Less than a year after CentralTrak celebrated its 10th anniversary with a grand party attended by the mayor where it received a gift of $100,000, North Texas’ only long-term artist residency program faces doubts about whether it will continue.
The program, which is operated by the University of Texas at Dallas and gives housing and studio space to visiting artists as well as UTD graduate students, is losing its home at 800 Exposition Ave. in June. Also, Heyd Fontenot, who has been CentralTrak’s director for the last five years, says he found out in August that his annual contract was not being renewed. Plans to replace him with a curator have been suspended while UTD re-evaluates its arts program.
All in all, it’s a sharp and sudden fall from where the residency stood last April when it marked its anniversary with a party during Art Week. Then, UTD’s Dean of Arts and Humanities Dr. Dennis M. Kratz said he saw “a bright and provocative future at UT Dallas for the arts [and] for CentralTrak.”
That future dimmed quite a bit this month when CentralTrak’s Exposition Park landlord canceled its lease. David Gibson of The Gibson Co., who also leases to 500X Gallery down the street, says he did so simply because he was tired of leasing to a university. “I have a lot of properties down here and it’s clear when you’re leasing to a business or to a person who’s responsible for what,” he says. “That was the main reason I didn’t want to mess with it anymore.”
This news alone does not spell the end of the program, which has moved once before. It was started by Rick Brettell, the Margaret M. McDermott Distinguished Chair of Art and Aesthetics at UTD, at Southside on Lamar in the Cedars and moved to its current location in 2008.
In an interview with the Observer this week, Kratz said that the university is “exploring ways to continue the residency,” and the June end date was actually an extension the university had negotiated with The Gibson Co. to give the program more time to figure out a game plan. But other recent decisions by the university suggest CentralTrak’s future past June is far from a given.
Fontenot put in his last day on Halloween. When he found out last summer that his contract wasn’t being renewed, he at first had hopes the plan was to create a better residency. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fine if someone has vision for this and they want to restructure it and they’re gonna make it better,’” he says. “But they told me they were discontinuing the directorship. They didn’t have to fire me or lay me off; my position was gone.”
In place of a director, the university told him they were creating a new curator position. “The dean was careful to tell me immediately, ‘You aren’t able to be the curator 'cause the job requires a terminal degree in art history.’ All of a sudden the job I’ve been doing for five years, I’m not qualified to do it,” says Fontenot, a studio artist with a varied background that also includes theater and filmmaking, who often curated exhibits in CentralTrak’s gallery space during his tenure there.
Kratz says they did intend to “upgrade” the program by adding a curator, whom they want to have a graduate degree so that they will be able to teach courses at CentralTrak; however, the search for one has since been suspended “while we see what’s going to happen next.” For the time being, Frank Dufour — a professor at UTD, where he teaches courses in sound design as well as arts and technology — has been installed as interim director.
For Fontenot, the way his time at CentralTrak has concluded is a reflection of the challenges he faced during his years there. “I would probably have two meetings a year with Rick [Brettell]; he might visit CentralTrak maybe once a year,” he says, adding that during trips to Richardson to visit with Kratz he routinely felt “blown off.”
He was warned this would be the case before he took the job.
“When I took over, another former director said, ‘Don’t take this job; they’re just going to kill it,’” he says. “So I told the dean when I was interviewing, ‘I keep hearing these rumors that there’s no support for CentralTrak ... I have a lot of other things I can do ... I don’t need to take this job if it’s a dead end.’ But they took resources from me each and every year. I got less and less money to do the programming.”
Even after the April 2016 announcement that CentralTrak would receive $50,000 from philanthropists Ruthie and Jay Pack, and the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History would match the amount, Fontenot says he observed no change. “That money never made it to any account that I oversaw. I asked Brettell about it repeatedly. ‘Where is it? Can we have access to it?’ But he always dodged the question.”
The Observer followed up with Kratz to inquire about the allocation of these funds, but has not yet heard back. (Ed. Note: In an email, Kratz wrote the gift is "'on hold' pending further developments.")
Fontenot says he made up for the lack of funding by using his connections in the Dallas arts community to come up with programming that wouldn’t cost anything. “My heels were dug in ’cause it’s important to the community,” he says. “As a working artist I understand how sparse resources are for us.”
One such cost-free program was a series of open discussions moderated by resident artist Leslie Moody Castro. She had been accepted to CentralTrak on the basis of an international project, which involved a road trip from Mexico City to Dallas with two photographers. They would collect objects along the route to later be turned into sculptures. “It was really supposed to talk about this idea of a border being an ideological concept and not necessarily existing in the landscape,” she says.
However, when CentralTrak still didn’t have funding for the project a month before she was supposed to arrive, Castro decided to scrap it. She was asking for $6,000, which, she says, “is not a lot for an international exhibition with an international curator and two international artists,” but she soon learned that amount was about half of the facility’s annual budget.
“Multiple times [Fontenot] would say to me, ‘Basically, we only have money to turn our lights on. Basically, we only have money for toilet paper for this many weeks,’” Castro says. “And so it made a lot of sense to me to just do the things that we have the money to do.”
Left with an empty space that needed to be filled, she decided to invite anyone who wanted to participate to a “therapy session” about problems facing artists in Dallas and what could be done about them. During this time, she wrote a series of articles for the Observer, including one that called out the university for its lack of engagement with its own program.
