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Q&A: Holly Johnson, Owner of Holly Johnson Gallery

by Tina Aguilar 24 Aug 2012 2:03 PM

Guest blogger Tina Aguilar talks to the owner of her namesake gallery about how running a gallery has changed and what young artists can do to nurture their careers.


"Freefall" paintings by Jackie Tileston - installation photograph from summer 2012

Guest Blogger Tina Aguilar teaches Humanities at El Centro College.

Nestled in the Dragon Street corridor, Holly Johnson Gallery is run by the no-nonsense Holly Johnson, along with her husband, Jim Martin. Johnson’s keen insight into the art world and operating a gallery remain strong with a trinity of perspectives from Chicago to Houston and back to Dallas. She spent time with me to discuss her stepping stones:

Tina Aguilar:  I’d like to hear about your history and the beginnings of the gallery.

Holly Johnson: I was born and raised here, and I grew up in Richardson. And I decided that I really wanted to go to art school, so I ended up applying and getting into the Art Institute of Chicago in the early ‘80s. After a while, I was a student studying painting and art history and I started interning at a gallery called Zolla/Lieberman Gallery … and so that was my sophomore year in college, when I started interning, and I loved it. I kept going back to the president of the school and saying, “I know I’m only allowed to do this for a few semesters, but I really like this.” It sounds hokey, but I found my calling. …

After graduation, it was great that I had been an intern, because I got a job within a couple of months and I stayed in Chicago for a number of years. Then after about seven years of living there I realized that I just didn’t like the cold weather, so I moved back to Dallas to work for Adams-Middleton Art Gallery, which was a gallery right across the street from the Stoneleigh Hotel. I worked for her for about five years, and she and her husband closed the gallery in about ’95. Then I moved to Houston to work for Barbara Davis Gallery, and I worked there for a number of years. That’s where I met my husband. He was an artist at the gallery at the time. Then in ’99 out of the blue Ted Pillsbury calls me and says, “I’m starting a gallery in Dallas with Gerald Peters, and I think I want you to come here and run it.” … In 2004, Ted had already left to run the Meadows Museum and Jerry and I parted ways.

My husband and I found this space on Valentine’s Day. We’d looked all over Dallas, we’d looked in Deep Ellum, we’d looked in Uptown. Nancy Whitenack from Conduit had moved down here several years before; and we really didn’t want to redo an old house. At the time, we just didn’t find exactly what we wanted in Deep Ellum, and there were a couple of spaces down here in the Design District. We kind of wanted a shell, and this building really was that.

T.A.: Tell me about the artists you represent.

H.J.: A lot of the artists, a number of artists, when I moved initially from Houston to Dallas, came with me to Pillsbury Peters. And then when I left the gallery, a couple of the artists came with me. And when we opened the gallery, there were a couple of artists that for whatever reason it just didn’t work out before, but it was working out now. We have about 30, but I’d say 10 of those 30 are artists that we don’t show in a regular rotation, and we only do eight shows a year. We only do one show – one opening at a time – and so that puts the rotation at two and a half, three years, which I think is still good. You know sometimes shows too soon are basically, just a show too soon.

Transverse, by Tommy Fitzpatrick, 2012

T.A.: And do you make suggestions to your artists?

H.J.: When I am making a studio visit, there’s always going to probably be a couple things, those that aren’t going to be my favorites. Sometimes we don’t see eye-to-eye, but I would rather be honest with the artist than not.

T.A.: Do you have significant partnerships that have fostered the growth of the gallery?

H.J.: Aside from CADD, one thing that’s been great, just being back in Texas, is that we all pretty much get along, especially here in Dallas. We’re all very supportive of each other. Not just in a collegial way; I think we mean it.

T.A.: Can you talk about the upcoming Houston Fine Art Fair that you’ll be part of this fall?

H.J.: It’s basically seeing 10,000 people in 36 hours or 72 hours…and we’re doing the one in September. There are two fairs, the first one in September, which is the Houston Fine Art Fair, September 14-16, and the other fair, which I think is equally good, is the Texas Contemporary, toward the end of October … I think both are good, viable options to exhibit in, to visit. Each one I think will have 80 to 100 dealers from all over.

T.A.: Have you thought about new ways to use digital information or anything you would like to try?

H.J.: I am always willing to try something different. But can I pinpoint what that newest thing is? No not really. In my head, I am still old school. I’m having a hard time adapting even to Facebook. We only represent one artist that does not communicate via e-mail … We do still print invites, we don’t mail as many invites, but I still like to have the card. At the end of the day, people are still taking away the cards … I’m always tickled when I go to someone’s house, and in one of their kid’s rooms I see all these gallery cards on their wall. Got to start them early.

T.A.: What would you encourage emerging artists to think about in identifying a gallery fit?

H.J.: I think the key is identifying a good fit. Someone that does photorealist work might not work for me. That’s the great thing about the website and the Internet – you can have an idea of what a gallery might be doing. You might realize it’s probably not going to be a good fit for me there. And you also need to be a good editor. Most dealers don’t need to see 100 paintings on a CD. They need to see maybe 20 … That said, I think it’s really hard, for me personally, to take on more artists, because I feel like I have a lot. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not always looking; because that’s what I do for a living. For the younger artists, the best thing would be to enter as many shows as possible, especially in Dallas, becoming a member of 500X, becoming a member at the MAC, join your local museum. Get a subscription to an art magazine, and an online art magazine which is a no-brainer. Go to Half Price Books and buy dog-eared art magazines for a buck. Don’t just study art, but take some writing classes. Because people are going to ask you to verbalize about your work and want you to write about your work, and you need to have command of the language. Just don’t look at art online if you’re in a community where there are lots of galleries. It’s free. Explore, try to see as much art as possible.

“Electric Labyrinth,” new paintings by Tommy Fitzpatrick, opens Sept. 8, with a reception for the artist from 6-8 p.m.