When the gallery megaplex at 4411 Montrose opened its doors over five years ago, the moment represented a sea change in the Houston contemporary art arena. The building was to be a monumental viewing space ensconced in a mod concrete cube, culling together the international art acumen of Barbara Davis' former Colquitt Street address, Eastern Eurocentric offerings from Anya Tish's former location on Sunset Boulevard, local talent featured at the now-defunct Joan Wich & Co., hard-edge painting at the nascent Wade Wilson Art and the avant-garde design-minded collections at Peel Gallery and Shop.
The setting earned praise from Fodor's as a "one-stop culture shop" featuring "top-tier" galleries. Its offerings were featured in guides to Houston published by the New York Times and Wallpaper magazine.
Now, those interested in owning the prized property can capitalize on the on-the-market art space. Over the course of the past year, the building's ownership has passed from Chapter 11 bankruptcy to Chapter 7 receivership, resulting in a liquidation of the property's assets.
Prospective buyers willing to put up $1.975 million can make the 12,000-square-foot space their own, taking on a handful of the city's blue chip galleries as tenants.
The property's financial woes stem from the previous owner, former Enron executive Jeff Shankman, 43. Construction companies Calincline and Incline Materials, to which Shankman was indebted, had been previously granted a deed of trust lien on 4411 Montrose (as well as Shankman's South Boulevard home), and when the companies threatened foreclosure in 2008, Shankman filed Chapter 11, which was converted to a Chapter 7 liquidation in June of the following year, according to court documents.
In a phone conversation, Shankman told CultureMap that he had only been a minority investor in the property. Public record bankruptcy papers he filed indicate his self-named company, J.A. Shankman, L.L.C., acquired the property in February 2007 and maintained a 100 percent ownership and $2.2 million interest in 4411 Montrose until Shankman declared bankruptcy.
The dealing at 4411 Montrose isn't the first instance in which Shankman has been embroiled in art world controversy. In 2008, Historical Designs, an Upper East Side Manhattan art gallery, sued Shankman, alleging that he tried to extort money from the gallery under threat of denouncing it as a peddler of forged works. According to the gallery, Shankman claimed that "Les Visiteurs," signed by J. Lambert-Rucki, which he bought in November 1997 was a fake and demanded a more than $150,000 cash settlement or else he would "go public." The works were originally shipped to Houston from New York in 1997 in care of Enron.
While at Enron, Shankman headed trading in markets from commodities to foreign exchange and equities before the 2001 collapse. He later started a Houston-based energy hedge fund called Trident Asset Management LLC in 2006 with Andy Weathers, a former trader at CenterPoint Energy Inc. Regarding his interests in art, he previously told Bloomberg, "There's only so much you can know about natural gas and you have to have outside interests."
The lawsuit alleged that Enron had paid for the art as part of a corporate art collection that cost $3.5 million. Shankman, along with Lea Weingarten (formerly Lea Fastow) served on the corporation's five-member art-selection committee.
The legal firm representing Historical Designs did not respond on the status of its dispute with Shankman, who incidentally withdrew his bankruptcy filing on the last day of July of this year. Former investors in his defunct concrete company Monotech told CultureMap that they are still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of which in art collateral still in the possession of Shankman's step-father.
The court decided earlier this month that numerous pieces of his decorative art, including a James Croak cast window, Melzer & Neuhardt Austrian lamp, porcelain jar by the illustrious Wiener Kunst-Keramik and Frank Lloyd Wright-designed pieces are to be put on auction through Morton Kuehnert Auctioneers & Appraisers. That money won't be seen by Shankman's former investors, however: Oddly, the auction house is claiming an unusually high 20-percent commission and two-percent fee (most auction houses would take only a seven-percent commission), with the remaining amount being used to pay court trustees.
Current tenants at 4411 Montrose say they are eager to move on.
"Jeff just wanted to refinance," gallery owner Wade Wilson says. "He's been very, very good to us."
The commercial real estate firm of Chitwood Partners, LLC was chosen by the bankruptcy court to handle the sale. When asked about the building's precarious state, both Anya Tish and Peel's Steven Hempel expressed ambivalence, explaining that they're hoping for a new owner sooner rather than later.
"We have no intention of moving," JoAnn Park of Barbara Davis reiterates. "We're looking forward to having a new landlord who may rearrange our current rules on public artwork. In its current state, it's unfair for some galleries to present their work that may not reflect the intentions of the other galleries."
But with the property's financing bank's transfer of ownership to a court-appointed trustee, the property's parking lot, located diagonally across from the galleries at the corner of Woodrow and Kyle streets, has been cordoned off, leaving only seven spaces directly behind the building to service five businesses.
"It cuts into business because Houstonians don't like to walk," Wilson says.
Many galleries suffer from slower sales during the summer months, but it wasn't until this summer's parking debacle that Wilson identified a significant slump. He reports an estimated 70 percent decrease in traffic, receiving only a fraction of the typically-sized audiences during July's ArtHouston event.
Conversely, Davis reports no change in gallery visitors, explaining that the galleries will be cooperating to provide valet parking during Sept. 10 opening soirees.
Meanwhile, more gallery space is slated to rise in the lot beside 4411 Montrose overlooking the Southwest Freeway. A sleek glass 13-story office tower dubbed M Fifty-Nine is planned for the site. The impact of an additional 4,000 square feet of art gallery space could fortify 4411's offerings — or literally and figuratively place a shadow upon the bankrupt property.
Happy new owners could be on the horizon, however: Chitwood Properties tells CultureMap that there are several potential buyers expressing interest.
"Good things are happening — things are going to work out for everybody," Davis says. "There are a lot of people with a strong interest in art in this city, who want to make sure that this building maintains its mission."