DIALOGUE: Kim Davenport


True, False, and Slightly Better (detail view)
Phoebe Washburn
Cardboard and drywall screws
Photo: Thomas Dubrock &copy Rice University Art Gallery

It all started with the hay. That’s when Kim Davenport saw what Rice Gallery could become. It was a winter evening in 1996 and a group of volunteers sat working quietly in the gallery, while the smell of hay and the sound of meditative Gaelic music filled the space. Artist Michael Shaughnessy was teaching them to weave hay for his installation “An Caoin Ardaigh” (The Gentle Rise). It was the first site-specific installation Davenport had commissioned for the re-imagined Rice University Art Department exhibition space. “When Michael came down and started work, people did exactly what we had hoped,” says Davenport. “They looked in the gallery windows, they wandered in to see what was happening and they started working. We had over 40 volunteers. This is when we learned what a great, community-based thing this was going to be.”

Davenport was a curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut when she was recruited to become the director of Rice Gallery in 1994. The national search was a last-ditch effort by art department chair William Camfield before the School of Art gave up the space and closed the gallery altogether. The gallery had no real collection and the annual budget for shows was $10,000. “I was charged with two things,” says Davenport. “Come up with some kind of program that would attract people from off-campus, creating an open door to the city, and to not duplicate what was being done by other museums. During my first year, I spent a lot of time going to shows in Houston. Texas artists seemed to be well-represented,” Davenport recalls, “but it seemed to me there weren’t a lot of artists from outside the state being shown.”

But if she was going to bring work from elsewhere, it would have to be on an extremely limited budget. For one show she exhibited art from Sol LeWitt’s personal collection, avoiding the loan fees that a museum might charge. Installation began to seem like an option when she decided to bring in Adrian Piper’s 1988 Cornered. Davenport had seen it in New York, at the New Museum. “It was so powerful and I just remembered it. I knew I could bring that in the beginning for no money. We had the components [chairs, table and video monitor], and instead of using that money for loan fees, we used it to bring Adrian Piper here.”

Today, Rice Gallery in the only university art museum in the nation dedicated to site-specific installation art. The 40-by-44-foot space has 16-foot ceilings and a large glass wall that opens onto the lobby of Sewall Hall offering passersby a view into the gallery. Says Davenport of the space’s potential, “I thought, it wouldn’t just be taking things out of a crate and hanging them on the wall. People would see the process, they could press their faces up to the glass.” To date, the gallery has commissioned more than 60 works, giving young artists like Phoebe Washburn their first chance to work large-scale and giving major artists, like El Anatsui and Joel Shapiro, a new, invigorating and decidedly non-commercial outlet.

Of course, working with artists as they create art onsite can have its issues. “Michael Shaughnessy’s show was when we were introduced to the double-edge sword of non-traditional art making materials.” As the artist and volunteers worked with all that fragrantly evocative hay, allergens were being sucked into Sewell Hall’s HVAC system, sending students and faculty in other departments into paroxysms of hay fever. Jaye Anderton, the Gallery’s administrator (later Gallery manager) and a long-time Rice employee cleverly brought in a University Health and Safety officer who conjured giant exhaust fans to extract the particulate matter.

To run a space that only shows site-specific work, one must have a pretty high tolerance for risk and an eye for great work. Davenport, who trained as an artist and has a Masters degree from Yale University’s School of Divinity, says: “It is really a case of ‘knowing when I see it,’ an immediate intuitive leap rather than a rational thought process. This moment of insight derives from an accumulation of experiences-looking, listening, thinking, feeling, making, studying, forming relationships with people and objects, being young, getting older-in other words life.”

Houstonians still talk about Phoebe Washburn’s 2003 installation “True, False, and Slightly Better,” which filled the gallery with a massive vortex composed of 7,000 pounds of flattened and painted cardboard boxes attached to each other with 70,000 drywall screws. The first time Davenport saw Washburn’s work, the young artist was 6 months out of graduate school. “She had a little show in New York at a walk-up gallery without air-conditioning. She took over the whole space and encroached on the office. I went to see it and signed her up on the spot.” Rice Gallery gave the artist the opportunity and support to work on an extremely large-scale installation, one that essentially launched Washburn’s career. The artist has since gone on to show at venues like the Deutsche Guggenheim, Whitney Biennial and the Hammer Museum.

And it’s not just young artists the gallery is serving. When asked about their projects with established artists, Davenport reveals, “Joel Shapiro and El Anatsui both stated that their projects here put them in a whole new direction in their work. I think it’s probably a refreshing environment for them. They don’t have to sell it. This takes them back to the beginning. It’s a freeing project. To have them say that, is really gratifying and then they go out in the world and talk about Rice.”

Other names on Rice’s roster of artists, architects and designers help give a sense of the gallery’s scope: Judy Pfaff, Sarah Oppenheimer, Soo Sunny Park, Henrique Oliveira, El Ultimo Grito, Eve Sussman, Allen Ruppersberg, Jessica Stockholder, Shigeru Ban, Wayne White, Yayoi Kusama, Gaia, and Karim Rashid are just a few. (Extensive photographic and video documentation of the installations are available on the ricegallery.org website.) At press time, Dinh Q. Lê had just arrived in Houston, accompanied by a crate of found photographs from Vietnam. Today, Lê works in Ho Chi Minh City but in 1978, his family fled Vietnam. Explains Davenport, “He has always been interested in the fact that there are so many abandoned photos. Maybe they are from people who didn’t survive the war, or who had to leave these things behind. He is dedicating his installation to his mother and her friends.” Those found photographs are now being used as part of Lê’s new Rice Gallery installation, “Crossing the Farther Shore,” on view through August 28, 2014.

—Kelly Klaasmeyer