Red Arrow Contemporary's Losing Its Space, Marking a New Beginning for the Gallery

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Jamie Laughlin
Soon, the arrow will point to a new direction.
"Having a gallery in Dallas is great," says Red Arrow Contemporary co-director Elissa Stafford. "But having something that's more than that, an experience and way to give back to people, especially to other artists -- that would be really powerful for us."

She, her sister Erin and I are sitting in a coffee shop discussing Red Arrow's pending demise. Their gallery will fold when the lease expires next year and the Stafford sisters seem oddly relieved. Eager, actually. They see this approaching death as a means of reincarnation, a way to do what they might do best: present vibrant, experimental art to a local audience. Doing that isn't easy. It requires drastically shifting the business model. They're seeking nonprofit status to re-target Red Arrow with the plan of creating Dallas' only curator-in-residence program.

Erin and Elissa have done a lot with the gallery in its current form, especially for two sisters who never wanted to work on the business end of art. That was their father's dream, really. An artist who went into advertising, Eddie Stafford always envisioned owning a gallery space. He saw it as a way to contribute to the local arts community and help provide leverage for budding talents. He asked his daughters, both artists themselves, to help him run Red Arrow. They agreed. He gave them the keys.

"We had no idea what we were doing," Erin says.

So what happens when two non-commercial artists without gallery ambitions are suddenly handed a showroom? They try things. They wing it. And they create a gallery that sticks out. Think an Australian black opal dealer nestled in the Diamond District. From tone to presentation, this space is different.

Even if collectors have been slow to get on board, viewers appreciate Red Arrow's randomness, like that time the Staffords flew in Parisian artist Anne Ferrer to fill the gallery with whimsical, inflatable, wearable sculptures, a show that felt more on par with a museum or nonprofit exhibition, rather than a commercial enterprise.

They've also veered from the pack by not signing a talent stable. Bucking that norm allows them to present more versatile content but it doesn't necessarily appeal to collectors, many of whom want to follow their favorite artist's work over time. "We weren't going to commit ourselves to any artists," Erin says, " because we wanted to continue showing more, and more, and more." She shrugs. "It seems like it could get kind of stifling."

And then there's the question of "Who is Red Arrow's art marketed toward?" The Stafford women will quickly admit that they show what they like, and it may appeal to a demographic that can't afford to collect it. Not yet, anyway.

"It's a money pit," Erin says. "It could be worse," Elissa counters. "We're not a house that's falling into the ground."

So, they're here, ready to burn the fields and begin something new, something they should have been doing all along. But that's the funny thing about finding your path: It often takes a big divergence to realize your natural direction. Erin and Elissa have reset the compass. Now, they see unlimited possibilities.

"I think Dallas needs it, honestly," says Erin, who goes on to note the city's lack of steady residency options. Having one devoted entirely to curation, where an artist would pitch a project, move in, research and assemble it, could strengthen our local network of artists, studios, museums and nonprofits. And considering the level of public engagement during each show's evolution, it could also provide a great education for both resident and viewer.

The Staffords are taking steps to bring all of this into being. They've even planned their first fundraiser for February 15, thanks to a temporarily borrowed nonprofit status from the Oak Cliff Foundation. The event is designed as a scavenger hunt around Dragon Street, where donors will sniff out gift cards to area businesses while they prowl through the neighborhood. That seed money will fund the project's next jolt, the particulars of which are still up in the air.

The Stafford sisters are toying with several blueprints. Both Oak Cliffers, they'd love to see the residency find a home across the bridge, possibly in a space needing preservation. Monte Anderson of the Oak Cliff Foundation has committed himself to being on their board, and is helping scout gallery and living spots through his network. There's even an idea that the future resident could wind up staying at Anderson's boutique hotel, the Belmont, similar to the Fairmont's residency program. Red Arrow is also chatting with CentralTrak about a possible shared living situation, an idea only feasible if the Expo Park space were to break its UT funding ties and go nonprofit. The Staffords have also contemplated a situation similar to Austin's Big Medium, wherein costs are defrayed through rented studio spaces, a model more heavily dependent on external factors than grant funding.

Logistics for office and gallery space remain flexible, but Red Arrow plans to only accommodate one curator at a time -- two, if designed as a team project -- so lodging costs will be kept low. And while the Staffords would like to see more interactive performances, public engagement and experimental installation pieces at the space, they don't expect their vision to remain The Vision.

The aim is to set up Red Arrow, guide it into an identity, help it develop a sense of community and then safely leave it -- to still create a legacy, just not the one Eddie Stafford initially predicted. "We're not the end-all, be-all," Erin assures.

In the meantime, the Stafford sisters have a gallery to run, and they plan to have fun doing it until the lights go dark. San Antonio artist Gary Sweeney returns in 2014. Their current show was curated by pop-up renegade collective Apophenia Underground. And this summer, they plan a 2.0 version of the Industry show, which featured hallucinatory art out of Austin. "We're going to have a big bounce house at that one," Erin says.

One thing we can count on is that the Staffords are taking advantage of this moment in Dallas art. They see other groups transitioning, evolving and planning their next steps, and recognize the opportunities that come from tapping into a shared future. "It's exciting that everyone's about to move around," Erin says. "We're like the apps on our phones when they get all jiggly."

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