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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.
photography by Trevor Paulhus

On an evening in mid-January, the usual upper crust of the Dallas art world files into collector Alden Pinnell’s Power Station, a year-old art space near Fair Park. Among the dignitaries are über-collectors Howard Rachofsky, Marguerite Hoffman, and Kenny Goss. New York dealer Roland Augustine has flown in, and he chats in a circle with Dallas Museum of Art curator Jeffrey Grove. The opening is for artist Virginia Overton, and both her New York and Swiss dealers are here for the occasion. It is a perfect setting to hobnob with Dallas collectors, who, thanks to recession-resistant pockets and high-profile events like Two x Two for AIDS and Art, have seen their stock rise just as New York’s stock exchange has fallen.

But Overton’s opening, like Pinnell’s space, isn’t your typical Louboutin-and-Champagne affair. The Power Station was founded to offer artists like Overton the opportunity to create a site-specific installation in the raw brick shell of a former Dallas Power and Light building (one of four such buildings), playing off both the industrial architecture and the Dallas setting. Previous installations included Oscar Tuazon’s massive concrete and Douglas fir wood cube structure, which the artist built in the space and then later demolished there with the help of an old DP&L crane.

In October of last year, Norwegian artist Matias Faldbakken covered the concrete floor of The Power Station’s first level with rifle and handgun bullet casings and stuffed the second floor with cardboard storage boxes.

Overton’s installation smacks of back roads and sweaty bodies: football, pickups, and other blue-collar debris. The Tennessee native parked a beat-up Chevy truck in the space, slung work materials around the second floor, set up a television for an NFL playoff game, and carefully planned the opening night’s menu: whole roasted pig, a keg of beer, and two handles of Jack Daniel’s. A shiny middle-aged man in a striped suit coat and white shirt—collar flipped up, top button opened for his gold chain and chest hair—strolls out to where the drinks are available  and turns to his partner: “Alden couldn’t spring for a bartender?” The man’s reaction reminds me of the piece of tape Owen Wilson’s Dignan places on his nose before the bookstore heist in Bottle Rocket: why is it there? Exactly.

A moment later, Pinnell, 41, excuses himself from the crowd. He is wearing a blue flannel shirt, slouchy jeans, and well-worn boots. A friend in a bright gold jacket joins him next to a wooden box topped with a grate filled with smoldering charcoal. The two grab and lift the handles of the grate, and sparks scatter through the air. Inside, the roasting animal sizzles. Onlookers cannot believe what they are watching. As the culturati mix and mingle at the city’s first international art bash of 2012, one of Dallas’ top collectors is actually doing the cooking.
Alden Pinnell is changing how we understand the role of the big collector in the Dallas art scene, and getting his hands dirty with the cooking is just one example. Another is that he envisions The Power Station not as a way to show off his own collection, numbering around 200 works of art, but rather as a way to allow artists the opportunity to stage their work in a noncommercial setting. But something else makes Pinnell’s project truly intriguing: the way he talks about what impact he’d like to see The Power Station have on Dallas.

The Power Station, Pinnell says, is not just a boutique art space that will add to the depth and breadth of the kind of work you can see in Dallas. Though it is very much in dialogue with the international art community through Pinnell’s choice of artists, he also wants the space to, well, produce energy, to help invigorate the city.

“I have an intense interest in seeing Dallas be a different place than it was when I was at school here,” Pinnell says, referencing his time as an undergraduate at SMU in the early 1990s. “People complain and say it is not a culturally vibrant city. There doesn’t seem to be connectivity, and there is a lot of discussion about that. But I believe it can be. I absolutely believe it can be.”

I like Pinnell’s enthusiasm, but I don’t always share it. The day I met with him on the top floor of The Power Station, where there are offices and an apartment for the visiting artist, I was feeling particularly glum about the state of Dallas culture. I’ve been meeting with various Dallas collectors for weeks, and all of them are bullish about the state of the city and its cultural future. The benchmarks are all the same. There’s Two x Two for AIDS and Art, the massive fundraiser for the Dallas Museum of Art and AIDS research nonprofit amfAR. Two x Two raises millions of dollars every year by auctioning off art donated by top-notch galleries as well as cash-strapped local spaces whose owners, speaking way off the record, gripe about having to give away good work to the event just to save face, while then watching the work get sold to the tipsy wives of Dallas executives who can’t say no—the same fair-weather art aficionados who will bounce checks at Two x Two but never set foot inside a local gallery. But Two x Two, collectors counter, raises millions for the museum; brings unbeatable international attention to Dallas, its museums, and its collecting community; and has spawned not a few new arts patrons in the process. It’s hard to argue against that.

It’s also hard to argue that Dallas’ institutions aren’t strong, that, as Kenny Goss put it to me, “Jeremy Strick coming to Dallas [to head the Nasher] raised the bar for everybody.” Since Goss’ foundation relocated to a Design District space, it has churned out reliably intriguing shows by British artists. Peter Doroshenko is turning the Dallas Contemporary into a fresh, exhibition-focused, noncollecting museum in conversation with trends in the art world that are almost entirely new to Dallas. Even the Dallas Museum of Art, a perennial whipping boy for local artists, now packs a one-two punch of new executive director Maxwell Anderson and contemporary curator Jeffrey Grove.

On the other hand, Dallas continues to lose artists to major art centers. The gallery scene still struggles, and the list of quality local art spaces is still short. There are very few alternative spaces where artists can show their work in a noncommercial setting and even fewer funding avenues for such projects. And though there seemed to be enthusiasm for change a year ago, after the release of an SMU-sponsored report on the state of the Dallas art scene, it feels as if air has escaped the balloon. When Dallas Observer theater critic Elaine Liner penned an essay at the end of 2011 proclaiming an age of cultural boredom, her argument felt very much on point.

