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Heyd Fontenot sheds light on the future of essential San Antonio art gallery Sala Diaz 

click to enlarge Heyd Fontenot was named consulting director of Sala Diaz earlier this year. - CHRIS CREESE
  • Chris Creese
  • Heyd Fontenot was named consulting director of Sala Diaz earlier this year.
Established in 1995 by San Antonio-born artist Alejandro Diaz, Southtown stalwart Sala Diaz has played an integral role in defining the Alamo City’s distinct art scene. Not unlike Artpace — which intriguingly also opened its doors in 1995 — Sala Diaz champions the experimental and conceptual, often hosting world-class exhibitions that challenge viewers and defy categorization.

Situated in a 1920s-era duplex, Sala Diaz is essentially the public anchor of the Compound — a collection of five historic structures owned by beloved San Antonio personality Mike Casey. For decades, Casey has rented the Compound’s duplexes to local artists for a fraction of market value. In doing so, he’s invested in the careers of numerous San Antonio creatives — including Chuck Ramirez, who lived next door to Sala Diaz until his tragic death in 2010. With the late, great Ramirez as a key instigator and impromptu event planner, the Compound became an eclectic gathering place for San Antonio’s art community at large.

Since Alejandro Diaz’s 1997 departure for New York — where he still lives and works — Sala Diaz has only had three directors: Hills Snyder (1997-2015), Anjali Gupta (2015-2020) and now Heyd Fontenot, who was named consulting director earlier this year.

A native of Louisiana, Fontenot directed the Dallas-based gallery and artist residency CentralTrak from 2011 to 2016 and landed in San Antonio the following year as part of Artpace’s International Artist-in-Residence program. Following a two-year stint with Oklahoma’s Tulsa Artist Fellowship, Fontenot returned to San Antonio in 2019 and set up shop at Casa Chuck — a residency program that’s under the Sala Diaz umbrella and housed in Chuck Ramirez’s former home. Through that residency, Fontenot became an active member of the community that surrounds Sala Diaz.

“When I moved into Casa Chuck, I had known about Sala Diaz, but that was where I really got a sense of Sala Diaz and the history of Casa Chuck,” Fontenot said. “But that was also right before quarantine. I was going to parties and always invited along with people who were part of the Sala Diaz family. And then the social scene in San Antonio just evaporated due to COVID. … I was working on my own things but as I learned more about Sala Diaz through Casa Chuck, there were all these things I wanted to [propose] … types of programs or strategies to strengthen Sala Diaz. I was just thinking about the overall health of the organization and directions it might go in — just wanting to be helpful. … And then they asked me if I’d like to be the director since Anjali was leaving.”

Importantly, Fontenot has the support of both his predecessor and Sala Diaz founder Alejandro Diaz.

“It is my understanding that in these globally uncertain times Heyd has taken on the role of consulting director, which is essentially spearheading the gargantuan effort to compile a comprehensive archive of Sala Diaz’s rich 26-year-history,” said Gupta, who stepped down from her post to pursue independent curating and writing projects. “I had a great run at the most challenging and — in my opinion — important independent, experimental art space in town. I fully support Heyd in all his endeavors.”

Diaz himself said he was never able to attend Sala Diaz meetings since he lives in New York and the gatherings were held in person.

“I’m thrilled that I can now attend and have more of an active role since meetings are conducted via Zoom,” he said.

“In just these short months, Heyd has brought a series of new and exciting projects to the table. … He’s a person of many ideas and many talents and is taking a complete 360 approach to guiding Sala Diaz into its next post-COVID phase.”

We recently caught up with Fontenot to quiz him about the future of Sala Diaz, arts programming in the COVID era and the looming sale of the Compound, now on the market for $1.2 million.

Any highlights you can share about your new position?

