100 Dallas Creatives: No. 35 Artist Organizer Heyd Fontenot
Mixmaster presents "100 Creatives," in which we feature cultural entrepreneurs of Dallas in random order. Heyd Fontenot is the director of CentralTrak, the artists' residency for the University of Texas at Dallas. He curates all of the shows in the gallery and manages CentralTrak's gaggle of residents, which makes him something like a camp counselor for adults -- albeit absurdly creative adults. Fontenot is a natural in that highly social role, because in addition to being an incredibly talented artist himself -- he does really interesting figurative work featuring mostly human subjects -- he's exceedingly warm and personable.
He's exactly the type of person the Dallas art community needs. Someone who knows his stuff, but who can make the art world less intimidating and more appealing to outsiders. I joined him in his studio, as he was packing up a large drawing to send to a museum, where it will be joining the permanent collection. In the course of our talk, which drifted from his own art, to Art Basel, to the moneyed art world, Fontenot even referred to himself as an outsider. If that's the case, then the rest of us average joes are in great company.
Which museum is this piece going to? It's a museum in Lincoln, Nebraska called the Sheldon. It's really exciting to have work in a permanent collection. They're gonna do a show for their collection of figurative work next summer and this drawing and a big painting will be included. I'm not in a lot of permanent collections and that's a big marker for an artist. Cause then it's like, "Oh, now I'm validated. Something of mine will go into the next century." You know, unless the museum burns down.
Do you feel like that's a tide turner in a way? Once one museum is willing to make that statement, to confer you that title and that importance, then other people are more willing to do the same? That happens a lot in art. A lot of people don't trust their judgment, so big collectors will look at other institutions to guide their collections. It's like, "Oh, they have one? Then we can get one now." Art Basel is happening this weekend. Something I'd heard about Dallas collectors is that they were a little spooked to buy Texas artists, but if they see Texas artists showing in New York or at Basel, then they think, "OK, this person's going somewhere and it's not provincial. So I can invest in them." That actually has happened to me before.
Have you been to Art Basel before? What's your impression of it? It kind of ends up making you hate art. If you're a sensitive person it's not for you. I remember looking at some Lucian Freud paintings, and I could hear these people over my shoulder going, "I like this one, but you say that one's more important? Ok, then." And they're spending a million on a work of art that they don't understand and maybe don't deserve to have, but they have the money, so they get it. Art is really important to me on a spiritual level, so sometimes when you see things reduced to this economic exchange, it's like your god is for sale. It kind of breaks your heart.
Did you just come out of the womb with this creative mindset? Yeah, I did. I didn't come from a creative family or anything. Farmers. No influence or education at an early age told me to be an artist. It sounds corny, but I just was. It's not like I was a natural talent or anything, I just had the natural impulse.
How has your work evolved in recent years? This job at CentralTrak has given me a venue to do all of these things that I had an interest in: organizing shows, curating, organizing projects and communities. But it has also taken so much time away from my studio practice. It has actually been kind of counter to what an artists' residency is, a place where you can focus solely on your work. But it has changed my work, because my work is about broader things than just sitting down at my easel now.
Did that transition come naturally to you? I imagine being an artist and managing artists are two totally different things. It did. I don't think a lot of artists would be great at it. But I have a background in film too, and film is such a collaborative experience. That helped me to understand how CentralTrak could really work. We have a micro staff here. You make stone soup. You've got the impulse, you see the opportunity.
That leads into a recent obsession of mine, which is how artists get exploited and how artists are willingly exploited. We want these opportunities. We want to do things, and people really take advantage of that. But there's this recent effort to unionize. Artists are working for nonprofits in museums for a standardized pay scale for stipends and honorariums, and the movement is called WAGE. It's happening in New York but some people who have been through CentralTrak are helping organize it.
For a long time I felt like such an outsider in the art world, and I still do to a degree because I'm not a major player. I can't make decisions that influence museums, but I'm on the front lines. I feel like artists have gone through this disempowerment. Some institutions would say artists aren't the best source of information about their own work. It's like we have to have curators and art historians tell us about our work. You kind of buy into that. My background as a Southerner -- I always kind of felt like, disadvantaged by my location. I was like, "Oh everybody in New York is so brilliant, and they know what's going on." I guess that's like any kind of group that willingly participates in their oppression. That's been a really great thing about CentralTrak. Artists are running this. Even our business manager, Laura Sewell, she's got a masters in directing theater. We're all creative and we want this thing to happen and we're making it happen. That has been this enormous gift to me as an artist that I'm not sitting around waiting for opportunities to be offered to me. We're making all of these things happen. It's a wealth of culture and I'm in a position now to cultivate it.
