People 2015: Aja Martin Wants to Bridge the Divide Between People and Art

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In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. 
Last spring, a new gallery announced it would open its doors on Dragon Street. Zhulong (pronounced Chew-long — think Me Love Chew Long Time) was meant to be a beacon of new media art, a long overlooked area in the Dallas visual art scene. In just over a year, the gallery has proven itself more than capable of filling that long-empty niche, thanks in no small part to the woman steering its course, Aja Martin.

A Dallas native, Martin’s résumé includes a master’s degree in art history from Southern Methodist University and extensive experience in research and curation at institutions ranging from the Nasher Sculpture Center to the Blaffer Contemporary in Houston. In mid-2013 she ventured out on her own as an independent curator, but just a few months in she came across an irresistible job posting. A businessman named Bob Corcoran had bought a storefront in the Design District that he’d paid artist Chris Lattanzio to transform into a new media hub, and now they were looking for an arts professional to serve as its director. Martin describes it as the perfect mixture of gallery and institution, because the job description focused on creating a space that was meaningful and different for Dallas.

“I think art in general can be intimidating,” says Martin. “Our first goal is to break down the seeming barrier that exists between people and art.”

Martin was the right person for the job. Thanks to smart, diverse programming that has included everything from the politically charged art of Dallas-based Lauren Woods to New York’s Mark Tribe, opening night receptions draw a miscellany of artists, curators and dilettantes. Martin has instituted an open door policy, and made Zhulong Gallery into a hub for conversation. She’s teamed up with gallerist Hanh Ho, who runs Cydonia Gallery, to run a series of instructional talks called Collecting 101 intended for both young, curious collectors and artists hoping to become collectible.

“I don’t want it to be all about selling my work,” says Martin. “I’m a research-based curator so I want to share all the information I have to educate anyone who’s interested.” 

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