One thing I brokered recently is that the archive of Sala Diaz has been accepted by UTSA. As I acquainted myself with Sala Diaz, and realizing what a rich history there was, and 25 years of contemporary art in San Antonio, it lined up on the timeline with Artpace. And I was like, “Wow, what kind of astrological situation allowed these two organizations to be founded at the same time?” And [they’ve] been able to sustain themselves and do so much cool stuff that really helped define San Antonio’s art scene. … As it happens, a graduate student at UTSA is going to write her dissertation on the history of Sala Diaz. Ethel Shipton is heading up an effort to collect oral histories around Sala Diaz. That resource will also enter the archive. … Alejandro Diaz is sending more things from his personal effects. He’s got things from the first few years of Sala Diaz — party pictures, video tapes that’ll enter the archive too.

When does your programming kick in?

We’re planning some shows for the fall but, due to the pandemic, I’m a little hesitant about programming that is high-contact. As we have a moment to pause, look at Sala Diaz’s 25-year history [and] dig into the archives, [I’d like to] deemphasize physical, in-person programming and gatherings. Because I just want people to be safe. … Every day, you hear people say, “Oh I can’t wait for things to be back to normal.” And guess what? Things aren’t gonna be normal. Things are going to be forever changed by this pandemic, and by this moment in history, where we’re looking at a lot of systems that weren’t working before. Especially for people of color and other oppressed minorities. Sala Diaz, being founded by a queer person of color, it’s always been an organization that considered these things.

That being said, do you have a mental list of artists that you want to get into the space, or are you going to do open calls?

Definitely not open call. Because I think that creates a rush, and I want to be really thoughtful. … I know this might sound like a pretentious example, but you know like when John Galliano takes over at Christian Dior and he’s looking at what the house meant, what the shapes were and what the house is known for? I could put my imprint on it, like immediately, but I want to be more sensitive to the history of Sala Diaz. … I have a wide network of artists that I’ve worked with before, that I’d love to work with again, and I’d love to bring them to San Antonio. But I think it’s still too early for me to say. I know that we’re gonna do a show in the fall with Celia Muñoz, [who had] one of the first shows at Sala Diaz.

click to enlarge Casa Chuck poet in residence Clemonce Heard’s forthcoming book explores the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. - HEYD FONTENOT
  • Heyd Fontenot
  • Casa Chuck poet in residence Clemonce Heard’s forthcoming book explores the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
Does your directorship carry over to Casa Chuck?

It does. I’ve got a couple of critical writers who have done projects with us since I started. … It’s been primarily a place for critics and writers. Right now, we have a poet in residence named Clem Heard. I actually invited him when we started, because Casa Chuck wasn’t occupied and Clem has this really important book that’s going to be published this fall about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. [It seemed] like a very good fit for us. It’s very timely. Also, Casa Chuck can’t really support a visual artist’s work — unless they work with miniature, because while it’s a really comfortable cottage, there’s not proper studio space. … Clem’s going to be with us most of the year. And again, that’s a product of the pandemic. Just out of safety, we don’t want a high turnover in the space, because as we’re still learning more about COVID, we wouldn’t want to endanger anyone. So, it makes sense to slow everything down. … We’re not going to embrace a model of trying to change over shows every six weeks.

I noticed that the Compound is for sale, and I’m wondering what that sale would mean for Sala Diaz.

Sala Diaz actually owns our building, and so we’re not part of that sale. But the other four houses are for sale. They’re owned by Mike Casey and they’re historic and protected by historic codes. … No one knows what’s going to happen there. But Sala is very much married to that space. … Because Mike Casey deeded it to Sala Diaz — and also just the history, and so many people have very nostalgic emotions around Chuck Ramirez and that period of time. … So, we’re not going anywhere. … But the other four houses, I guess just any variety of things could happen. It would be great if somebody stepped forward and wanted to preserve the history of the Compound. But it’s a high price tag, so who knows. … Mike Casey was so generous for so long, and I think a lot of artists probably owe so much to him in terms of what they’ve been able to do and how they’ve been able to manage time and focus on their careers because they had cheaper rent — and that’s tremendous. What Mike Casey has done for the San Antonio art scene is kind of beyond comprehension.

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