Wednesday, November 16, 2011

22 Lawndales

by Robert Boyd

It used to be a JCPenney's. Now it's for art

22 Lawndales. That's one way to think of the amount of potential exhibition space that has suddenly--miraculously--become available to Houston artists. Out on the far west side of town, where Westheimer and Richmond hit Highway 6, is a hard luck mall--West Oaks Mall. Just a little history of the mall. In July, 2003, it was acquired by Pacific Retail Capital Partners for $58 million. This mall has over a million square feet of retail, including 100,000 square feet in a free standing department store building that had been occupied by a JCPenney's up until 2003. In September, 2005, they sold the mall to a company owned by Edward H. Okun for $102 million. Okun turned out to be a criminal with a terrible sense of timing. In particular, malls have been in decline in the US for a while (which is not to say that there aren't lots of successful ones), that area of Houston has been in decline for a while, and just three years after Okun bought West Oaks, the U.S. economy collapsed, bringing his criminal real estate empire crashing down. The mall was foreclosed on and sold for $15 million (!). And guess who bought it? Pacific Retail Capital Partners. So when you think about it, they ended up with a mall and $29 million in the bank.

So they have with a seriously underutilized mall and a nice cash cushion. The mall may be a white elephant now, but with this cash in the bank, Pacific Retail is in the position to try something really innovative. Enter Sharsten Plenge, daughter Pacific Retail managing principal, Steve Plenge. She came up with the idea of using the old Penney's as an art space.

How it will be used is up for discussion. Plenge has been talking to local artists about it for a while, but it's still early days. And it has a lot of obstacles--West Oaks Mall is not exactly an art destination. (Although Houston hipsters might be familiar with it because of its Alamo Drafthouse location.) It's a long way from Montrose, baby. So to me, this means that success would be dependent on both attracting Houston's art people to make the 20+ mile trip out plus reaching out to the local community, which includes both rough-and-tumble Alief and ultra-suburban Cinco Ranch. But an equal challenge will be to artists and curators. This space is huge. That means that exhibits in this space will have to measure up to it. Your suite of pencil drawings won't cut it, nor will your one-person performance.

Some seriously big artworks could fit in this space

That's what I mean by 22 Lawndales. Lawndale has 4375 square feet of exhibition space--2100 square feet in the large John O'Quin gallery, 1100 in the mezzanine, 650 in the Grace R. Cavner gallery, and 525 in the project space. And Lawndale doesn't in any way feel small. Imagine the challenge of filling Lawndale 22 times over. All the alternative art space in Houston--Lawndale, Diverse Works, FotoFest, Project Row Houses, Box 13, Skydive, the Joanna and anything I'm missing doesn't add up half this new space. This alone could tilt Houston's artistic center of gravity severely to the west.

Houston artists and curators--put on your thinking caps! How will you utilize this astonishing resource? Sharsten Plenge wants to hear from you.


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