With pristine white walls and concrete floors, DORF is a new exhibition space in Austin. It is also a two-car garage in South Austin.
DORF debuted on the recent West Austin Studio Tour, its inaugural exhibition — “Landscapes, Portraits and Still Lifes” — is an impressively strong group of Texas-based artists: Elizabeth Chapin, Jeffrey Dell, Joey Fauerso, Ana Fernandez, Raul Gonzalez, Jules Buck Jones, Drew Liverman, Raymond Uhlir and Vincent Valdez. And the exhibit continues through June 3.
DORF is, in part, the realization of the couple’s dream of having an exhibition space. It is also a reckoning with the economic realities of what is possible for independent arts endeavors in Austin’s high-cost real estate market.
For years Manche and Vanderbeek participated in the East Austin Studio Tour as tenants at Art Post. The motley grouping of buildings on East Cesar Chavez St. had since 2006 offered affordable studios for artists and artisans. But when the property changed ownership in 2015, rents were dramatically raised, and, in many cases, artist tenants were not offered new leases.
Suddenly out of their East Austin studios, Manche and Vanderbeek realized their two-car garage had a wealth of opportunity, and not just for themselves. Like many artists, the couple had always longed to operate their own gallery. Vanderbeek spent two years as part of the ICOSA Collective, who pool resources and operate a gallery. But the desire for a gallery of one’s own proved strong.
“DORF is our response to not being able to afford the rent for a permanent brick-and-mortar gallery,” says Vanderbeek.
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Last year was the final East Austin Studio Tour for Jennifer Chenoweth.
Beginning with the first EAST in 2003 — when only 28 artists participated — Chenoweth annually invited a different group of artists to exhibit in her East Second Street home. Chenoweth’s orange bungalow became an EAST fixture, an annual destination that for 16 tours showcased 50 artists and fostered a kind of regular EAST community, with Chenoweth’s homemade pozole filling the house with comforting smells.
“I’m a collaborator by nature,” says Chenoweth. “Being a studio artist is a lonely gig and it’s always more fun when you can share with others.”
Chenoweth started the non-profit Fisterra umbrella organization under which she launched a number of collaborative projects, including her EAST group exhibits.
But, life changes. And now with a blended family of six, Chenoweth says the not-large East Austin house is no longer a viable home proposition. Neither are its property taxes.
“I have been unable to break even as an artist and it’s really heartbreaking,” she says. “Austin’s lack of affordability is not just an artist’s problem, it’s an everyone problem. My family has grown, and we have to shift gears, and we can’t do that and stay in the house I’ve lived in since 1999.”
Of course, in the nearly 20 years that Chenoweth has lived just a few blocks east of IH-35, the once-modest and historically African American and Latinx neighborhood has been gentrified tremendously.
But the real bitter irony? The artist-initiated East Austin Studio Tour helped brand the Eastside as “artsy” and ripe for gentrification.
In May, EAST originators Big Medium hosted the exhibit “Fisterra Retrospective.” A sweet tribute to the 64 artists Chenoweth hosted and the community they shared, the exhibit nevertheless felt like something of a memorial too — a symbol that a community era is passing while its creative environment is commodified.
“I’m not done being an artist,” says Chenoweth. “But there isn’t any freedom and creativity in poverty.”
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So-called house galleries like DORF are not altogether new to Austin, a city which has always lacked a robust gallery economy but celebrated a plucky, DIY ethos. House- or apartment-based artist-run pop-up endeavors — which teeter on the edge of residential code violations — have long come and gone.
But in the past decade or so, a generation of increasingly more entrepreneurially-minded artists have brought a new level of professional polish to their in-home endeavors. Modest DIY venues are amplfied by web sites, social media accounts and curatorial missions. They send out press releases and solicit critical reviews. (Check out Magic the Gallery, Permanent Collection and Slantspace.)
Yet while Austin’s unaffordability is certainly a driving factor in DORF’s launch, it isn’t the only factor, Vanderbeek says. She echoes what many in art world see: That traditional brick-and-mortar art galleries are not necessarily a viable business model any more. Hyped, glossy art fairs grab the attentions of serious collectors. And yes, the internet takes its share of the art market too. Closures of small and mid-sized galleries even in art world centers like New York and London percolate in the industry press.
“People don’t shop in any industry like they once did,” Vanderbeek says. “’And I’m not sure, even if I could have afforded it, that I’d want to open a traditional brick-and-mortar art gallery. People come out for openings and events, and then hardly any one shows up during standard gallery hours. That’s not sustainable.”
(Austin has one exception to the cash-strapped, transitory, artist-run house gallery. Since 2003, the well-funded Testsite, a self-described “experimental exhibition space,” has operated out of the home of arts patron Laurence Miller.)
Like anyone running a house gallery or DIY space, finding financial sustainability is of major concern for Vanderbeek. DORF received a small amount of funding this year from the city’s Cultural Arts Community Initiatives program. And yes, she hopes sales will augment.
“Artists love to have more places to exhibit, but we also need to sell our work too.”
Vanderbeek plans perhaps four exhibits a year, with each show up for a few weeks.
“I’m not so sure Austin is losing its art scene, but it’s shifting and changing.”