I first met Ricky Morales, the founder of Martha’s Contemporary — an Austin-based gallery which focuses on early career artists and mounts color-drenched, eye popping shows — in January 2019. We connected at the now-defunct hybrid gallery/studio space on Webberville Road next to his friend’s retail store. The gallery, with it’s synthetic nature elements such as an astroturf floor, blue-hued ceiling, and pink plexiglass windows, was reminiscent of a youthful indoor playground. Morales says the modifications were their best attempt at turning the “ugly” space into something pretty, “like putting makeup on a chupacabra.”
My first impression of Morales was that he was the youngest, most casual gallery owner I had ever met. He wore gym shorts, had messy hair and touted his program with sincere commitment. At the sake of looking like an easily won-over reporter, I was immediately sold. It was refreshing to know Austin was still a city where starting a gallery with your friends could be a tangible reality and not an insane pipe dream.
Morales, who had just gotten back from a day trip to Lockhart, was running late and pretty keyed up after his visit to a town that was gaining traction as the up-and-coming artist’s alternative to Austin. I remember he showed me a photo of some normcore-looking hipsters on his phone, taken from a distance, and said “these kinds of people were walking around!” in astonishment.
I got the sense he was eager to find his audience, sensitive to the latest buzz, and was not afraid to investigate a new scene he might infiltrate. At the time Morales was just beginning to experiment with what it meant to own a gallery and curate shows. Morales came into the business haphazardly, spurred by his own addiction to collecting art.
“I know collectors now that I sell to who are addicted to buying art, whether or not they have wall space,” says Morales, during a recent socially distant interview. “It’s like anything you become obsessed with. You just want more.”
Morales, 28, doesn’t have a formal background in art or a college degree, but possesses a certain entrepreneurial flair and genuine admiration for what artists do. A native Austinite, he graduated from Austin High School and worked odd jobs before starting the gallery in 2018.
He rented the Webberville Road space and initially allowed artists to use it as their studio, primarily his friend, artist Jenaro Goode. In exchange, Goode paid him in paintings. Morales says Goode motivated him to work with other early career artists. Eventually, the idea of starting a gallery was floating around and Morales and his partner, Meredith Williams — the ‘Martha’ the gallery is named for — decided to jump in feet first.
“We don’t have a lot of experience in curation or running a gallery, but the best way to do anything is to just start it,” Morales says.
Like many artists and art spaces these days, Martha’s leveraged its Instagram account to build its brand as a gallery and attract a following. The art Morales likes to show is very Instagram-friendly — it simply looks cool and translates well to a digital platform. From figurative paintings to soft sculpture, everything is steeped in contemporary culture, rich with color and pop culture references, fun to look at, and sparks a certain familiar curiosity in the viewer. A couple of my favorites are a soft sculpture of an armadillo done in silky, neon green iridescent fabric by artist John Young and a figurative painting depicting a semi-spooky, domestic scene titled “Dinner Date” by Christina Ballantyne.
Morales’ direct messages are always open and he encourages people to reach out to him.
“We didn’t really do any press releases or anything like that. We kept it extremely underground and did everything by word of mouth, Instagram, just to give us that safety net,” says Morales. “It all happened organically, and we just grew into it.”
Mostly due to Instagram connections, Morales quickly began to exhibit well-known early career artists from New York, Los Angeles, and Austin to build his program: Super Future Kid, Sam Keller, Christina Ballantyne, Christina Nicodema, Carlos Donjuan and Royal Jarmon. These early collaborations helped bring in artists that set a more national art dialogue as opposed to a hyper-local one, something Morales was looking to achieve with his artist roster.
“I don’t want it to be pretentious. I don’t want it to be over the top,” says Morales. “But I want to have a place where artists from around the country want to show because we have the clout, we have the hype, and we have the program to match it.”
After the building they were occupying on Webberville was sold, Martha’s was forced to move out of the space and seek a new home. They ended up landing a temporary deal with Williams’ father, who owns a number of properties, and moved rent free into the old More Hands Maids building on North Lamar. Their tenure there didn’t last long, and a furniture/design show BODIES was halted by the pandemic. (Martha’s has plans to do BODIES 2 at some point.)
