My first visit to Galveston happened one year ago on the invitation of Dennis Nance, the newly hired curator at the Galveston Arts Center. Over the course of the year I have watched Dennis grow into his position at the center, and his role on the island, while maintaining his own practice as an artist. In his short year at GAC, Dennis has stepped into the shoes of Clint Willour — GAC’s previous curator of 25 years — and has brought a fresh new perspective to the organization while holding a deep respect for its past. Over the course of that year our relationship changed from professional colleagues to dear friends, and we recently had the chance to sit and talk about his time here in Galveston and his own practice.
Leslie Moody Castro: You came to the Galveston Arts Center from the Lawndale Art Center in Houston. What are some of the bigger differences you noticed by the move? Tell me a little bit about curating for a smaller institution and a smaller place in general.
Dennis Nance: I was at Lawndale almost nine years and had such great coworkers, was able to work with so many great artists, and met so many people. The organization was always very nurturing for me both as an employee and an artist.
GAC’s regional focus and size is very similar to Lawndale. I also see some similarities in how these two organizations came into being. Both had a core group of artists who were at the center of the organization’s early activities in the late 70s/early 80s and both continue to have artists at the center of their mission. Both are also housed in repurposed historic buildings.
The main differences I notice between the organizations are that Lawndale works with a Programming Committee and an open-call proposal process to program their exhibitions. GAC employs a curator to determine the exhibition program. Moving into this role has offered me more autonomy in selecting exhibitions. It’s a real privilege to be given this responsibility and I don’t take it lightly. I’ve always tried to be aware of what’s happening in our region and beyond, and feel it is central to my position at GAC.
I also don’t do my job totally alone. I feel lucky to have had the chance to serve on a few juries for different awards or shows this year that have given me insights into different communities. Leslie, even your blog chronicling your adventures around the state in the lead up to the Texas Biennial has been a great resource!
Lawndale has a studio program (I miss that part of my job most!), while GAC has great neighbors at the Galveston Artist Residency who offer a truly unique residency experience. GAR has done a lot to draw attention to Galveston for their unique way of working with artists. They offer a distinct “edginess” that seasoned art-goers crave.
My goal is for GAC to continue attracting the regular Houston art audiences and supporters, but the organization is unique in that the majority of our audience are visitors who wander in during a visit to the Strand.
Galveston is also pretty eccentric and I’ve noticed people are very open to engaging and experiencing the work we are sharing.
LMC: You’re filling the shoes of Clint Willour, who was the curator at GAC for a number of years. What was it like to step into his shoes, what were some of the challenges, and what has it been like in retrospect after your first year?
DN: It’s really an honor to step into this role following Clint’s 25-year tenure. He worked with so many well-respected artists and solidified GAC’s role as an important venues. He is responsible for collecting and donating a huge amount of work, many from artists working in Houston and the region, to the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (you can see a sampling of it on view now in an exhibition at the MFAH). That’s a really big deal for an artist and something I think that is very unique to Clint’s position in the community.
In the early days he would travel across the state to pick up work. On a recent round trip to Dallas to pick up work for a show I asked myself numerous times, “How did Clint do this!?” GAC turns over three galleries on one week, eight times a year.
During all my time at Lawndale, Clint was a constant supporter and advocate for artists working in the region. Clint’s experience and network goes very deep though, so my goal is to not loose these individuals in the transition. Clint has also been very supportive of me during the transition.
I joined the organization a year after they returned to their original building following a renovation spurred by damages cause during Hurricane Ike. Much of the focus of the organization was on raising capital funds for this work, so there are some growing pains to shift this support to the activities of the organization and the artists we work with. One of my primary goals is to increase support for exhibiting artists in the immediate future.
LMC: You don’t live in Galveston, and keeping your residence in Houston was a deliberate decision. Why did you decide to share the job in such a way?
DN: I’m following in Clint’s footsteps in the decision to work between Houston and Galveston. This arrangement was actually part of the job when I was hired. I think it’s important for me to be active on the mainland to keep GAC visible off the island and keep the arts center engaged in a larger dialog. For me it’s more important to be out visiting with artists and seeing shows around the state. In this way, the more mobile I can be the better work I can do. Of course, it would be really dreamy to wake up and take a walk on the beach some days instead of fighting the traffic on I-45.
Galveston has a small, tight-knit arts community and I am committed to collaborating and engaging with organizations and artists who live on the island. The island is rich in history.
LMC: We’ve had a lot of conversations in the past about how we are always the face of something, and about our role in the public sphere in general. Tell me more about being the public face of GAC, or your public role as the curator and the balance that requires personally.
DN: I think this comes with the territory of working in arts non-profits, as well as being an artist. I share this responsibility with everyone I work with and we all intersect with different circles. Of course as an artist, you need to be in the studio and that time is pretty sacred. Working in arts non-profits, you have to put in some desk time, but there is a lot to be gained by being present and out in the community. I realized this when I worked at Lawndale and the conversations are very similar now that I work at GAC. People always want to hear about what’s going on with your organization. Most of my conversations lately start with “How’s Galveston?” There’s a lot to be said about that opportunity to tell someone about what you’re working on face-to-face.
For Galveston specifically, the causeway creates a physical, as well a sort of psychological/mental barrier between the island and the mainland. Being able to disconnect is part of the joy of the island. I totally respect that division, but there is a need for GAC to maintain a strong connection to the region it represents and is supported by. Having artists from across the state and region exhibit their work in Galveston is my primary focus but being present and active in artist communities throughout the region is equally important.
