Opening a Gallery in a Contemporary Art Desert

Central Features, with Jami Porter Lara's ceramic "bottles" in the foreground and Patronio Bendito's digital prints along the back wall (all images courtesy Central Features)
Central Features, with Jami Porter Lara’s ceramic “bottles” in the foreground and Patronio Bendito’s digital prints along the back wall (all images courtesy Central Features)

ALBUQUERQUE — Writer, curator, and (now) gallery owner Nancy Zastudil summarized her experience opening a commercial art gallery in Albuquerque with one Facebook post: “When opening Central Features, approx 90% of the people I told in ABQ asked if it was a gallery of my own artwork.” She later told me that several other people also asked if the gallery was her studio.

Inherent in these questions is a little clue to New Mexico art commerce: many artists run studio-galleries open to the public, and they’re banking on personal interactions to sell their work. This leads us to a second, perhaps more obvious, revelation: a commercial gallery is hard to find in Albuquerque, least of all one that focuses on social engagement.

Central Features opened on September 27 with paintings by Petronio Bendito and sculptures by Jami Porter Lara. By design, the show includes one visiting artist (Bendito) and one local artist, and both of them, Zastudil explained via email, present work that is “considered and polished, yet addresses some messy issues.”

“We are interested in artists who use their artworks to address/present ideas about social progress and the inherent value of the creative act,” Zastudil wrote.

Gallery owner Nancy Zastudil (click to enlarge)
Gallery owner Nancy Zastudil (click to enlarge)

Before opening Central Features, Zastudil and her partner, Ian Goebel, were “looking for a reason to stay” in Albuquerque. They had considered moving to the Northwest, to live closer to the water, but she admits that “Seattle is not know for its commercial artwork either.” In the Duke City they saw not only a good challenge, but also a place that could stand to be challenged. With a recent push for downtown (re)development and the lack of historical restraints (like the obsession with O’Keeffe in Santa Fe), Zastudil says Albuquerque is still creating itself, “and that’s what I find exciting.”

“At the moment, the downtown energy is vibrant and people are responding,” she continued over email. “There are few commercial galleries in ABQ, and for artists living here, it’s currently not a place for them to be competitive in the art market. We are trying to change that, but to do it in ways that also draw attention to global issues, outside of the art market, and the positive roles that artists play in those issues.”

Before committing to opening the gallery, Zastudil and Goebel “tested the waters” with a series they call Show Up, Show Down. It’s a month-long set of weeklong exhibitions that originally appeared last winter in a pop-up gallery, but will now take place at Central Features. These exhibitions contain photos of site-specific projects by artists who are engaging built environments for positive change. The success of the project — from building the advisory committee and raising funds to actually getting people out to the gallery — gave Zastudil and Goebel the encouragement they needed to proceed with Central Features.

On opening night, Lara’s collection sold out. New Works consists of ceramic vases that mimic disposable plastic containers, which she describes as “reverse archaeology: digging into the present — and the future — using tools of the past.” Unfortunately, one piece shattered when a friend’s excited gesture sent it flying to the floor. Zastudil deemed it a christening of the occasion, but one could also see it as an ironic gesture, pitting the breakable art object against its everlasting progenitor.

Lara’s work went for around $350 a piece. Priced in the thousand-dollar range, Bendito’s collection, Natural Disaster Color Series, didn’t fly out the door quite so easily. (Remember, this is a town with very few commercial contemporary art galleries; I actually can’t think of another one off the top of my head). It’s hard to imagine the gallery succeeding financially if some of it doesn’t sell. An artist, activist, and educator, Bendito uses color theory to transform photos of natural disasters into abstract digital color prints. “China Flood: 2007” (2013), for instance, draws on the contrast between the bright orange worn by rescue workers and the dark earth tones of the scene, creating two forms that mimic the action.

Patronio Bendito, “China Flood: 2007” (2013)
Petronio Bendito, “China Flood: 2007” (2013)

The gallery is booked through the spring, with a group collage show running alongside a Hillerbrand + Magsamen collection in November and December. New York–based company ImageThink will run a series of workshops with Central Features in January 2015. Company founders Nora Herting and Heather Willems are graduates of the University of New Mexico art department, and Zastudil hopes the collaboration will show local business owners “the value and practical applications that artists can bring to their companies,” while showing artists that they have some options for making a living.

Central Features is, after all, a business. It’s a for-profit commercial gallery with a social mission, largely dedicated to helping artists continue to do their work. Zastudil was inspired by her experience as the administrative director of the nonprofit Frederick Hammersley Foundation. Hammersley put away money specifically to ensure that his work would remain available. Zastudil wants to ensure that the type of critically engaging art she shows remains available by locating it with collectors and financially supporting the artists who make it. She also comes from a family of what were called “self-starters” when she was growing up, she says, so she easily embraces the contemporary nomenclature of “entrepreneur.”

The gallery “is a selfish endeavor, honestly, because I wanted to open and run a business, [and] I’m familiar with the arts,” she says. “The two had to come together in a way that I felt would ‘make a difference,’ embracing all the related clichés.”

Central Features (109 5th St SW, Albuquerque) is open for Downtown Professionals Day until 6pm today. The gallery’s opening exhibition, with Petronio Bendito and Jami Porter Lara, continues through November 1.

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