When Nancy Whitenack opened Conduit Gallery, Dallas was in the midst of a creative boom. Deep Ellum was a neighborhood of “stray cats,” as Whitenack puts it—drifters, musicians, and artists who crammed into her smoke-filled storefront gallery. In the 30 years since, Whitenack’s Conduit Gallery has been the backbone of the local gallery scene, stewarding the careers of numerous artists, leading the migration of the gallery scene out of Deep Ellum and into the Design District, and always showing a willingness to turn typical commercial gallery offerings on their head.
How did you get into the gallery business?
Very much by the seat of my pants. I had been teaching in DISD for 13 years and was really just fried. I’ve always had a real interest in the visual arts, so I started trying to figure out what I might do. I worked for a couple of private dealers, trying to figure out how I would plug in. I don’t have an art degree, so going the museum route was not feasible. At the same time, my then-husband and I moved to Deep Ellum and rented a building. We developed the upstairs for our living space and the downstairs for a place to exhibit art.
And that was 30 years ago?
Yes. We moved in in 1983, and we opened the first show on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1984. I had access to University of Dallas people through relationships there, so the first several shows were with either MFA students or graduated MFA students from UD.
What was the art scene like at the time? When I moved into this building, there were lots of stray cats, you know, transients who came through the area. The Video Bar was next door to us. Laura Carpenter opened Delahunty Gallery right about that time. Elona Tan had Alternate Gallery. Ruth Wiseman was on Elm Street. There was a gallery scene of a sort. Mostly there were lots of artists who lived in Deep Ellum, and artist-studio walks every spring generated lots of traffic, which was very helpful to me.
It took me a while to begin to sell work. I had the very distinct notion that it was a matter of hanging tough for a while until people had a sense of what you were doing and what your substance was going to be. So it was kind of a slow start. I will not forget this young woman who came in and who looked like she might be 22. She had on these little white gloves with lace on them. She came in during one of the art walks and said, “I really like that. I want to buy it.” And it was like, “Really?” It was a good lesson very quickly, to not judge any book by its cover.
How has the collecting scene changed in the past 30 years? When I first started working, I felt like I was in a vacuum. It seemed like people in Dallas, for the most part, really liked impressionist artwork, but that’s where they stopped thinking. There was not much support for contemporary galleries. The museums weren’t interested. It was really hard to get people thinking about or wanting to collect contemporary art.
When did that change? When the three families—the Rachofskys, Roses, and Hoffmans—decided to really get involved with the Dallas Museum of Art and make their commitment, I think it made a big difference in how people thought about contemporary art. It forced people to go, “Okay, what is all this about?” It really changed the perception of what contemporary art is and what those issues are.
What else do you think affects the interest level in contemporary art in Dallas? The directorship of the DMA always makes a difference. When you have a director who comes around to galleries, that makes a huge difference, because the conversation is different. It depends on who the curators are and their involvement with the local artists and with local galleries. And that comes and goes.
How would you gauge the art scene today? I’d say it is certainly good at this point. The fact that there are all of these artist collaboratives makes the best difference in what’s going on, with a real different energy. When artists decide not to wait around until somebody finds them, but get together and find places to show and just get out there and work on it themselves, it’s a huge difference on how people see an art scene and how the energy changes.
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