectors living in their fiefdoms, serving the groveling underclasses. But how can an art space run by a wealthy collector who is importing top talent for ambitious installation projects achieve this grass-roots dream? Well, how about starting by cracking open a couple of bottles of Jack Daniel’s and filling his space with both art-world elite and the general riffraff who populate the local art community?
“I don’t know what the secret is,” Pinnell says. “But I think if you can get people out doing things, that’s a start. Then, maybe some little spaces pop up and artists that are in these schools are going to have more opportunity, more activity, more energy. Then maybe you do have a gallery scene. I mean, why couldn’t that happen?”
As the Arts District is testament to, Dallas patrons don’t normally do little spaces. But Pinnell gets excited about the little things. He is keen on Oliver Francis Gallery, a ramshackle alternative space run by Kevin Jacobs, a graduate student, out of a rundown storefront a few blocks in the wrong direction from The Power Station. Pinnell also wants to leverage The Power Station so that it can be a conduit that brings together the various elements of the local arts and cultural scene.
“It is also about connecting people,” he says. “People just don’t know each other. One of the things that The Power Station can be, to a degree, is a place where people can get together. It really isn’t about a lot of money; it is about energy.”
Pinnell is now working on forging those connections, meeting people, inviting them to the space, learning who is out there and who is
doing what. “I’m excited that we’re starting to make connections with people we didn’t know existed,” Pinnell says.
This isn’t the first time a collector has tried to get in touch with the local scene. In 2009, Howard Rachofsky sponsored a series of lunches that brought together various factions of the local art community, from artists and curators to educators and media. But the Rachofsky lunches, as they came to be known, were held in a private room in the back of The Mercury restaurant on Forest Lane. It was all very prim, proper, and momentary, and Rachofsky himself didn’t attend, allowing his director of educational programming, Thomas Feulmer, to moderate the sessions. Pinnell, however, envisions The Power Station becoming a hub that sustains interest around art, both through the exhibitions and also through other yet-to-be-realized programming. And he hopes the conversations and excitement they cultivate can create spillover and a wider entrepreneurial spirit in the local art scene. “It is about people saying, ‘I want to do something just because I want to do it,’ ” Pinnell says. “Do something, even if it is crazy.”
The Power Station may be novel for Dallas, but it is certainly not spontaneous. The institution is still young, and Pinnell has been a slow actor. The New York Times reported on The Power Station in 2007, but it didn’t launch its first show until 2011. That’s partly because Pinnell is taking his time and trying to maintain a long view. Before he does anything, he wants to makes sure he is doing things right. It’s the same kind of discrimination, judgment, and patience that make a good art collector. Whether those qualities also make a good cultural connector is yet to be seen. But Pinnell has shown that he wants to invest in a civic project that is designed to create conversation. He believes in the power of art to create discourse and that discourse creates better cities. That the city needs more discourse between its various echelons is clear. It needs more friction between those who represent this city’s cultural activity to the world and those who sustain its cultural character on the ground floor. The Power Station just might be the conduit that makes that happen.
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