Artpace trustees on Saturday named longtime Studio Director Riley Robinson as interim executive director, immediately replacing Executive Director Veronique Le Melle, whose last day of a two-year tenure was Friday.

During a telephone interview with the Rivard Report on Saturday afternoon, Patricia Ruiz-Healy, chair of Artpace’s nine-member board of directors, declined to say whether Le Melle resigned or was asked to leave.

Ruiz-Healy talked optimistically of Robinson’s appointment and said the board would “let the dust settle” before announcing a timeline or launching a national search to replace Le Melle. Ruiz-Healy said Robinson has the board’s full support and praised his long and rich tenure at Artpace.

Robinson said in a brief telephone interview that he plans to “focus on keeping Artpace moving ahead.”

“I started at Artpace and worked with Linda [Pace] in 1994, and am really proud to be part of this strong and vibrant organization,” Robinson said.

Asked why the board chose Robinson to lead the institution in the wake of Le Melle’s departure, Ruiz-Healy said, “Sometimes you need new leadership and fresh new eyes, and sometimes you need fresh leadership and experienced eyes.”

You[th]Pace Teen Art Council members get a behind the scenes tour of the Artpace workshop with Studio Director, Riley Robinson. Photo by Francisco Cortes
YouthPace Teen Art Council members get a behind the scenes tour of the Artpace workshop with Studio Director Riley Robinson. Credit: Courtesy / Francisco Cortes

When reached by telephone late Saturday afternoon, Le Melle also declined to comment on whether she resigned or was fired. “That chapter is not quite closed. There still remains to be some things seen with the transition,” she said.

Regarding Robinson’s appointment, Le Melle said, “I’m really happy that Riley is there to take the helm.”

When asked to describe her work and achievements at Artpace, Le Melle said: “Every directorship has its own set of unique rewards and challenges, and Artpace is no different in that regard. I am very proud that during my tenure, we were able to reconnect the organization to the community, and to welcome all of San Antonio through its doors, with all of its diversity.”

Before joining Artpace in late January, 2016, La Melle had a 30-year arts management career with top positions at the Boston Center for the Arts, where she was president and CEO; the Louisiana Division of the Arts; and Cultural Affairs and Tourism in Queens, New York.

Art viewers enter Artpace to see the show Common Currents.
Art viewers enter Artpace to see the show Common Currents. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Several sources within San Antonio’s art community, including former employees at Artpace and others close to the organization, said demoralizing and high staff turnover had marked Le Melle’s tenure. And, although no one would speak for attribution, several sources said that she had an abrupt manner that was off-putting to some in the city’s arts community.

Much of Le Melle’s long career took place in the Northeast, where candid and often direct, unvarnished styles of communication are typical and not considered offensive. When asked whether she might have been perceived that way, Le Melle declined to comment.

Asked if she was hired at Artpace as a change agent, and whether shrinking the full-time staff was part of her initial charge, Le Melle answered “yes” to both.

She also said another of her charges was “to create change and bring in all of San Antonio’s community. Our last few events were jam-packed, and very diverse.”

Asked about her future plans, Le Melle said, “Right now, I’m taking a really deep breath before opening any new chapter. My husband and I love San Antonio, it’s an amazing city. We’ve made many good friends here in and out of the arts community. I love San Antonio, always will.”

Although Ruiz-Healy declined to comment on the specifics of the board’s decision, she praised Le Melle for improving the management structure and establishing efficiencies at the organization.

“We appreciated the things that she did,” Ruiz-Healy said. “She established a better management framework … things are more efficient, and we are very appreciative of that.”

Ruiz-Healy said appointing Robinson as interim director was her first goal given his long tenure at Artpace and his prominent role within the art residency program.

“He has an incredible credibility throughout our world,” Ruiz-Healy said. “He’s the one who deals directly with the artists as soon as they’re selected; they talk with Riley about what they want to accomplish.”

In addition to Le Melle, Artpace Deputy Director Felix Padrón left the institution as of Friday, Ruiz-Healy said. She noted that his was a part-time job. “We decided that position was not necessary.”

In a press statement, Artpace officials noted that the institution has “deepened its core programs and continued to reach an ever-growing audience including expanding offerings through their renowned residency program to curators and others in the creative community.”

Artpace will celebrate its 25th year as an arts organization in 2020, and Ruiz-Healy said much of the board’s focus ahead will be on preparing for that anniversary.

After the 1995 public debut of its International Artist-In-Residence (IAIR) program, Artpace quickly earned an international reputation for commissioning new artwork from artists who went on to become major figures in contemporary art, including Nancy Rubins, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cornelia Parker, Isaac Julien, Teresita Fernandez, Christian Marclay, Arturo Herrera, Trevor Paglen, Rachel MacLean, Mark Bradford, and others.

By design, the residency program combines international artists, national artists, and artists from Texas during two-month, fully funded residency periods followed by two-month exhibitions in the Artpace building, which was renovated by Lake Flato architects.

The work of many Artpace IAIR residents entered the collection of founder Linda Pace, now housed at Ruby City and in the care of the foundation Pace established before her death in 2007.

The Linda Pace Foundation has had six executive directors since 2010, with no director currently in place since Michael Hardwick resigned in October 2017.

Since Pace’s death, Artpace has been led by Matthew Drutt, Kathryn Kanjo, Regine Basha, Mary Heathcott, Amada Cruz, and Sue Graze, who participated in the national search that resulted in the hiring of LeMelle in 2016.

Under the directorship of Le Melle, a new curatorial residency was established, and a new performing arts residency. Projects to raise funds for Artpace programming begun under her leadership include Fine Art Builders, for independent art fabrication projects; the Artpace Store, which sells catalogues, editions and other wares produced by affiliated artists; and the $270,000 “Keep Artpace Cool” crowdfunding campaign to replace the building’s aging air conditioning system.

This story was originally published on April 21. 

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Beth Frerking

Beth Frerking is the former editor-in-chief of the Rivard Report.