Sunday, November 20, 2011

What They Are Saying About West Oaks Mall

by Robert Boyd

This weekend was busy--a new show at Lawndale, a big show at The Joanna, Art Crawl. I was curious to hear what Houston's artists thought about the potential West Oaks Mall art space. Here is my beer-fogged recollection.

Mark Flood was predictably skeptical. To paraphrase him, he said how can they expect to fill 22 Lawndales with art when they can't even fill one? He basically expressed doubt that Houston's artists and curators could step up, which is a concern that many people have expressed. He suggested that Sharon Engelstein might be able to fill the space with art that didn't get lost. However, despite his skepticism, he seemed willing to entertain the possibility of success, suggesting that if Dia Beacon could do it, maybe we could too.

Daniel Heimbinder came up with an idea for an installation that I frankly considered stealing from him. Air dancers.

Aim High Moonwalks

Air dancers, aka skydancers, would be used to fill the interior space of the old J.C. Penney's. Hundred of them. The blowers would be so loud, it'd be like being in a jet engine. The spastic air dancers would have such frenetic, jerky motions, they could cause seizures. And as an installation, it would be an apt comment on the space itself, a mall on the desolate retail landscape of Highway 6.

At the Box 13 opening for Dutch Invasion, Paul Middendorf described being contacted by Sharston Plenge--the organizer of the West Oaks Mall art space--and being a bit suspicious at first. He wondered what Plenge, a Californian artist, was doing sniffing around Houston non-profits. (Mark Flood also wondered about the ulterior motive--but to me the ulterior motive is not hidden at all: Pacific Retail Capital Partners wants artists to help increase the visibility and desirability of West Oaks Mall. Their exit strategy is always to sell the property--that's the business they are in.) However, after Middendorf heard a first hand report of the space, he was more open to the possibilities and spoke of a similar large building that was handed over to Portland, Oregon, arts groups for temporary use.

Jonathan Leach instantly honed in on the problem of making effective use of 100,000 square feet. His suggestion? Sound stages for film and video students. Of course sound stages aren't cheap, but with two of the primary expenses--the building itself and the utilities--paid for, any use of the space is already heavily subsidized.

Rachel Hecker focused on practical issues. She said everyone has ideas about the space, so there needs to be a "think tank" or conference where all potential stakeholders get together and thrash out a plan. No one person or art organization can make this happen. Thinking about such a conclave, I can envision it having all the faults of committee-think (lack of boldness, conventionality, compromise that destroys any visionary thinking, sluggishness, jockeying for power, etc.). Making sure that a committee didn't succumb to group-think would be one of the big challenges. Hecker also suggested that the space be split between studio space/residencies and exhibition space. The former would guarantee that the building would be in constant use.

So Pan readers--what do you think should be done with 100,000 square feet of air-conditioned space in West Oaks Mall?



  1. West Oaks Mall is dead. It IS too far out from the Inner Loop (where supposedly the best of Houstons "art scene" is located.The self defined "hipster/cool/my shit don't stink/ artiste types " crowd wouldn't be caught dead venturing Outside of the Loop ,much less even remotely giving the now defunct W.O.M any stamp of respectability.

  2. You might be correct in your skepticism about West Oaks Mall's prospects (I share that skepticism), but there are Houston artists and art institutions outside the Loop. If the West Oaks Mall art space offered free studio space, I think there are plenty of artists who would take them up on it. After all, Independence Art Studios is outside the Loop, they charge for studio space, and last I heard, they had no vacancies. I have met people on the art scene for whom the Loop is like an invisible barrier that they won't cross--but I also know people on the scene who are more than willing to cross it, including some who actually live outside the Loop. That number includes the two writers of this blog. In fact, West Oaks Mall is closer for me (about 12 miles) than the Museum of Fine Arts (about 15 miles).