Visual Arts Live models

Three new gallery spaces take different tacks in art, business, and atmosphere

Ceramic sculpture, watercolors, and decorative oil paintings fill the walls of the RAC Gallery in the Collection on North Broadway. The Regional Artist Consortium's 90-plus members operate the space on a volunteer basis. RAC is planning a grand opening party on May 13.

The February 1 issue of Art Business News featured a roundtable with five gallery owners from across the country who discussed the factors each feels has made his or her business successful. Betty Cuningham of the eponymous Chelsea, New York, gallery seemed blissfully unaware that the rules of the Big Apple might not apply elsewhere - "I walked less than 20 feet to open at 93 Prince Street in SoHo in 1972 ... and I walked a block to open my current space ... that was determined simply because both times I wanted to be where the artists that I like and show wanted to be," she said, noting that she hadn't done any market research - but proprietors operating shops where visual art is not the cultural equivalent of one of the three R's emphasized quality product, a good sales team, and, of course, location, location, location. Three new San Antonio ventures will test the wisdom of this advice over the coming months, in a city that is supportive of alternative art spaces (read: not about the sale) but less welcoming to commercial galleries.

Stretched like Orion's Belt from Broadway near Loop 410 to Southtown, the fledgling spaces vary in content and format as well as geography. Tucked into 2000 square feet in The Collection, a brick-front cluster of boutiques, health and beauty businesses, and medical offices, RAC Gallery is the northernmost pioneer. RAC stands for the Regional Artist Consortium, a group often reviled among the contemporary art crowd because it fills the airport terminals with decorative and pictorial works that support the tourist industry vision of a San Antonio brimming with antique roses, rustic fence posts, and cowboys who've made only the slightest accommodation of modernity.

But its new gallery space, laid out like a crowded jigsaw puzzle, shows that among RAC's more than 90 members there are artists who appeal to a wider variety of sensibilities than those who choose art to match the decor (although there are plenty of works on the walls that will go nicely with your Wedgwood or your WR Dallas Ranch furniture). An abstract ceramic vessel, "Twisted Mount," by Katherine Maple, for instance, is expectant and peaceful at once, its symmetry violated carefully, the whimsy subdued by an ashen-gray crackled surface.

An unnerving 3-D jigsaw-puzzle baby is attached by ropes to another artist's ceramic wall panel, but that's about as edgy as it gets. More representative of the offerings is an endearing portrait of three silver-haired members of the Red Hat Society - ladies who lunch or take river-barge rides wearing their eye-catching chapeaus and purple dresses (you can snigger, but 600,000 members nationwide and a sell-out QVC shopping network premiere for its line of customized accessories bid you exercise discretion) - a probably unintentional updating of traditional portraiture that reveals how far women and the medium have come.

A tiny mixed-media sculpture by Chicago artist Benjamin Gardner, was on view at Blue Star's Axtryx Gallery last month. A new group show, The Motivational Power of Love, opens Saturday, April 16.

All in all, RAC's wares suggest that the volunteers who run the gallery chose an appropriate location when "the opportunity presented itself" as Co-Director Linda Hartman describes it. With post-9-11 security keeping all but ticketed passengers away from RAC's terminal spaces, the members needed a commercially viable venue accessible to the general public. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, several pedestrians strolled into the gallery, which is hung salon style, top to bottom, and enjoyed a cookie from a well-stocked snack table while the friendly volunteers answered questions. Small ceramic statues are priced as low as $60, and many of the paintings, especially watercolors, are under $300, and almost uniformly professionally produced. In July, RAC will put on a national juried show judged by accomplished local landscape artist and instructor Charles Field, but Hartman says they have not yet decided whether to participate officially in Contemporary Art Month or FotoSeptiembre later in the year.

Hartman seems cautiously optimistic, although she emphasizes that RAC's members will need to keep up their volunteer hours at the gallery (a one-time $100 initiation fee followed by an annual $35 membership fee and volunteer service gives artists the opportunity to show at the gallery and to apply for the terminal spaces) for the business to succeed.