While we lost touch after our initial interview in 2019, Martha’s came into my view again recently when I noticed the gallery reopening at a new location, its third, in Hyde Park.
When we met to discuss their move to a 1920s storefront building — the old Mondo Gallery, on Guadalupe Street, which has been in Williams’ family for generations — Morales’ was more clear in his vision for the future of Martha’s, but still carried the renegade charm with his excited way of talking about art, quick yet laid back sense of humor, and trademark plastic slides.
The new digs signify a certain level of sophistication on a prominent street in town, adjacent to the historic Hyde Park neighborhood. The white-walled, naturally lit, old style brick building better matches the caliber of work they display, Morales points out.
“At the old space, I was selling artists’ work and I was like, ‘I need the 15-foot ceilings. I need the big white walls. I need the natural light,” says Morales. “The program itself is not DIY, but the space was very DIY. I don’t like that mixture. I want the space to be able to host the art the way it should be seen.”
Morales has also been marinating on how to become more thoughtful in his curation of artworks and how Martha’s will interact as an art space in the Austin community. Unlike with the first gallery space, he hopes to expand their scope beyond paintings by artists he already knew.
“I’m stepping into several different mediums; I’m going to make sure that there’s an ongoing theme throughout all the shows. I want to make sure that every different community is represented,” he says.
Bringing in their first-ever communications director, Alexandra Alvarez, has also helped guide the gallery’s evolution and calm Morales’ sometimes manic nature. Alvarez, a longtime friend of Williams, has had a varied career in the arts working at Blue Star Contemporary in San Antonio and just recently at Gallery OMR in Mexico City.
“Both Ricky and Meredith are unicorns in Austin, they are actually from here. Their roots, community, and resources were pulled together to form this gallery, I felt that when I first met Ricky in 2019 at the old astroturf space and you still feel it when you see Meredith’s watercolor ‘hand sanitizer’ signs,” says Alvarez.
Alvarez, who has a strong background in community outreach, will bring that expertise to her new role at the gallery. She says Martha’s was birthed from an impulse, giving them raw drive that has served the gallery well so far. However, while the art world craves newness, there is something to be said for having a full understanding of your social and economic impact as a gallery operator, and Martha’s is still in that learning process.
“There is not just a seller and a buyer but a set of processes and people that go into that transaction. From the market’s influence to the archivist who logged the work, to the installer to the sales team, there are many essential hats a gallery has to wear,” says Alvarez. “Albeit (Instagram accounts like) Jerry Gagosian has blown the lid off the whole art world bourgeois dialect and humored the collective into admitting the economic drives; honing in on a base is still only navigated through experience.”
The show on view until Nov. 7 (the first in the new space), “Still Here,” contains 10 pieces which all relate to the living hell that is the year 2020. It’s comfortingly relevant and speaks to two feelings that encapsulate what this year has been so far, says Morales—apocalyptic inevitability (COVID-19 pandemic), then an apocalyptic uprising (civil unrest and BLM protests). Artists featured include Goode, Sam Keller, Eric Medel, Alfonso Gonzales Jr., Royal Jarmon, Daniel Wang, Christina Ballantyne, Adrian Armstong, Siena Smith and Payton McGowan.
“I asked the artists to loosely base work on the idea of ‘still here’ being, do you feel optimistic that you’re going to continue to be here and continue to show up? Or do you feel like you’re just dragging your feet and you’re just ‘still here’ through all the bullshit?,” says Morales.
The majority of the artists in “Still Here” have shown at Martha’s before. McGowan will have a solo show opening Nov. 20 and likewise Smith will get the spotlight in January.
Since Martha’s inception, Morales wanted to champion younger artists and set a tone of acceptance at the gallery, hopefully encouraging folks with little to no experience viewing and talking about art a space to do so without feeling judged. Morales hopes this approach will lead to more engagement, more sales, and ultimately, more money going into the gallery and into artists’ hands.
