Temple Shipley is a highly visible enigma in Dallas art. She’s at every event, exhibition opening, and fair – both here and abroad – and is included in a number of the flash-heavy shots that mark the style of society photographs. Yet trying to find any actual information on Shipley is next to impossible. A patron may rudely whisper as she leaves a room: ‘Just what exactly does she do?’
For starters, Shipley spent a number of years as a private curator and consultant for the equally ubiquitous Dallas fixtures, collectors Debbie and Eric Green. She recently became director of Galerie Frank Elbaz, the stately Paris-based space that sits diagonally from and in the shadow of the Dallas Contemporary. As that museum currently searches for its new identity in the wake of director Justine Ludwig’s departure to New York’s Creative Time, Shipley arrives on Glass Street in an interesting transitional moment for both herself and the district. The neighborhood could use a familiar face as well as a bit of shaking up.
“There’s an opportunity for us to think about programming the space differently and it’s not a traditional gallery model, per se,” says Shipley on her new role at the gallery. “We’re not in New York. We don’t have a lot of walk-in traffic. How can we change that? How can we become a destination for students, for artists, for educators, for collectors, for curators – is something I really want to work on.”
On a recent Tuesday, Galerie Frank Elbaz was hosting an unusual weeknight opening. Temple Shipley was running from guest to guest, making sure that nothing was missed among the disparate works in the group exhibition, How to Bump into a Sculpture. The show, curated by Paul Galvez, is Shipley’s first as director of Galerie Frank Elbaz. It features work by Isabelle Cornaro, Davide Balula, and Rachel Harrison.
Standing at the reception desk, she flipped through an album of photographs from an exhibition at the Arlington Museum of Art in the mid-1990s, which also featured Harrison’s work. The well-known collector and writer Kenny Schachter was invited by then-director Joan Davidow to curate the exhibition in Arlington all those years ago, long before Davidow opened local gallery Site 131. Shipley knows a detail like this is exactly what will tie the pertinent historical thread to the work on display here, and the very different art scene of another era entirely. It was a highlight of the opening, and it’s hard to imagine a figure like Schachter returning to Arlington, Texas for any reason today.
There is an element of familial destiny in Shipley’s trajectory. Shipley’s mother is a photographer who taught at SMU for 40 years. Her father is a residential architect with an extensive résumé.
“I remember going to my dad’s job sites and watching the construction of a building from a foundation being laid to the final pieces of furniture being put in,” Shipley says as she sits in the offices of Galerie Frank Elbaz on a Monday afternoon. “Watching the entire timeline of that take place over a year, three years, was really interesting to me.” A giant black-and-white photograph of Basquiat emerging nude from a bathtub hangs behind her alongside a piece by Sheila Hicks.
“I grew up as a child being immersed in my mom’s photographic practice,” Shipley says. She witnessed her mother’s practice transition from analog to digital. Her father’s architecture practice long had its offices in the family home.
Artists such as Tom Orr, Frances Bagley, and architect Corky Cunningham of Cunningham Architects were the kind of company Shipley kept growing up, by way of her parents. These figures informed how Shipley “processed the world visually.”
Despite the strong influence, the act of creating itself did not necessarily appeal to Shipley. “I never wanted to make work,” she says. ‘Why would I make work when I can spend my time with people I like?”
The university system and the Meadows School of the Arts was Shipley’s earliest introduction to the infrastructure that surrounds art. She recalls overhearing her mother discuss office politics.
After graduating high school in Dallas, Shipley spent several months in Guanajuato, Mexico before four formative years in Chicago. She studied art history at the University of Chicago, spent a summer with the Graham Foundation, and worked with the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. She spent her junior year studying in Paris.
She also managed a student-run coffee shop in a University of Chicago basement for a number of years. Elsewhere in the building, the renowned curator and essayist Hamza Walker (now based in Los Angeles) was still curating for the Renaissance Society. Walker would bring an assortment of collaborators down to the coffee shop, giving Shipley the opportunity to interact with a variety of artists.
“This person is approachable,” Shipley says of the experience. “This person isn’t behind ten doors in a walled-off museum building.”
After a trek through some of Chicago’s most prestigious institutions, Shipley found herself back in Dallas, attempting to navigate her hometown’s radically different art environment. She fell in with the scrappy yet highly influential Oliver Francis Gallery.
“That was a big part of my life for the first couple of years that I was back,” Shipley says. “Knowing that there was a spot where younger people working in the arts—or peripherally—could go. It was an alternative to the institutional spaces in Dallas—whether private collections or the museums.”
Shipley became a McDermott intern at the Dallas Museum of Art and worked on several projects with Curator of Contemporary Art, Gabriel Ritter, who is now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She then went private, working for the Greens. The speed of private art collecting was a vast difference from the pace she had become accustomed to.
Green would express interest in a painting or artwork. Shipley would research the artist online and push to see the work in person. “Within a span of 24 hours, something could happen,” Shipley says. “That could never happen in an institution; there’s so much red tape.”
One standout moment for Shipley in her time with the Greens was traveling to New York to meet the controversial artist Dana Schutz over lunch, in order to discuss acquiring the enormous God 6. Once the appropriate wall space at the Green residence was found, Shipley describes the process of securing the painting as akin to “welcoming a new child.”
A media storm erupted in 2017 at the Whitney Biennial over Schutz’s Open Casket, a painting that depicted the impossibly tragic funeral photograph of Emmett Till. One of the most horrifically iconic images of racially-motivated violence, the photo was taken after the 14-year-old was lynched in 1955. The work was seen as exploitative since it was a white artist interpreting a painful memory of the Civil Rights era. Protests were constant and it was one of the few art world occurrences to make its way into the mainstream news cycle.
The fallout occurred just as Shipley was due to give a tour of Green’s collection to a group of high school students. They were well aware of the controversy. Rather than avoid the topic, Shipley dove into the discussion with the students, as did Green.
“Because [the collection is] behind closed doors, it doesn’t always have that; it doesn’t always spark that kind of conversation,” Shipley says. “The students also talked about it from their perspective – from a different generation.”
That brings us to last week’s TWO X TWO for AIDS and Art, where Schutz was honored. Rather than her usual role as more of a coordinator, Shipley was now stepping out as the face of a European gallery’s stateside outpost.
Shipley welcomes the change and describes herself as a liaison on behalf of both the city and the gallery. “You know us in Paris, but you don’t know us here, so come by the space and let’s have you here for the weekend and talk about what we have on the walls,” she says.
When asked about future programming at Frank Elbaz she mentions a Sheila Hicks project, as well as the possibility of seeing more from Mungo Thomson.
Seemingly comfortable with the pace of the private art world, I ask if she could see ever see herself going public in a large non-profit organization.
“I like the speed of being able to make decisions quickly and move forward and experiment,” Shipley says. “It would have to be the right institution.”