This is a cautionary tale.
Imagine you’re an art patron with a large — not massive, but plenty sizeable — estate. Imagine you’ve created an artist residency that is inextricably linked with you, which is in fact named for you. You started it up to help artists and to make a mark on your regional city, and you succeeded admirably. But the organization is past the fun, scrappy, early days, and has become an institution that has to be sustained. You’ve begun to tire of it — and tire of paying for it — and you extricate yourself from the day-to-day activities, hoping to ultimately extricate yourself and your money completely. You start looking around at other patrons who are building namesake museums to house their personal collections, and you like the sound of that. And then one day you’re given a death sentence: it’s cancer, and it’s bad, and you only have a few months.
You must answer now, quickly: How do you want to be remembered?
The first line of Linda Pace’s memoir “Dreaming in Red: Creating Artpace“ reads, “In 1987, shortly after I decided to leave my husband of twenty years, I started dreaming about making art.”
In a series of strikingly candid essays, Pace, the San Antonio art patron who died in 2007, tells the story of her life, her loves, her personal tragedies, and her great project, the artist residency Artpace, which she founded in 1995. An heiress of the Pearl Brewery family, Pace helped build her father’s picante sauce business into a company that would ultimately sell for $1.1 billion to Campbell’s –although the sale came after Pace had sold her stake in the company to her ex-husband, leaving “hundreds of millions on the table.” In her telling of it, Pace chafed at the society lady role laid out for her, preferring to roll up her sleeves and create something that would hopefully make a profound difference in the world, and in artists’ lives.
The residency she founded was closely linked with Pace from its inception. Even today, nine years after she died, it still remains tied to her in the popular imagination of the Texas art scene, so much so that it’s hard for an outsider to understand how she could have turned her back on Artpace in favor of building an eponymous museum for her art collection. Which is what she did.
When Pace died, she chose the Linda Pace Foundation, not ArtPace, to carry on her legacy. She wrote a plan to gradually cut off funding from Artpace (it still receives six figures annually from her foundation, although that is scheduled to decrease to zero in the coming years), and she dictated that the foundation build a new building after her death, designed by the architect David Adjaye. In the introduction to “Dreaming in Red,” Kathryn Kanjo, who ran Artpace during the early years and who is now a trustee of the Linda Pace Foundation, commented that Artpace reflects “not its founder’s possessions but her commitments.” In the end, however, Linda Pace decided that her possessions, not her commitments, would be her final legacy.
Ironically, Pace was known to dislike the politics of permanent collections: as she wrote, “knowing the politics of museums and their boards of directors, the last thing I wanted to do was become tied to a museum.” But if her goal was to avoid politics, she arguably would have done better to leave her collection to a museum rather than building something new to house it (something she did not want called a museum but which will necessarily function as one).
At the time of her death, Linda Pace’s collection of art numbered around 600 pieces. By contrast, the de Menil collection had over 10,000 objects in it when John de Menil died. In researching this article, more than one person told me that Pace’s collection didn’t merit its own museum; the caliber of the works is just too uneven. If that’s the case, and according to Kanjo, the new museum will be small, with about 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, one wonders why Artpace and the Linda Pace Foundation, both of which have struggled to find executive directors, don’t just join forces? After all, they both have exhibition programs. Why not build the new building all-in-one, with exhibition space for the collection and temporary shows alongside the residency studios?
The answer, of course, is that’s not what Linda Pace dictated in her will. There were terrible stresses on Pace at the time of her death; she had already endured the tragedy of losing her son to a drug overdose and was the guardian of the young child of her daughter, who was also struggling with drug addiction. The building project was a new beginning, a fresh start, and no doubt one of the few pleasures she had in the final months of her life. It’s easy to imagine that she wasn’t in the proper mind frame to appreciate the burden others would face in keeping Artpace afloat without her money to sustain it.
The Linda Pace Foundation argues that she set up Artpace for success, but did she? Once Pace began to tire of funding Artpace, she would not personally raise money for the organization. She wrote, “I did not like asking people for money, no matter how worthy the cause.” And “the mission of an art institution must be clear, the finances sound, and the focus on programs rather than fund-raising.” But when she decided to progressively cut off funding to Artpace, it went from a place that didn’t have to worry about where the money was coming from, to a place that, like almost all art organizations, must now focus intensively on fundraising.
Should Artpace be saved?
The notion of a residency is ancient: you pull away from the familiar world into the unknown for 40 days and 40 nights, to clear your head and wrestle with your demons. The artist residencies of the early 20th century, places like Yaddo and Ox-Bow, existed to give artists a space apart from the burdens of everyday life, where they could work unfettered on their ideas and their art. It was a utopian ideal.
But as museums grew more sophisticated, they became more fleet and fluid in accommodating the ways that artists actually work. The term “process” entered the art world lexicon, and museums realized that how artists make their work could be as interesting as the work itself. The idealism of a residency like San Francisco’s Capp Street, the main inspiration for Artpace, gave way to something that today feels more like professional accreditation for young artists rising in the ranks out of art schools. Indeed, many residencies have become simply an extension of art school, where unrooted artists can hop from one city to another in the postgraduate dance of being fashionably “between” cities, or better yet, continents.
The stakes have gotten so high, Isaac Julien’s Artpace project got him a Turner Prize nomination, that there’s far less room for failure. Residencies have become another cog in the art market, where everything is elegantly photographed and the art is mostly very predictable. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given the way things have changed in the 21 years since Artpace was founded. But today, for artists to truly get away from the usual routine and think about making art, they’re probably going to have to do better than finding an artist residency, where they’ll be caught up with patron and curator visits and expected to produce a stunning installation in the given timeframe. Which means an ambitious residency program could distinguish itself by examining its complicity in the star maker machinery, and thinking about how it might return to that ancient, utopian ideal of a true withdrawal from everyday life. The art would probably be better, and isn’t that the point?
This week I met Veronique Le Melle, the new director of Artpace, and I liked her unflappable pragmatism. Le Melle comes off as someone who doesn’t scare easily. Artpace, which has now had four directors in the past six years, needs a firm and practical hand at the helm. Hopefully Le Melle will prove to be a good fit.
This article originally appeared on Glasstire on Feb. 28th, 2016.
*Top image: Artpace is located at 445 N. Main Ave. Photo courtesy of Glasstire.