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Living in the Arts District, Making Art, Ordering Room Service

by Jerome Weeks 16 Jun 2011 9:25 PM

For three months at a time, the Ross Akard Gallery and the Fairmont Hotel have given select artists a hotel room and a studio space to work in — followed by a gallery show. Sweet. It’s an artist residency program, which means these are the only working artists living in the Arts District.


One complaint about Dallas’ Arts District has been that no artists actually live there. But now a few do – if only for a few months. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports on an unusual artist residency program.

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[Hugo-glueing1sound of electric saw cutting through wood, then sounds of working, voices and drilling continue under]

For the past year, the lower lobby of the Fairmont Hotel has not exactly sounded like a luxury hotel. There’s a glassed-in studio where passersby can see a Dallas couple – working.

Hugo Garcia Urrutia and MK Semos are the latest artist-residents at the Fairmont. For three months at a time, the hotel provides a suite for a select artist to stay in and a workspace in the lobby. The artist can be a painter, sculptor, photographer — or in the case of Semos and Garcia Urrutia, a bit of all three.

The two run the Decorazon Gallery in Oak Cliff. For their own collaborations, Semos photographs cityscapes, buildings and bridges. Her husband prints the large-scale, color-rich images on three-to-four-foot pieces of reclaimed wooden flooring (sometimes new flooring and sometimes salvaged auto windshields). They call these works “Wooden Postcards” because they’re often related to their travels.

Sin Limite, custom print on reclaimed wood flooring, 2009

Semos: “His background being architecture and mine photography, what we do is more sculptural imagery, I guess you could call it. And we’ve just gotten back from a six-week trip to Asia. Of course, the entire time I’m there, I’m constantly shooting with my camera. Now what we’d like to focus on during our residency is this Asian material.”

Bryan Embry, the owner of the Ross Akard Gallery in the Fairmont, developed the artist residency program with Shannah Milstead, who was the hotel’s director of sales and marketing (she’s since been transferred to Hawaii, which would indicate she must have been doing something right). Milstead says the Fairmont corporation likes to make each of its 56 hotels “authentically local.”

She wanted to make the Fairmont the hotel of the Arts District — first with the gallery, then a residency program. Hotels like the Ace Hotel in New York and the Belmont in Dallas, have also been experimenting with artists residencies of various kinds. There’s even a literary one at the  Savoy in London (a Fairmont property).

brian-embry1-246x300Milstead: “So I decided at that point, OK, Bryan, you have connections with artists, you know what’s good, what would work well with our brand and our guests, let’s collaborate and create this program.”

Bryan Embry (left): “The hotel has been unbelievably accommodating for the artists, which is really unique for a hotel to come out of their comfort zone with artists because they can be a lot different to work with.”

Long-term stays are not standard at the Fairmont, but Milstead knew the hotel has a top-floor penthouse that’s not often used — because you have to use a stairway to reach it from the 24th floor. It was originally built as an executive penthouse for visiting directors.

[ambient sound, key snicking through lock, door unlatching and opening]

Garcia Urrutia: “So we’re really spoiled now because they clean our room everyday.”

Semos: “I haven’t made a bed in three months [laughs]”

The penthouse is sub-divided into suites. The one the artists have faces northwest with a sweeping view across Woodall Rogers Freeway, past Victory Park, past I-35, past I-30.

[ambient sound, clatter of coffee cup]

Garcia Urrutia: “This is where we have our morning coffee. We read The New York Times and we can see how the weather’s going to be for the day. We’ve seen amazing storms and scary storms from here.”

Semos: “And the sunset goes down here – “

Garcia Urrutia: “Oh yeah.”

Semons: “ – kind of. Right now, the W Hotel is in the way, but –”

Garcia Urrutia: [laughs]

Semos: “Get out of the way, W.”


But the purpose of the program isn’t to enjoy the view or the room service — which the hotel discounts for the artists (one drawback of living downtown: there aren’t many grocery stores). The purpose is getting the space and the time for the artists to work, to concentrate on a project. Each residency ends with an exhibition at the Ross Akard Gallery. Garcia Urrutia and Semos are getting 15-20 new pieces ready for their show. It’ll be called “Happy Endings” — because Garcia Urrutia has been accepted into the School of Architecture, London. The couple will be leaving Dallas for England soon.

Before they go, one of their finished artworks will be donated to the Fairmont.  That’s one advantage the program gives the hotel.

Milstead: “We get a permanent piece, a unique piece that’s placed in the hotel. So it’s a great way to add art to the property. It’s also fantastic marketing and public relations, so it’s a good story.”

It’s also a good way for the Fairmont to develop its own, on-site, contemporary art collection.

The Fairmont artists-in-residence (so far), in chronological order:

Zach Saucedo
George Fowler
Sean Springer
Hugo Garcia Urrutia and MK Semos