With the current show, Barry Whistler celebrates his 25th year operating his Deep Ellum gallery. We spoke with Whistler about opening and staying open, the changes in Dallas taste and collector base, and how the local art scene has changed in the past 25 years.
FrontRow: So why did you open a gallery?
Barry Whistler: I was working with Laura Carpenter, and she had opened a gallery in New York, and she later moved to Santa Fe. But she was kind of a well-known presence here – her father is Ben Carpenter of Carpenter freeway. All of Las Colinas was their ranch. She had been involved in art stuff, and they were the premier gallery in Dallas for a while. And when she started going to New York, we started doing shows with Cindy Sherman before anyone knew who Cindy Sherman was, a painter, Bill Jenson, all kinds of stuff. She did Texas but then outside of that too.
FR: So after Carpenter’s space closed, you decided to open your own space?
BW: I had a bit of a cautionary step – I opened an art moving company first. That was in like 1984. But I think it was the idea that we had been showing some of these people, and when she was going to close her gallery, a handful of artists weren’t going to have a place to show. And I had met a number of other artists through them. My background in museums had been in helping setting up the shows as a preparator. There was a side of me that wanted to continue that experience somehow but not go back into the museum world. I had been exposed to the gallery world to see the fast pace of that and I liked that. It was such a different pace than the museum world. And then I had worked out in California for about a year, and I had had some exposure to people out there that I maybe wanted to work with here that I’ve since been able to. So I felt like there was a niche that I could fill that I thought I could fill.
FR: How would you describe that niche?
BW: I think eclectic – contemporary paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, and photography – but I think there’s more non-objective, more abstraction, leaning towards that more than anything else. It is always that thing to be sort of shooting for getting the artist in the permanent collection of museums – Dallas Museum, Houston Museum, and then beyond that when we can. The quality, trying to look at people who are serious at what they are doing and trying to make a unique statement. And in some cases are established, and in some cases emerging. I think that is kind of exciting too, to have that kind of a mix. Also, some of the artists are students of the older artists. That’s exciting to me. Lawrence Lee, who we show, was a student of Michael Miller.
FR: There seems to be a split there, between the need to show museum quality work and the need to show work that you can sell in order to keep the doors open.
BW: That’s always the balance, you know, “you could show so and so and they would sell like hot cakes.” But then maybe you don’t like the work or you don’ t think it is up to the standards that we feel like we have already been able to establish with the people we have been working with. And you get feedback, by doing an exhibition and seeing what kind of response you get, and reviews, critics, and people writing about it, which helps along the way. There may be somebody that you are like “I don’t care, I like this work,” and maybe you don’t sell it – but you can’t do that with half of your stable. But maybe sometimes you can take some of those chances, and maybe with time take more of those chances.
FR: How would you describe the art scene in Dallas when you opened?
BW: It was much smaller, when you think about now. Of course there had been Valley House. I think Nancy [Whitenack, owner of Conduit Gallery] opened a year before I did. I think Craighead Green had been around, and there was another gallery called Nimbus Gallery. It felt like there were like 10 galleries that people would really go to. A much smaller community. There seems like there have been a lot more different leveled galleries that have come along – and, of course, the art spaces that have come along, the Contemporary and the MAC and in Fort Worth Community Arts Center. And TCU more recently doing that contemporary.
Part of what influenced me to even want to open a gallery, in the early 70s Janie C. Lee which was showing kind of blue chip stuff – probably the first Larry Bell “box” I ever saw, the first Ed Ruscha. She later opened a gallery Houston, but she had a pretty big impact on Dallas. There was another gallery, Courtney Sale, she was around for a short but she did some wonderful things.
FR: Is it fair to describe a shift in taste in Dallas during that time, the late 1970s, early 1980s?
BW: Well, I think there is. To me what was going on then there was almost like an exclusive taste, sort of a higher end. I mean, they were showing Rosenquist prints. One woman I worked for had Andy Warhol prints for $400, that kind of thing. So we were introducing those kinds of things. There didn’t seem to be as many grass roots experiences to take in like I feel like there are now.
FR: Has the collector base changed over the years?
BW: It does seem like it has broadened a bit. You have the young collector that comes in and wants to buy a drawing or something that is less than $500, and we still try to serve that. As Dallas has grown and has gotten, if you will, more sophisticated with the whole art community, we’ve seen a bigger and broader collector base. I mean, if you want to associate more sophisticated with collectors that can afford more expensive pieces, you see that. I think I’ve been able to move with some of that too. Some of the artists, their prices have increased, or somebody is showing with someone in New York, which bumps the price way up, and we are able to keep showing that artist. So I think that is has grown in a positive way and in an appreciation.
FR: It has always seemed to me that there was a lot of energy in the Dallas art in the early 1980s, particularly with the founding of 500x, DW Co-op, and then there have been other hot spots – maybe around 2005. In the last 25 years, what periods have struck you as the most fervent times?
BW: To me, it’s on any given weekend, when you have openings going on, and you have Centraltrak, and maybe we’re opening, and Public Trust is doing something, I think it is still pretty exciting. I mean we went over to Tom Orr and Frances Bagley’s studio last night and they were having young artists over who wanted to see their studio. And I was like, this is great. I wish there were more of that kind of thing going on, but there has been some consistency with that for 10, 12 years or so. But there was a sort of excitement with the early days of 500x, but I would think that if you are able to step back and look at it there is more going on now, with all the other venues. I think the Texas Biennial. Back then, they did a big thing, a grass roots sort of thing – what was that called the Texas Triennial.
In Fair Park?
That was DARE, I think.
Did DARE put that one on?
In 1982 or 83?
Yeah, something like that. But they were in a building in Fair Park, and it was a big deal, and it was great. But I like to think that the members of 500x, that ever evolving group over there, are doing exciting things, especially for them and their world, that’s going on right now. I think there used to be a sort of simpler approach. You might show at 500x, and then you would show with me, or maybe Craighead Green or Conduit, or something like that. Now it seems like it is less that way. Some of the younger artists are able to keep going and maybe it is not able making sales in a commercial gallery; it is about making the work and getting that in front of people. And whether they can support themselves by teaching or a day job, or that kind of thing. But you look at that kind of thing, you have Thomas [Feulmer] working for Rachofsky and he used to work for Terri Thornton [Curator of Education at the Fort Worth Modern] and that whole education thing, and the education stuff at the Nasher and the DMA. I wish more people were aware of the awards at the DMA – that’s pretty wonderful stuff and it is every year. In the old days everyone was applying for an NEA grant, over and over again, and that seems to have changed.