I’ve also been really fortunate over the past two years to have the opportunity to serve on a few panels. In the past two years I’ve served on review panels for Texas Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Houston Arts Alliance, to name a few. I’ve juried student exhibitions at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas Tech in Lubbock, Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, and the University of Houston at Clear Lake. This was also my first year to review portfolios at the FotoFest Meeting Place. There was also the recent Tito’s Prize for Big Medium and a few others.
LMC: You also have your own practice as an artist. How do you balance the two, and what do you have upcoming that you’re really excited about?
DN: I’ve always tried to find a way to maintain some type of artist practice. It’s ultimately why I got into working in arts organizations in the first place and is very important to me. There are definite peaks and lulls in production based my work schedule. At times it can be like having two full time jobs, but these worlds always have points of intersection.
In my current role as curator at GAC, I am also navigating the often-blurry line between being an artist and curator. In some ways, my artist practice helps me better understand and advocate for the needs of artists. I’m also always learning so much from the artists I work with. Granted, there is some cultural capital that comes with working in an arts organization. I am aware of the privileged platform that this position offers me and do my best to make some boundaries and distinctions between my role with the organization and my role as an individual artist.
On the immediate horizon, I’m really excited about a collaboration I’m working on with the Education Department at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. Using my costumes as a starting point, I’m working with the organization to develop an interactive activity for the community in their Art Lab space that will be on view from October 2018 through March 2019. I’m also working on a small exhibition at the Wedge Space, a former waiting room turned into a gallery space at the Houston Community College Southeast Campus.
LMC: Sewing is a critical element in your practice. Why did you decide to start sewing and when? Tell me the story (please 😉 ).
DN: My mother bought be a sewing machine for my birthday about 8 years ago. I had made some work from textiles in the past, but they were mainly hand sewn.
Halloween of that year was really where the costumes all started. My friend and Lawndale co-worker, Emily Link, fueled a lot of this. We made it mandatory to wear costumes on Halloween at Lawndale and we tried to go over the top with it. Later that same year, Elaine Bradford had a Christmas party and we just kept the costume making going.
The shirts I make aren’t necessarily “art” but became a way for me to have a “uniform” of sorts. I made one for my partner, James, soon after we started dating. He had a fun collection of what he called “Friday shirts”. We’re about the same size, so since then I’ve slowly transitioned to only wearing shirts that I make. They’re made from quilting fabrics, and occasionally we’ll print a custom print. There is a LOT of labor that goes into making one, but ultimately it gives me a few hours of manual labor at the machine and lets me disconnect a bit or think through something. It’s that “flow” feeling you get when you stuff envelopes or do a repetitive task. It’s frustrating, but sort of meditative once you get into it.
Sewing and making wearables, in a way, comes from trying to find ways to make work that can be presented outside of the normal exhibition setting. I think the costumes are actually most effective outside of a gallery setting. I also really enjoy that people who may not be into art can enjoy them. They’re meant to be fun.
LMC: You were awarded second place in the Alien Costume Contest in 2014 at the Roswell NM UFO Festival. I really want to know everything about it. What was your costume, why did you submit? How did you find out about the competition? This is the best…YOU are the best!
DN: I went on a road trip to New Mexico with my partner James in the summer of 2014. Around that time I had a few costumes I had made and brought them along with me in hopes of finding places to photograph them. One was a pink space suit I made for a project with BOX 13. On our way west, we stopped in Roswell and saw posters for their annual UFO Festival a few days later. We decided to time our return trip so we would pass back through Roswell and I’d enter the contest.
The morning of the festival we sped from Albuquerque to make it on time. I didn’t realize you had to fax your entry form in before the actual contest and no one was answering the phones, so we just showed up. I was turned away at first, but then allowed to enter. We basically sat around in a really hot auditorium for a few hours, then paraded in front of the judges (made up residents from the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program) and audience. The woman who won first prize apparently wins every year, and she totally deserved it! She had a giant costume made out of pool noodles that year.
LMC: What is next on the horizon at the GAC?
DN: We’re opening 2 exhibitions on August 25th. In our second floor galleries, we’re presenting an exhibition titled Visual Pathology. The exhibition is the result of an ongoing collaboration with the Department of Pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston (the oldest medical school in Texas). The exhibition centers around the university’s historic specimen collections, specifically a collection of pathological specimens dating from the early 1900s. Five artists have been working with a group of pathologists at the university to create work based on the collection and current research taking place at UTMB.
In the main space downstairs, Jesse Morgan Barnett is presenting work based on his correspondence with Valery Spiridonov. Spiridonov was the first confirmed full head/body transplant patient. While the operation was canceled, it was a starting point for the work Jesse is making for the exhibition. I’m interested in how this exhibition will offer an alternative entry point to work being made about the body and diseases upstairs.
On the horizon, in October GAC will present an exhibition by Buster Graybill of sculptures made from materials associated with outdoor leisure activities, alongside his lawn chair strap paintings. Jasmyne Graybill will show her small-scale sculptures made from intricately manipulated polymer clay to resemble mold cultures. Houston-based artist Bill Willis will present an exhibition of paintings based on images sourced from vintage recipe books.
In late November, Kaneem Smith is working on an exhibition referencing local connections to trade (specifically of coffee and cotton) for the main gallery, along with work from Renata Lucia’s News vs. Nature series and Lina Dib’s interactive video piece Threshhold for the second floor galleries.
In 2019, I’m excited to bring Miss Pussycat’s puppets and video work for our second-floor galleries, along with a sound installation using Quintron’s Drum Buddy in the second floor vault. Shows are also in the works featuring Camp Bosworth, Brad Tucker, Erin Curtis, and more!