When Aimèe Everett first visited the empty 19th-century building in Bartlett earlier this year, the Austin artist noticed a bit of color peeking out from underneath plaster that covered an interior brick wall.
Everett was there with independent curator Leslie Moody Castro; Jonas Criscoe, artist and cofounder of the ICOSA art collective; and artists Jade Walker, M.E. Laursen and Mark Menjivar. Also there was Robert Zalkin, the developer who a few years ago bought more than a dozen historic buildings in downtown Bartlett, a small town about an hour northeast of Austin.
The group was there to plan the Bartlett Project, a four-artist exhibition in an otherwise empty building on East Clark Street, Bartlett’s once glorious thoroughfare.
Everett pointed out the mural to Zalkin and the two even picked at the plaster to see what they could see.
“Had I known that it would be the demise of my work, maybe I wouldn’t have pointed out that mural,” Everett told me.
That demise came when a crew charged with excavating the hidden General Arthur Cigars mural began work just days before the exhibition opened in mid-June. Everett, who is Black, had been in the midst of installing “Seeing Ghosts,” a multi-part work that includes a quilt-like collage of photographs of Black Bartlett residents, strung across the space by a cord anchored to the wall with the mural. The artwork addresses the overlooked and untold history of Bartlett’s Black community. Everett interviewed Black people in the town, gathering their stories and using their family photographs and other historical images in the quilt collage.
The work crew returned several more times in the days after the exhibition’s June 12 public opening. By June 18, Everett’s delicate collage quilt had been knocked down and damaged. She removed the piece from the exhibition.
Everett has now engaged an attorney who has advised her to limit her public comments. Before she did, she posted several times to Instagram, writing, “I made wonderful connections and learned a great deal about the town and the erasure of Black histories… the stories of the Black community of Bartlett is once again willfully erased.”
In a phone conversation, Everett told me: “The trust with all the people involved in this project has been lost. I created a piece for the Black community in Bartlett, asked them to participate in the creation of it, and they really didn’t even have a chance to even see it.”
‘A nice place for them to thrive’
Straddling both Williamson and Bell counties, Bartlett has a population of 1,879 with a Black population of 18.8% and a Hispanic population of 41.9%, according to recent data. Its Williamson County area is considered part of the Austin-Round Rock MSA.
Bartlett’s poverty rate is just over 20%, above the national average; for its Black residents, it’s 24%.
Zalkin made a few headlines in early 2019 when he purchased 15 historic buildings in downtown Bartlett. An entrepreneur based in the small city of Liberty, New York, Zalkin had literally traveled the roads of Texas “in hopes of finding a small town to help revitalize,” he said.
He was awestruck by Bartlett. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bartlett Historic District consists several blocks of virtually unrenovated commercial buildings dating back to the early 1900s, remnants of the town’s once thriving cotton industry.
“Each building has so much individual architectural character,” Zalkin said.
Zalkin told me he envisions live-work places for artists and artisans, local businesses and restaurants. The just finished Common Space is in a 5,000-square-foot building on East Clark Street and has 10 studios, a gallery and a shared workshop. The 160-square-foot studios rent for $400 per month; Criscoe is collaborating with Zalkin and is the Common Space manager.
“I want to enhance the already existing community of artists and artisans, and bring in more to Bartlett and have a nice place for them to thrive,” Zalkin said, adding that he doesn’t view Bartlett as a short-term investment. “An undertaking like this doesn’t happen overnight. I have an extremely long-term horizon on this project being realized, like 10-plus years.”
(Zalkin isn’t the only one busy redeveloping Bartlett. Realtor Jennifer Welch recently transformed both the Bartlett National Bank building and the landmarked 1899 Bartlett First Presbytarian Church into Airbnb rentals.)
