Saving Galveston Arts Center


Fifty minutes south of Houston, cutting-edge contemporary art and extraordinary 19th-century architecture come together at the Galveston Arts Center. This unlikely yet exciting marriage of today%26#8217;s art with an architecturally significant, century-old building has produced some of the most important and intriguing exhibitions ever mounted in our region. Since 1990, curator Clint Willour has touted Texas artists, from organizing traveling shows that begin at GAC (often accompanied by insightful catalogs) surveying mid-career notables such as The Art Guys, Whitney Biennial-exhibited Amy Blakemore and Al Souza, David Aylsworth, Mary McCleary, the late Robin Utterback and cover artist Ann Stautberg to scouting and forecasting destined-to-be-major visualists including Lance Letscher, McKay Otto, Tierney Malone and Whitney Biennial%26#8211;exhibited Glassell School of Art director Joe Havel at the infancy of their careers.

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What%26#8217;s unique about Galveston Arts Center as a venue %26#8212; versus sleek, less soulful, white-walled modern and contemporary museums, nonprofits and gallery spaces %26#8212; is GAC%26#8217;s handsome palimpsest of the past: its landmark location, the 1878 First National Bank Building at 2127 Strand (Strand and 22nd Street). Long afforded National Register of Historic Places status, the structure rocketed to national fame as the poster child for cast-iron architecture in Galveston when the city was named one of the top 11 endangered places in America in April 2009. A New York Times article followed, extolling the significance and beauty of the late 19th-century cast-iron structures of Galveston, storefronts distinguished by their ornate Greek Revival and Italianate detailing %26#8212; as evidenced by GAC%26#8217;s exuberant, Corinthian-patterned ironwork.

This imprint of history inspires many artists tapped by Willour to create site-specific works that are the best of their careers. Witness Houston-based Joe Mancuso and Lisa Ludwig, who crafted, respectively, %26#8220;Mandela/Field/Still Life%26#8221; in 2002 and %26#8220;White Deer Run%26#8221; in 2001 for GAC %26#8212;%26nbsp;two standout exhibitions of the decade in Texas. Painter/sculptor Mancuso filled both floors of the high-ceilinged, two-story Center with 30,000 cast-porcelain flowers that formed the installation Field. Ludwig%26#8217;s project was equally ambitious, applying her obsession with frost and frosting to sculpted flora and fauna, which she installed throughout the vast, 19th-century first-floor interior.

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The astute Willour %26#8212;%26nbsp;approaching 500 exhibitions and 20-plus years with GAC %26#8212; has visited more artist studios than all the critics in the state combined and garnered a Legend Award and Texas Art Patron of the Year honors for his efforts. Ever resolute, he%26nbsp; refuses to let a natural disaster like Hurricane Ike impede his avant-garde programming.

Fortuitously, it is GAC%26#8217;s connection with history that saved it from being swept away by Ike: When the storm hit, the nonprofit was undergoing a restoration funded by a $250,000 grant from the Federal Save America%26#8217;s Treasures Program, alongside $678,000 from area foundations, and thus was shored up by structural scaffolding. Ironically, the 2008 hurricane strike highlighted previously undiagnosed weaknesses in the 120-year-old building, facilitating its salvation. Turn to page 39 for the update on the Center%26#8217;s $3.2 million preservation project, spearheaded by Willour and executive director, Alexandra Irvine. And see what hot Houston painter is now on view at Galveston Arts Center in Exile 2 (2501 Market Street) downtown, in the former Maceo%26#8217;s Spice %26amp; Import Company, which offers another connection with storied island history (the Maceo family was synonymous with the city%26#8217;s raucous between-the-wars liquor and gambling empire).

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