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Q&A: Conduit Gallery's Nancy Whitenack

by Tina Aguilar 21 May 2012 11:51 AM

In a recent interview, Whitenack talked about her 28 years in the gallery business and how she decides which artists to show.


Conduit Gallery, with owner and director Nancy Whitenack at the helm, offers inspiration and an exceptional mix of talent in the Design District. In a recent interview, Whitenack talked about her 28 years in the gallery business and how she decides which artists to show.

Tina Aguilar: Tell me about your array of artists and who you cultivate.

Nancy Whitenack: We have a tremendous group of artists that we work with and a number of those artists are people I have worked with for 25 years. They are at this point mid-career artists, who are not going away; they are committed to what they are doing. And even though maybe we’ve had some ups and downs, in terms of what their direction is, I am very loyal to the artists I work with and I am going to be with them through those ups and downs. We have a really strong group of artists who steadily work. For each artist the work changes, and we are privy to studio visits and are always tracking where those changes are, where those 90 degree turns happen and so forth. And those are people I really count on – those artists, they are generous, bright to brilliant, and they keep us going with their own enthusiasm for their work and the amazing things they come up with. Along with that we represent a group of young artists who are more recently out of school, having just completed MFAs. It’s really a treat to introduce those artists to the community and begin getting people interested in looking at the work and following these young careers.

T.A.: Three words that describe the gallery?

N.W.: Changing, constant change. We don’t show one kind of work. Variety, we show a broad selection of images, media, and I enjoy that about our program. I think the quality is of a certain character, and that’s important.

T.A.: Tell me about the beginning of Conduit Gallery and some of your stepping stones.

N.W.: I started the gallery in 1984 with no prior experience in the gallery business, so it was kind of a leap of faith for me. I had to really learn everything about what you do to run a gallery. How you support artists, where you find clients and the whole ball of wax. I was a teacher previously, and I have always loved the visual arts. I’ve been an inveterate gallery and museumgoer all of my life, so that part I kind of knew about; but running a gallery is a whole different thing. It’s been quite a journey. I opened the gallery when the economy was in the tank. The good part of that, probably, is I had nowhere to go but up. I started in Deep Ellum on Elm Street, and my former husband and I worked on the space. We literally did the plumbing and all the sheet rocking. Every part of it was an enterprise that we put our blood, sweat and tears into, so I feel like I can do most anything, out of necessity. I moved the gallery from Elm Street over to Main Street – seven years after we opened the other space – to Undermain Building, which is a building I have always loved, and I was really delighted to get into that space. It was on the second floor, so it was a little more out of the way. It was definitely a destination.

And in 2001, I decided that I needed to leave Deep Ellum and either do something different or just really find a different neighborhood for the gallery. I started looking around and found this space in the Design District. It was a perfect gallery space, they wanted way to much rent and while I was thinking about it, 9/11 happened, and so all bets were off. Then, by the end of October that year, I said “No, I’ve got to do this anyway.” And so, I started negotiating for the space and ended up moving in May of 2002 into this space in the Design District, and it has been a great place for the gallery.

T.A.: What’s the benefit to being in the Dallas Design District?

N.W.: There are great showrooms here that have fantastic furniture and so forth, so it’s a very sympathetic arrangement, I think. People come down here anyway, there’s great parking, and I’ve been lucky enough to encourage other galleries to move down here. It’s become the main gallery destination in Dallas. That’s been helpful to all of us because we do openings together and it encourages large numbers of people to come out.

T.A.: Tell me about the Project Room?

N.W.: Danette Dufilho curates the Project Room. That is a space reserved for artists not represented by the gallery. Generally they are young artists who have just finished an MFA or BFA in schools anywhere. Danette finds really good people from across the country, so we’ve shown a really broad array of artists, materials, installations, videos – all kinds of things in the Project Room. It is a really exciting part of our program because people never know what to expect. When you come in the two main galleries, primarily those are artists we represent, you know the artists, generally; but in the Project Room you never know, so it gives us a good element of surprise.

T.A.: With the range of your artists and the opportunity with the Project Room, is there a certain process that you prefer when you are looking for artists?

N.W.: Probably the way I am most inclined to look at work is if an artist I represent says, “This is an artist whose work I find interesting and I think you ought to look at it.” Then I absolutely pay attention to that. We get a lot of submissions and, frankly, I feel covered over already just trying to keep things moving. And I’m not as attentive to looking at things that are mailed in to us as I should be. If someone sends a link via e-mail, that’s probably the easiest way to get a sense of stuff and I am more inclined to do that. Sometimes Danette will go through and cull submissions and put a stack for me to look at. And that helps a lot. I try to pay attention to juried shows and things that are going on, so I do see what’s out there. That’s important, and I want to make sure that I know what’s going on.

Stephen Knapp, False Prophet, 2012, light, glass, & stainless steel hardware, on view in the Project Room

T.A.: Tell me about your May artists.

N.W.: We are showing Margaret Meehan. It is the exhibition that comes from Women & Their Work and is an installation that I think is powerful. Along with her work is an installation by Heyd Fontenot, who is here at CentralTrak. His work is figurative. I think the two artists work really well together.

T.A.: During this interview we’ve had a sort of “day in the life of” energy all around us with guests coming into the gallery and even a purchase.

N.W.: You know, maybe that’s one of the things I like most about the gallery business. There is no typical day. You start off with your list of things. Inevitably, something comes in or somebody comes in that you were not expecting or you get a phone call and you’ve got to run off. It’s just so varied, and I love that. Always I plan for studio visits. We are always working to get people in, and we make huge amounts of phone calls to get people in to see particular shows. So we are always delighted when those people show up, and I am always working months and months ahead on shows coming up and working on PR and stuff. So those are all things that happen ongoing. There are things that interrupt that are sometimes great interrupters that you were not expecting, that take you on a different path.

T.A.: Before we end our conversation, what’s new with Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas (CADD)?

N.W.: We are back and really making some exciting things happen. We currently do bus tours. We did five during this year. We will start again this summer and do a series of six through the fall and spring of next year. Those bus tours include visits to artist studios, collector’s homes, galleries, sometimes the Cowboys Stadium, sometimes a non-profit area. We offer a varied mix of things, so we are committed to continuing to do that. We are going to do our second mystery dinner, which was terrific; people are already saying “When is it going to happen again?” We are also going to do a series of panel discussions that follow up, kind of in line with the State of the Arts back in January, and try to get more dialogue going among artists, dealers, collectors, interested people. So keep tuned.