Criscoe is a cofounder of the 20-member Austin art collective ICOSA which operates a small gallery, staging shows mostly of its own artists. In 2019 he answered an ad in Glasstire that Zalkin had placed about art opportunities in Bartlett. After meeting Zalkin, Criscoe brought Moody Castro on board as a curator and ICOSA agreed to be the organizational sponsor of a project in Bartlett.
Moody Castro divides her time between Austin and Mexico City, where she is also a partner of AtravesARTE, a boutique travel service that arranges contemporary art tours. As an independent curator she describes her practice as “based on itinerancy and collaboration” and has curated, among other shows, the 2019 Vignette Art Fair in Dallas, the 2017 Texas Biennial and the Open Arts program at Facebook’s Austin office. She’s writing a series of first-person articles on her experience with the Bartlett Project for Glasstire.
For its part, ICOSA “viewed Bartlett as another opportunity to expand our community interactions beyond Austin,” the collective wrote in an email to me. “We were not naïve to how art placemaking can be used as a mechanism by developers. Zalkin gave support without creative constraints.”
Originally, the Bartlett Project was to involve a residency situation with artists living and working together. But then the pandemic happened, and after reconsiderations and delays, what emerged was the current exhibition involving four artists, chosen by Moody Castro. The artists were given access to the building for at least three months and invited to use materials they found in it. And they were charged with creating art works that responded to the Bartlett community.
The building housing the exhibition and in which the artists worked for several months, 221 East Clark Street, has no electricity.
Zalkin funded an $8,000 project budget. From that Moody Castro received $3,000 along with free access to an apartment in Bartlett owned by Zalkin. ICOSA received $600 for its role as project sponsor. Moody Castro said that artists were each given $1,175 to complete their project.
The artists were also asked to sign a project agreement. And Zalkin and Moody Castro had a signed memo of understanding.
About a week before the exhibition opened, Moody Castro told me that she discovered a worker in the space chipping away at the mural wall.
“I ran in and just started screaming at the guy working that he had to stop immediately, that he absolutely couldn’t be in the building and that he had to clean up and leave,” Moody Castro said.
The workers were there at the behest of Zalkin. He told me that through a third party he had found someone with experience uncovering murals. “They assured me that they would be neat and clean and super respectful of the artist’s work,” he said.
Everett arrived on June 5 to find that the mural was suddenly under construction. She told me, “No one called me to tell me that construction work was going on around my installation, I found out on my own when I arrived there on June 5.”
Everett said that Moody Castro informed her that the work on the mural would stop by June 11, the day before exhibition opening and when Everett was due to complete work on her installation.
Moody Castro said she called Zalkin, who said he ordered the work to cease. But his directive to the third party, who had in turn subcontracted the hiring of the crew, “got misinterpreted down the line and everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong,” he told me. Moody Castro insisted to me that she told the workers, and Zalkin, that work had to stop.
However on June 16, a few days after the exhibition opened, Everett saw on the Downtown Bartlett Instagram account that work on the mural had continued. (The post has since been deleted.) Everett said Moody Castro told her that “she would throw a sheet of plastic on my artwork to protect it and she would tell the workers to work around it until she could talk to Robert,” Everett told me. “And I objected to that. The workers should have been told to stop working immediately.”
On June 18, Everett said Moody Castro called her to say that the collage quilt, which had been attached to the wall, lay damaged on the floor.
“As an artist it’s just devastating to walk into a space and see your work on the floor,” said Everett. “It’s never normal protocol for construction to happen while there is art around. When I first found out what was happening, I asked for the work to stop, repeatedly, and it didn’t. It continued. The people who I trusted to be stewards of my work failed me.”
It goes against accepted art handling practice to allow construction work to happen in an art space while unsupervised by a facilities manager, curator, or, at the very least, an informed member of the sponsoring organization.
Now that litigation is pending, Zalkin said he is also under an attorney’s directive to limit public comment, though he said he feels horrible about what happened.