At the polar opposite end of Broadway, economically and aesthetically, Katherine Warmack of Todos Los Sabados says she finally gave up the cooperative model. "I discovered that artists don't cooperate," she laughs goodnaturedly. "I do a straight 60-40 `percent` split now." The Sabados gallery, 1100 Broadway, is in transition, the enormous former garage of the original Southern Music Company location a maze of studio-like cubicles, flea-market stalls, and gallery-like partitions hung with paintings and digital prints. Warmack is making paper in her space, periodically swishing a screen through a tub of goose-down-gray pulp. When she finishes rearranging in time for May's exhibit of work by Vincent Martinez, she says, the front of the space will look more like a traditional gallery, with artists' private areas in the back half.

Amy Dame's lord of the jungle stretches out among the paintings, ceramics, and mixed-media sculpture at Todos los Sabados gallery in the old Southern Music Company building on Broadway.

Warmack says the exhibition space is booked through October, and she plans to offer drop-in papermaking on Saturdays, which should continue the relaxed, informal atmosphere that is currently Todos Los Sabados' greatest asset. The Southern Music Co. building, across the street from Maverick Park, long popular with the drug and prostitution trade, is a location waiting to happen. Among some painfully obvious mixed-media work, garage sale items, and large, low-res digital prints of images and poetry, I found a set of ceramic bowls - too big to be pinch pots, they were fold bowls - trimmed in fragile ric rac and imaginatively glazed. They were priced at $24 and $48, but the last Saturday of every month is a bid day, when customers can submit written bids and keep their fingers crossed. And in true bazaar style, Todos Los Sabados artists are willing to bargain a little, too. Warmack told me I'd broken a long dry spell with my purchase, and the extremely warm welcome I received when I walked in the door lends credence to her claim.

If she and her tenants get the word out, however, the solitude shouldn't last long. A bestiary of overgrown safari animals made of tapestry by Amy Dame (aka Amy Jones) lurks quietly, the golden lion sharpening his claws on the wall, the brown giraffes peeking shyly over a stand, a blue elephant greeting guests at the entrance. Martinez' work, crowded neon- and comics-inspired panels that fit the genre labeled New Urban Art, are an unlikely compliment to the overall craft vibe of Todos los Sabados, but with a little more organization, Todos Los Sabados could gel into a curio cabinet of unexpected delights.

New Urban Art also made a showing at Axtryx Gallery's second opening, a friend is a friend is a friend, March 19, which featured work by eight mostly out-of-town artists, live poetry, and music by Sextosol. A set of painted clown faces and a photo and painting montage titled "Warm Fuzzy Things Cuddling Warm Fuzzy Things" by sole San Antonian Beto Gonzalez were rich in allegory and social investigation while exhibiting New Urban Art's trademark amateur feel - a look that might have been dismissed as faux outsider art a few years ago but has emerged as a legitimate hip-hop (which was an urban outsider creation) related aesthetic. Chicagoans Matt Irie and Dominick Talvacchio's video looked interesting but was lost in the hubbub of live music and bright lights.

Axtryx co-founder Ethan Moore (whose cousin and partner in the gallery, Trey Moore, is a poet who will perform at the April 16 opening of the group show The Motivational Power of Love) has taken over 2,400 prime square feet on the second floor of the building that houses Blue Star Contemporary Art Center. The press release for friend expressed hope that "the sum of these experiences and the people participating will actualize the community at large," and at the opening donations were collected for local charities including San Antonio Metropolitan Ministries and Habitat for Humanity. Irie and Dominick's video might be a metaphor for Axtryx, in which the essential function is drowned out by too much of a good thing, but for Moore art seems to be a means, not an end.

"We're trying to get the community involved," he says, mentioning the next show's lineup and homelessness and healthcare in the same breath. Trey and Ethan's extended family forms the gallery's core operating group. Moore says they planned from the outset to finance Axtryx out of their own pockets for six months, at which time they'll begin seeking grants and other financial support. "We're trying to present a blank canvas that has the possibility of anything the community wants to have happen." And there really isn't a business model for that.

By Elaine Wolff