Beyond the White Cube
FotoFest's arrival at Allen Center underscores trend in office space as gallery
FotoFest is bridging the divide between fine art and corporate headquarters with its latest exhibition, Faces of History - Latin America. Rather than hanging the photographs by eight 19th- and early 20th-century photographers at the organization's warehouse district base, senior curator Wendy Watriss has collaborated with Brookfield Office Properties to present the images in the upper lobby of two buildings in downtown's Allen Center.
The exhibit is the fruit of the arts>Brookfield initiative, which has brought a James Turrell light installation to the Adelaide Centre in Toronto and innovative performances to LA's Bank of America Plaza, the World Financial Center and Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park.
"The program stemmed from trying to turn our corporate art spaces into less of an amenity just for the tenants into an amenity for the entire community," says Sarah Johnston of Brookfield.
On three occasions, Allen Center has hosted a concurrent exhibition with the international FotoFest Biennial, but Faces of History - Latin America is unique in that it allows FotoFest to mount a full-scale, longer-term exhibit.
The FotoFest collaboration brings a welcome infusion of provocative photography to the heart of corporate Houston.
The FotoFest collaboration brings a welcome infusion of provocative photography to the heart of corporate Houston. An expansive skylight graces natural rays upon the maze of dozens of formal portraits. Throughout the imported gallery walls, the industrialization of the South American landscape looms large. Peruvian photographer Julio Cordero documented the first steamships on Lake Titicaca, where he was born before founding a studio in La Paz and ascending to the role of presidential photographer.
Simliarly, Agustín Victor Casasola created group portraits of a new breed of Mexican railroad workers and Ford assembly linesmen in pieces that communicate a social conscience the likes of his contemporary muralist, Diego Rivera. The cataclysmic effect of rapid modernization is highlighted as a 1920s car attempts to cross a mountain-spanning broken bridge in "Nocturno: El Viejo Puente de Tingo (Nocturne: Old Bridge, Tingo)."
The quotidian thrills of rural and urban life are also on view alongside graceful compositions of cavalry reviews and tightrope masters. Adjacent to images depicting class tension are breezy photographs of vaudeville, funerals, folk characters and cholas performing at Carnival.
Among one of the most striking images is the c. 1925 "Main Square (Vista de la Plaza de Armas)" by brothers Carlos and Miguel Vargas. The duo gained international attention as masters of Pictorialism while based in the northern Andean Peruvian city of Arequipa. It's no wonder that Latin America's mix of indigenous traditions and lingering European grandeur would make the region so ripe for both Surrealism and political upheaval.
Inserting century-old Latin American photography into downtown Houston may initially seem a non sequitur, but Faces of History - Latin America curator and FotoFest co-founder Watriss argues otherwise:
We have access to some very, very high-quality Latin American work. And because it's handsome and about people, cities and changing customs, it's the kind of show that is very interesting to people. It's also teaching people and providing information."
Watriss notes that Latin America is increasingly tied to Houston's economy — particularly Allen Center's litany of international tenants. "Hopefully we'll also broaden peoples' perceptions of Latin America," she says.
Col•lage atBank of America Center
The office space art invasion isn't new to the city's cultural landscape, but recent months have seen an outpouring of thoughtful exhibitions inside the city's skyscrapers.
Through Aug. 26, Col•lage is on view inside Philip Johnson and John Burgees' postmodern vision of 17th-century Dutch architecture, the Bank of America Center. The show features artists with Texas ties, many of whom are emerging and utilizing collage as either a primary medium or side pursuit.
The building's owners, M-M Properties and General Electric Asset Management, commissioned Col•lage to be curated by Kinzelman Art Consulting, which organizes quarterly exhibitions at Bank of America Center, including photography shows during the FotoFest Biennial. To conceive an exhibition, associates at Kinzelman introduce proposals to the building's owners and follow an approval process.
"We gauge the temperature of what they're comfortable with, and go from there," says Kinzelman senior associate Liz Anders.
Kinzelman's corporate clients also include Cameron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Sysco and the Federal Reserve Bank. More than filling blank spaces on office walls, these corporate art displays activate downtown workers' imaginations depending on their distinct settings.
"It's all about the client and audience," says Anders, who organized Col•lage. "Bank of America Center gets a ton of foot traffic, so the art exhibitions we do there need to apply to a wide variety of people."
That includes not just tenants, but passersby who happen to venture into the skyscraper's soaring lobby.
The New Black atWilliams Tower Gallery
Likewise, the entrances of Williams Tower moonlight as the Williams Tower Gallery, which recently featured a survey of Houston abstract painters in the exhibition, The New Black: Contemporary Concepts in Color and Abstraction. Organized by Sally Sprout Fine Art, the show highlighted artist Michael Guidry's hard-edge paintings, Jonathan Leach's Plexiglass wonders, Katherine Veneman and the work of monochrome master Myke Venable.
"It's been in operation since 1983, which makes it one of the rare corporate spaces in the whole country with such a history," says Sally Sprout, a consulting curator for Hines. She began curating the space in association with Transco Energy Company. "In the 80s, we had very lavish receptions, but that's long gone," she says.
Placing art in office space comes with its own set of limitations. Explains Sprout, "A corporate business tower is conservative by nature. I can never show nudity, for instance, or any gratuitous violence. And I'm careful about in-your-face political commentary." Those parameters are also constructed by the droves of passing school children who visit Williams Tower on field trips.
The expansiveness of the Williams Tower lobbies also presents challenges. "The space is eccentric in that the walls were deliberately designed as a gallery space when the building was erected," Sprout explains. "But because the architects were in the designer mindset, the walls are only about eight feet — I would have preferred 10."
Fire doors and decorative ornamentation also force Sprout to work creatively, especially when presenting three-dimensional work. Such is the challenge in the newest exhibition of sculpture, Intersecting Impulses.
Eye on Allen Center
Meanwhile, art aficionados should keep an eye on Allen Center as it enhances its expanded fine art initiative in the lobbies of the complex's three buildings. The art ideology is preprogrammed in the corporate campus, which includes a purpose-built outdoor sculpture garden. "It's a particularly good corporate art space because of the natural light and big hallways," says Watriss. The connectivity to the downtown tunnel system and Doubletree and Hyatt hotels also makes Allen Center's exhibition space all the more accessible.
Upcoming projects at Allen Center include an October collaborative exhibition with the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects, celebrating the 175th anniversary of the city's founding. The spotlight will be on Houston photographers and the depiction of their fellow citizens, from cowboys and businessmen to international party celebrities and conceptual artists. Come spring 2012, it will house discoveries from the Meeting Place Portfolio Review during FotoFest 2010.
Still, downtown has a ways to go before it can establish itself as an art destination in itself. A primary obstacle lies in Allen Center's official open hours being limited to the work week.
"The challenge is to get outside people to go see the exhibitions beyond opening nights," says Watriss. "I think we're starting a process of consistency over three or four years of good art programming that will make the presence of the art in that building more a part of the fabric of life there and in the city."
Faces of History - Latin America is on view at FotoFest at Allen Center (500 Dallas Street and 1200 Smith Street) through Aug. 5. Free curatorial talk open to the general public on July 21.