Do It Yourself Biennial
How to showcase all the great art in Texas on a shoestring budget
The slide didn't look like much. On it were a couple of long black metal armatures, like those on a typical desk lamp, in front of plain vanilla walls. On the end of each armature was a small video screen, but as the screens were turned toward each other in the slide, only one was visible. It showed a human hand. That was it.
The jurors for the Texas Biennial didn't take much time looking at the image. There just didn't appear to be much need, and considering that they had to plow through more than 3,000 slides before they could call it a day, they needed to move on. The consensus was no, that this work didn't make the cut, and they were on to other slides. But Sara Kellner, executive director of DiverseWorks ArtSpace in Houston, called a halt to the judging and told her fellow jurors that they needed to reconsider the work from her home city. She was familiar with the artist, Serena Lin Bush, and had seen the piece in person. She knew that on the screens were hands signing to each other. Kellner's personal knowledge of the artist and the work made all the difference in the jurying of the show. As a result, visitors to the 2005 Texas Biennial, opening this week and running through March at five Austin galleries, will have the chance to experience Serena Lin Bush's Speak Easy for themselves.
You know, there's something reassuring about a statewide exhibition for Texas artists having such a personal touch in the selection process. It speaks to the character of the state, to the idea that even in the rarefied realm of art, Texans will still speak up for one another, take a stand for someone they know to be of quality. According to Gallery Lombardi's Rachel Koper, one of the Austin gallery directors who has helped get this Texas Biennial off the ground (there have been predecessors, but more on that later), being able to say a few words about submissions was an important consideration. "I felt very strongly that it should be an open jury process," she says, "and that we should talk and we should pitch and if we knew something about the artist that we should [share that] instead of having this anonymous, quiet, tally-by-number thing." That attitude has a real Texan ring to it, but it also speaks to the fact that this biennial was being organized from the ground floor, by people who make the art as well as show it, whose hands are calloused and stained with paint and who know intimately the sweat in the studio and the difficulty of getting recognition for one's work. They needed to have their say "because we are an artist-managed group instead of an institutional thing," adds Koper. "It's about getting to know each other, as artists from other cities but also as gallery people from other cities."
Other Texans had tried: at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston in 1988 and at DARE in Dallas in 1993, but neither effort ever made it to a second exhibition, and the biennial name had been sitting abandoned for a decade. Joseph Phillips of Bolm Studios says that he and one of his partners, Shea Little, had been joking around about the lack of a statewide biennial and the idea that they should start one. But the joke seemed a lot less funny when Arturo Palacios of the Dougherty Arts Center and Jon Lawrence of the Eastside Artists Coop came over and said they wanted to do a big juried show. They decided to go statewide because, as Phillips puts it, "Texas art has a distinct feel to it, especially the younger stuff that's coming out." So, hey, why not go for a Texas Biennial? Camp Fig and Gallery Lombardi signed on with Bolm, the DAC, and the EAC, and the five venues began plotting their version of the big Lone Star art show.
Being as these were all small, mostly independent art spaces, funding was an immediate concern. While they spent months seeking private sponsorship, big money was not forthcoming. As a result, they had to ask for artists to pay a $30 fee to submit their work for consideration, a decision that has earned the organizers some heat from artists across the state. But Phillips insists, "There's no way we could have done this if we hadn't had a slide entry fee. It hurts to say that, but it's the truth." They're hopeful that when they do this again and they vow to do it again the fact that they've pulled it off once will make it a little easier to shake money from the tree.
But that's the hazard of the do-it-yourself biennial, and this is nothing if not a DIY enterprise. Representatives of all five galleries agreed to serve on the jury, as well as to put out the word for submissions and find jurors from across the state who could help them ensure that the exhibition was truly representative of all of Texas. Phillips: "We had a basic understanding [of what was out there across the state] we go to Houston and San Antonio and Dallas to see shows but we didn't have a real, in-depth knowledge of what was going on in those cities, so we tried to get a sampling of jurors from around the whole state that could vouch for their home scene and say, 'You know, I know that guy. His work is good.'"