“While CentralTrak is part of the university system, the amount of support it actually receives from the institution is quite superficial,” she wrote. “That isn’t to say we don’t value the support we receive, quite the contrary. ... What I have seen at CentralTrak is a desire for university administration to be involved by showing up to CentralTrak events and exhibitions, and even integrate better into programming.”
Castro says she worked hard to get face time with Kratz and Brettell to discuss the problems she’d observed, but when she finally did, the meetings were unproductive. “The times that I’ve seen Rick or when CentralTrak has come up in conversation it’s been, ‘It’s so great. It’s so important.’ I give [Brettell] a lot of pats on the back for founding CentralTrak but when it comes to supporting it in the way it needs support, he doesn’t do it.”
When the Observer asked Brettell if he was available to comment on the changes at CentralTrak, his response was “nope.”
Castro wasn’t surprised to hear that CentralTrak could be ending entirely. “When I found out, I was just really glad Heyd could go on to a better place now,” she says. “He’s been butting heads with people who are not interested in making it work. At least they’ve finally become transparent about it.”
Fontenot lived at the residency and worked closely with the artists, putting an estimated 60 to 70 hours into the job each week — a role he says cannot be replicated by a curator or an interim director who is a full-time teacher. “I think in that regard, no one at the university even understood the level of commitment I had or the time I was putting in,” he says. “I lived and breathed CentralTrak.”
Artists whom Fontenot had programmed for the latter part of 2017 have been receiving letters telling them they’re out of luck. Just a month after William Sarradet received notice that his yearlong residency would begin on June 29, he received a second notice saying that there would be no place for him after all.
“I intended to use the gallery space, as well as my studio, to make room for peers and adversaries to meet and share ideas. I really wanted to pursue research, and using the space to facilitate media and data literacy for the public,” he says. “Fortunately, I have an apartment lease to fall back on. But other applicants are coming from another continent, and coordinating their careers and livelihoods around this closure is a major setback, regardless of the advance notice.”
Future residents aren’t the only ones affected by the closure. During Fontenot’s tenure, CentralTrak also became a meeting point for young Dallas creatives outside the University of Texas System. For example, the gallery space has been the site of an open weekly drawing group, Children of Artemis, that is routinely attended by a dozen or more people.
Children of Artemis’ leader, Jermy Johnson, initially said that he hoped the group could continue past June if CentralTrak found a new home. However, in a Facebook post this week he announced that the group would be calling it quits early, citing the upcoming closure of the space as a factor.
“Come say goodbye to us for good as we celebrate our own last gasp. Let us snack and put a real indelible mark on something so disposable as to bring you to tears,” reads the description for the final event at 7 p.m. Jan. 30.
“It makes me so sad to think that [they’re] bulldozing the clubhouse,” Fontenot says. “I made sure that I welcomed people from every institution, every university, every pocket. I wanted this cross-institutional exchange and I feel like it’s a place where a lot of people met and made those connections.”
Despite the letters sent to artists with 2017 residencies, Kratz insists there is no plan to do away with the program. “I’m working very hard to keep it going to relocate it, and that may mean in some ways reimagining it,” he says. Asked what that reimagining might look like, he adds, “Nothing major. The core of the program I hope will be the same.”
Fontenot suggests the changes at CentralTrak could just be a “canary in the coal mine,” indicating a larger tide of change in the arts at UTD. Several years ago, he says the plastic arts — painting, sculpture, printmaking — were dealt a blow when the new Art and Technology (ATEC) department split from the College of Arts and Humanities.
Because ATEC is the “favorite child” of Kratz, he says, that department was given use of the recently constructed art building and the plastic arts were relegated to the old “Art Barn” which has been slated for demolition for four years to make way for a new science building. “I’ve heard that the entire curriculum will have to change and the art department at UTD may just go away,” Fontenot says.
UTD senior lecturer Greg Metz, who has campaigned to save the Art Barn, says the university is in the process of designing a professional gallery and a student gallery complex to make up for the loss, and is still working out a location for other studio facilities.
“There was a demonstrable outpouring of love for this iconic structure [the Art Barn] and its design, and there will be many fans and alumni who will be very disappointed as it goes the way of other disappearing historical markers that have been parenthetical to the transitional progress and success of a city’s, institution’s or program’s evolution,” Metz wrote the Observer in an email, in which he also made reference to the split from ATEC and suggested there may be potential to build a new complex for the “museum arts” down the road.
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As for Fontenot, he is struggling to move on from a job that he loved, demanding though it was.
“I have a lot of ideas about what I want to do, but to be honest this really kind of kicked the air out of me,” he says. However, there is a silver lining to his story in that he is now able to devote more time to his studio practice; this year he has two residencies of his own lined up, one in British Columbia and one at ArtPace in San Antonio.
Fontenot says the example set by ArtPace — founded in ’93 by artist and collector Linda Pace, heiress to the Pace Picante fortune — is one he had wanted CentralTrak to emulate. “It’s a model I wish CentralTrak could have followed more closely ’cause they fund their artists,” he says. “You get a budget and a stipend.”
One thing that’s definitely not in Fontenot’s future? Another job at a university. “This is my first and last job in academia,” he says. “I have no interest in this culture.”