“We want to make it community oriented and have people come here for workshops, have it be a safe space for people to come learn about art. Artspeak is such a thing and art can be intimidating for people,” he says. “We want to make it very accessible for anybody to come and feel comfortable asking questions and learning and getting to know the artists.”
While a lot of local galleries offer emerging artist resources, Martha’s is the only one which solely focuses on emerging artists. The “emerging artist” classification is broad and includes MFA studio art graduates with impressive CVs, to self-taught artists who sell affordably priced reproductions of their work on stickers or T-Shirts via Etsy. Martha’s has worked with both self-taught artists and MFA graduates.
Morales says he was driven to work with younger artists because they had fresh ideas, brought an excited energy to the table, and were eager to impress. He also says as an emerging gallery, working with emerging artists makes the most sense because they are unable to show blue chip artists, but can grow alongside the emerging artists they work with.
Starting a gallery from scratch with little to no art world experience, let alone small business chops, allowed for a lot of experimentation, and much trial and error. When we spoke in 2019, Morales was doing a new show every six weeks — a demanding timeline, especially for a one man crew. This time around, he’s got the year planned out in advance.
In addition to showing a greater variety of mediums by more diverse artists, the Martha’s team is also looking to make space for middle and high school students to come to the gallery for artist-led workshops. Morales and Williams want to use the gallery’s back patio space for film screenings, as a sculpture garden and to display light-based art installations.
Walking the line between professionalism and DIY, or reputability and accessibility, can be tricky for folks forging their own path in Austin’s creative industry. Small, trendy enterprises can be cliquey, often with the lead organizers at the top of the cool kids hierarchy. Committing to accessibility in a real way often requires a look at that dynamic and how to actively avoid it, something which the Martha’s crew has considered. Morales is setting some stricter guidelines in the new space and making a conscious effort to be sensitive to all types of art viewers.
“Our shows in the past could be too much. Too many people, and too many people drinking and partying. I’m eliminating that because while you might have people who like that, you have other people that are intimidated by that kind of intensity at a party,” says Morales.
To help avoid those pitfalls, Morales says the gallery will maintain regular hours and follow CDC guidelines to make everyone feel welcome in the space. While Martha’s is welcoming to all ages, Morales has honed in on his generation as important potential buyers.
Morales says he’s looking to cultivate a new form of art collector — young professionals who have always liked art from a distance but haven’t begun to invest yet. He wants to set them up with “starter kit collections” and ideally, keep them collecting for 30 or 40 more years. Morales is currently placing art in a friend’s new condo, for example.
“Instead of finding people who are obsessed with art already, because those people exist and they are already tapping into the market, I want to cultivate a new generation of collectors,” says Morales. “I want to be able to get those kinds of people into the gallery to see works and to say, ‘okay, look, without sounding pretentious, part of growing up and part of being cultured is knowing art’.”
His business model is essentially to work with more developed collectors online and communicate with them digitally, but to bring in newer collectors in person when they visit the gallery space. Most of his more regular collectors are not new to the art collecting game and are all out of state. Works typically sell anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000, but Morales hopes to be closed to the $5000 mark more consistently in the future.
When asked if he has the mythical new-to-Austin, tech sector do-gooder in mind for these new collectors Morales surprises me by having the exact opposite, yet very relatable, stance.
“All they do is go on Rainey Street. And goddamn, they look like pricks and they make all these apartments for those people. I don’t know any of them. You know what I mean? I’ve never met any of them. I don’t know what they contribute to. And all I hear now is ‘Austin’s tech.”
Williams, who works full time at a high school as dean of special education, also helps keep the gallery organized. She says her and Morales have tried to see their naiveté to the art world as an asset, versus a hindrance, optimistically viewing it as a calming agent for other people unfamiliar with art and gallery spaces. She and Morales have been partners since they were 15. She says her favorite part of the gallery so far has been the community they have been able to create, from new friends locally to all over the world.
“I really like that we have a spot where hopefully, people feel welcome and comfortable and are excited to check out new artists and be exposed to a variety of pieces of work from people that maybe wouldn’t get to show in Austin,” says Williams.
“We’re young and we’re all learning together, and why not give somebody space to try something else?”