“I am so sorry Aimèe feels that her work was disrespected because that’s the last thing I wanted,” he told me. “I want to have her piece in Bartlett and have the Black community there be able to see it. I’ve offered to pay for the repair of the piece and offered Aimèe her own building to exhibit the piece. I want to make things right.”
In a written statement, ICOSA said that “we have made sincere efforts to amend the situation, advocated for funds for artwork repair (as per Aimèe’s request), offered artist labor and facilities to repair the artwork, offered a future exhibition opportunity in the ICOSA gallery space.”
For her part, Moody Castro said: “I feel terrible that this has happened, I hate that trust has been lost. I would like this to be resolved in a way that all parties can walk away feeling OK. But I don’t know that we are at that point any more, unfortunately.”
‘What’s being forgotten here is Bartlett’
The questionable curatorial practices and the general failure of communication in Bartlett is a cautionary tale of what happens when artists and arts organizations, well-meaning as they may be, engage in ambitious collaborations with private non-art entities.
Amid the current calls for racial and cultural equity, the art world also faces a long overdue reckoning with accountability for and transparency in its management, fundraising, and its treatment of artists and art workers. The activities of Strike MoMA, for example, have challenged the troublesome sources of philanthropy funding the storied New York museum. And employees at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts questioned the health safety protocols when the wealthy institution became the first major museum in the United States to reopen during the pandemic.
In a perfect world, better accountability and professionalism could be modeled in projects initiated by artists themselves. After all, artists fill the ranks of those advocating for change in their industry. But the world isn’t perfect. Especially the art world.
Criscoe, who arguably started the Bartlett Project ball rolling and is listed on the project website as a facilitator, told me via an email me that he would only answer questions related to Common Space, the Bartlett coworking studio. Criscoe wrote me that “anything pertaining to the Bartlett Project (exhibition)” he would only answer as part of ICOSA’s group response “due to the collective nature of our organization (as) everyone feels that this would be the best way to proceed so that all of our member’s voices can be heard in an equitable way.”
As a collective, ICOSA has no director, no spokesperson, no public programs coordinator responsible for overseeing a project outside its gallery. ICOSA requested that I submit questions in an email as they would only conduct an interview in writing. It took them three days to respond. (In an almost silly Wizard of Oz-like fashion even emails from ICOSA come unsigned by any individual member, as if they were typed out together by the 20-member collective.)
In its response to my questions, ICOSA described its role as an “umbrella organization” offering the Bartlett Project website support, volunteer coordinating and promotion. The collective said it gave Moody Castro “complete autonomy in regards to the selection of artists, programming, and project management for the Bartlett Project.”
Moody Castro isn’t in Bartlett now. She left for Europe on June 28 for a residency and won’t return until the exhibition’s Aug. 21 closing when a yet-to-be-described event is scheduled. She said the possibility remains that she will continue creating projects in Bartlett with Zalkin’s support.
Before she left I asked her if, in retrospect, she would have done anything differently.
“I think I could have been more forceful with the guys working there to get them to stop work on the mural,” she said. “But what we have done in Bartlett has been really great and really important. I have made incredible connections there that I don’t regret at all.”
Everett is working independently to bring “Seeing Ghosts” to Bartlett, connecting with members of the Black community there to find a place for the artwork to be exhibited. In the course of developing the piece, she heard stories of a Black community that often lacked basic utilities, such as water and electricity. Another element of her installation includes a curtain of newspaper pages, a nod to a folk practice in her native New Orleans, the belief being that the newspaper forces the evil spirits to read all words before they can enter a place to do harm.
On Instagram shortly before the exhibition opening, Everett wrote: “This piece is a blend of my offering of protection to the Black community in Bartlett and to highlight their history.”
She told me: “What saddens me is that now, all we’re talking about is how my piece was damaged, how it wasn’t protected by the people who were charged with protecting it.”
“What we need to talk about is how to protect the community engagement that we were tasked with doing in this project,” she said. “What’s being forgotten here is Bartlett.”