According to Koper, finding someone from the western tip of the state proved the most challenging. "When I called the El Paso Museum of Art and asked for suggestions for potential jurors, they laughed at me. She said, 'Someone from Austin is calling El Paso?' The response was really positive, but there was also shock, like this had never happened."
Supplementing the Austin crew (Phillips, Little, and Jana Swec of Bolm; Palacios of the Dougherty; Lawrence of the Coop; Koper of Gallery Lombardi, and Michael Sieben and Allison Sands of Camp Fig) were artist and writer Bill Davenport of Houston, Sara Kellner of DiverseWorks in Houston, Hills Snyder of the Sala Diaz Gallery in San Antonio, Ben Fyffe of the El Paso Museum of Art, Benito Huerta of the Gallery at UT-Arlington, artist Jimmy Pena from Corpus Christi, and artist Jeff Wheeler of Lubbock. They all came into town for the jurying, with local art patrons providing housing. The process took place in the Dougherty Arts Center theatre, where prints were laid out on 40 tables covering some 2,000 square feet. Then there were more than 3,000 slides to view.
Phillips recalls, "We did a quick run-through, so we could gauge the feel and see what was out there, then we did another run-through and did a majority vote. It took eight votes to get to the next round. We took it from 670 artists to 100 artists."
Koper says that in the first round jurors chose artists rather than individual pieces. "We looked for consistency of presentation and style, and we narrowed it to 100 artists, which was actually 300 pieces. Then the second day, we went in and narrowed it down to 36 artists and about 70 pieces. 'Death by slides' is what Sara Kellner and I called it."
The final 36 artists come from a dozen Texas cities, but almost half of them live and work right here in the capital city, a fact that no doubt will raise a few eyebrows outside the city limits. "It's definitely Austin-heavy," Phillips admits, "but the pool that entered was also Austin-heavy." Statistics at the ready, Koper adds, "Two hundred seventy-five people [entered] from the Austin area. Fourteen were chosen. Out of the 90 from Houston, seven got in. So it's interesting to look at that ratio. San Antonio had four out of 46 [selected], so they actually had a higher ratio of accepted entries than anyone else."
Bolm Studios partner Jana Swec thinks the Austin jurors were actually tougher on the local artists than on those from other cities. "You knew more about their work," she says. "There were a couple of artists that I really like but I didn't wind up voting on because the pieces they submitted I didn't think were their strongest pieces. It's interesting. It made me look at a lot of people's work in a different way than I had been and judged it more harshly than I had been."
The flip side of the experience for the Austinites was the kick they got seeing how the jurors from other cities responded to Austin artists. "We all know Peat Duggins' work because of the Fresh Up Club," says Koper, "and it was really great to have all the out-of-town professionals look at it and go, 'Wow, that's great!' Jonathan Marshall, Peat Duggins, Jonas Criscoe just emerging on the Austin scene, but all of us have been interested in their work and liking their work. These are young guys who really don't have representation yet, and it was great to see the hands shoot up from Houston, you know. There was a lot of unanimous feeling that, 'Oh, wow, that's great,' regardless of how old these guys are."
"It was interesting to see what people liked and what people were turned on by," adds Swec. "And it was interesting to see how well-rounded the show turned out because of the different styles everyone liked."
Indeed, the 2005 Texas Biennial has a real balance to it, of cities, of materials, of styles, of sensibilities. You probably couldn't look at any of it and see this state in it. But look at the people who put it together and the work they did, the heart they put into it, the personal touches, and you can sure see Texas all over.
The 2005 Texas Biennial runs through March 30 at five Austin art spaces: Bolm Studios, 5309 Bolm #10; Camp Fig, 305B E. Fifth; Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd.; Eastside Artist Coop, 2109 Cesar Chavez; and Gallery Lombardi, 910 W. Third. For more information, call 397-1469, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.texasbiennial.com.