What allows someone to have the influence you mentioned? Money makes all the difference. The art world in general is kind of a mysterious place. No one understands exactly why some things are valuable and some things aren't. Sometimes it comes down to, if you're a millionaire, and you've invested in this artist and you want to see them do well and the value of your work continue to rise and you sit on a museum board, you're going to propose that they have a solo show at that institution. Not to say any of those artists wouldn't deserve it, but you get a glimpse at the machine behind why people have significant careers in contemporary art and you realize "Oh, it's like stock brokerage or anything else." There's our version of insider trading and hostile takeovers. The art world is not pure and Miami really brings all of that to a head.
Do you see any possibility for those worlds to be reconciled? In every artistic field that has the possibility of gaining great sums of money -- like music or film or art -- the element of sociopathic business people is going to get involved. They might have a relationship to art but they really have a relationship to money and power and that's what they're going to wield. You can be monastic and you can make art on your own. I know an artist here who makes these beautiful paintings and she doesn't sell them. She won't be a part of that system. I think that's kind of brilliant. Not that every commercial art endeavor is a corrupt backstreet mafioso deal, but when you get to that level of museums, there's definitely an element of that. People have skin in the game.
But of course, artists have to eat. You need a day job. It's just that simple, because you don't want to put all that weight on your art. Then you end up making art that you know sells or you know gets you somewhere, but it's not the art that's really the most urgent for you.
What's your process when curating? Do you have a favorite show? Curating is a lot like painting, because you're making these decisions about visual and thematic and conceptual elements and you can falter. I really love group shows because I feel like you get to contextualize work. You get to make something new out of work that already exists. I use the dinner party metaphor a lot in terms of creating a vibe here at the residency by putting the right people together, but also in terms of a group show. You want to have these things that will talk together and have great conversations.
100 Creatives: 100. Theater Mastermind Matt Posey 99. Comedy Queen Amanda Austin 98. Deep Ellum Enterpriser Brandon Castillo 97. Humanitarian Artist Willie Baronet 96. Funny Man Paul Varghese 95. Painting Provocateur Art Peña 94. Magic Man Trigg Watson 93. Enigmatic Musician George Quartz 92. Artistic Luminary Joshua King 91. Inventive Director Rene Moreno 90. Color Mavens Marianne Newsom and Sunny Sliger 89. Literary Lion Thea Temple 88. Movie Maestro Eric Steele 87. Storytelling Dynamo Nicole Stewart 86. Collaborative Artist Ryder Richards 85. Party Planning Print maker Raymond Butler 84. Avant-gardist Publisher Javier Valadez 83. Movie Nerd James Wallace 82. Artistic Tastemakers Elissa & Erin Stafford 81. Pioneering Arts Advocates Mark Lowry & Michael Warner 80. Imaginative Director Jeremy Bartel 79. Behind-the-Scenes Teacher Rachel Hull 78. Kaleidoscopic Artist Taylor "Effin" Cleveland 77. Filmmaker & Environmentalist Michael Cain 76. Music Activist Salim Nourallah 75. Underground Entrepreneur Daniel Yanez 74. Original Talent Celia Eberle 73. Comic Artist Aaron Aryanpur 72. Classical Thespian Raphael Parry 71. Dance Captain Valerie Shelton Tabor 70. Underground Culture Mainstay Karen X. Minzer 69. Effervescent Gallerist Brandy Michele Adams 68. Birthday Party Enthusiast Paige Chenault 67. Community Architect Monica Diodati 66. Intrepid Publisher Will Evans 65. Writerly Wit Noa Gavin 64. Maverick Artist Roberto Munguia 63. Fresh Perspective Kelsey Leigh Ervi 62. Virtuosic Violinist Nathan Olson 61. Open Classical's Dynamic Duo Mark Landson & Patricia Yakesch 60. Rising Talent Michelle Rawlings 59. Adventurous Filmmaker Toby Halbrooks 58. Man of Mystery Edward Ruiz 57. Inquisitive Sculptor Val Curry 56. Offbeat Intellect Thomas Riccio 55. Doers and Makers Shannon Driscoll & Kayli House Cusick 54. Performance Pioneer Katherine Owens 53. Experimental Filmmaker and Video Artist Mike Morris 52. Flowering Fashioner Lucy Dang 51. Insightful Artist Stephen Lapthisophon 50. Dallas Arts District 49. Farmer's Market Localvore Sarah Perry 48. Technological Painter John Pomara 47. Progressive Playmakers Christopher Carlos & Tina Parker 46. Purposive Chef Chad Houser 45. Absorbing Artist Jeff Gibbons 44. Artistic Integrator Erica Felicella 43. Multi-talented Director Tre Garrett 42. Anachronistic Musician Matt Tolentino 41. Emerging Veteran Actor Van Quattro 40. Festival Orchestrator Anna Sophia van Zweden 39. Literary Framer Karen Weiner 38. Man Behind the Music Gavin Mulloy 37. The Godfather of Dallas Art Frank Campagna 36. Rising Star Adam A. Anderson
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