What warms me to Pinnell’s enthusiasm about Dallas, then, isn’t his optimism. Rather, it is exactly because he admits that things in Dallas outside the upper echelons have been, well, boring.

“There are a lot of people having this conversation,” Pinnell says of Dallas’ cultural vibrancy. “There are a lot of people interested in doing something on a Tuesday night besides watching Two and a Half Men. And they want to connect with other people who are interested in creative kinds of pursuits.”

Pinnell says The Power Station will try to change that, and his vision and personality make you believe that his confidence isn’t the usual Dallas boosterism.
Pinnell’s interest in what other people are doing on a Tuesday night is enough to make him something of an oddity as a collector. Most of Dallas’ major art collectors, a mix of high-profile philanthropists and quiet, under-the-radar aficionados, keep themselves very busy. Collecting can be an all-consuming passion, requiring frequent trips to New York, Los Angeles, London, and Berlin. There are the must-attend art fairs (Basel, Miami Basel, The Armory, Frieze) and relationships to cultivate around the world with artists, curators, dealers, and consultants. Though collectors like Howard Rachofsky and Kenny Goss both have spaces in Dallas that make their collections available to the general public, most collectors impact the local community indirectly, serving on boards, hosting charity events in their museumlike homes, and donating funds and loaning art to institutions.

When The Rachofsky House was completed in 1996, Alden Pinnell was just four years out of SMU, where he had earned a degree in psychology. After graduation he worked for a Dallas-based nonprofit, counseling adolescents, substance-abuse patients, and individuals with psychological disorders. He planned to pursue an advanced degree in his field, but those plans were interrupted when his father, Sheldon, a doctor and former chief of dermatology at Duke University, approached him with his patented vitamin C skin treatment. A Canadian company  wanted to import products based on Sheldon’s invention. In 1994, Pinnell and his serial entrepreneur friend, Russell Moon, started SkinCeuticals, a company they built into an industry leader in the high-end skin care products market, eventually selling the company to the L’Oréal Group in 2005. That transaction was named Deal of the Year/Southwest by finance and business magazine The Deal.

Pinnell says the first time he bought a “real painting” he was in his mid-20s, but before that, he had a hoarder instinct. “My first collection was actually black light posters, like velvet posters, as a kid,” Pinnell says. “I bought panthers and leopards and things like that. Then I remember in high school collecting Grateful Dead posters and psychedelic posters.”

Pinnell’s mother was a photographer, and she would give her son her photos as birthday presents. And when the family took trips, Pinnell remembers his parents dragging them through museums. It wasn’t until SkinCeuticals had taken off that Pinnell began purchasing more than photography and prints. “I would hit the galleries from probably the mid-1990s on,” Pinnell says. “Anytime I would go to New York or any other city, I would hit the galleries and see what was there, but I couldn’t afford to start collecting in any serious way.”

There’s a moment in every collector’s life when he decides that he is building a collection and not just compulsively buying more artwork than he has walls to hang it on. Howard Rachofsky says his watershed moment came when he commissioned the Richard Meier house. Kenny Goss says it happened when he and George Michael bought Damien Hirst’s San Sebastian, Exquisite Pain (2007), a wildly expensive work that features a bull suspended in formaldehyde and pierced with arrows. For Pinnell, the desire was always there, but he lacked the means to take his collection to the next level. “I remember going to the Chicago art fair and buying some German artist that was no doubt a mistake,” he says. “But I remember it was plaster and of a wolf, and I thought it was so serious and painterly. But in earnest, probably late 1990s is when I really started collecting, and probably around 2000 we had enough funds to buy some of the things that I would consider in the collection.”

Once you make the decision to purchase works with the intent of shaping a collection, the stakes become high. Collectors usually hire consultants, often former art dealers or curators, who help keep them apprised of goings-on in the art market, point them to new artists, and advise them on honing and fine-tuning the collection. To get the work they want, collectors building serious collections must carefully establish their reputations so as to get offered the right works by the right dealers. One way collectors have helped establish their reputations is by building homes for their collections, sometimes making them available to the public and giving their private holdings an institutional feel. In 2007, a column in the New York Times highlighting “new news” called private collections the new museums. “The Rubells paved the way in Miami,” the newspaper wrote about the prominent Florida collecting family. “Next up is Alden Pinnell’s conversion of a Dallas power station for his collection.”

The New York Times wasn’t ex-actly correct. What Alden Pinnell had in store for The Power Station wasn’t your usual collector-funded art space. Apart from the top-floor office and apartment, The Power Station doesn’t exhibit any of the works in Pinnell’s own collection. Instead, almost the entire facility is given over to exhibition space. The plan is to invite three artists a year to install work in the space. It is a simple vision born out of a single question Pinnell asked himself after purchasing the DP&L building, which used to be subdivided into three condos, including Pinnell’s own, in 2006: what is the ideal way to display art?

“I think it needs space, and it needs time,” Pinnell says. “That was something I was turning in my head when I lived here. I always thought if I had the opportunity to buy out my neighbors, I could pull out the apartments and turn it into a large exhibition hall that would give space
and time to projects.”

The Power Station’s mission, look, and feel also suit the kinds of artists that Pinnell collects. Rather than building a collection around established, name-brand artists, he is interested in emerging or midcareer artists who are still working. “This is the time that we’re living in, and I thought it would be much more interesting to work with people responding to the world,” he says.