Art Felt

Creating some of the most intriguing thematic shows in the country featuring YBAs (young Brit artists), gallerist Kristy Stubbs talks international art trading and her love affair with a staircase.

Karen Muncy. Photography Steve Wrubel.
October 29, 2012

Architect Eleanor Bond, circa 1940. Renovation, Ted Collins and Kerry Ketner, 2009. Interiors Kenneth Kyle, San Francisco, with input from Barry Williams and Laura Lee Clark, Dallas. Flowers Rachel Burrows for Avant Garden.

It certainly isn’t the most impressive piece in her art-centric Greenway Parks home: a fading magazine ad for an L-shaped Kroehler sofa, a sweep of nubby turquoise with button tufting and sleek tapered legs. “I bid $22 for it on eBay,” says Kristy Stubbs. “I thought I was bidding on the sofa.” She did find the sofa, with its original upholstery, and added a vintage Gibson guitar propped against the back cushions like a throw pillow. It’s one
of six instruments she acquired from a collector in partial payment for a Basquiat drawing. “My sons play, so I knew I could do something with them,” she explains.  

Here’s what makes this home and its owner unique: Both have an engaging, unfussy approach to high-profile art and highly collectible furniture. From the François Malbreil painting just inside the front door — found at a Paris art market — to the stairway’s scrolling iron vines and the dining chairs from Dean Martin’s Palm Springs hideaway, Stubbs has created witty and sophisticated spaces that reflect her lofty position in the international art market and, more subtly, her roots in Athens, Texas.

With her eponymous 18-year-old gallery in West Highland Park and its pop-up sibling at Highland Park Village, Stubbs is a local and international go-to source for postwar and contemporary art for headliners from Damien Hirst to José-María Cano. After briefly considering a career in medicine — two semesters in chemistry changed her mind — she got the first inkling of her direction in a Rhodes College art history class. Immersed in a six-week tour of museums and galleries in Mexico, she was awestruck by a Matisse and the possibilities of trading art on an international scale. “From that class alone [taught by professor Lawrence Anthony], five students went on to lifetime careers in art,” she notes. “My roommate then has been an associate of Acquavella Gallery in New York for 25 years. Brian Russell and Lewis Kalmbach are both career artists, and Erin Harris directs the Carpenter Art Garden in Memphis.”

Stubbs, of course, is the fifth. After transferring from Rhodes to UT Austin to complete her degree (in biology and English lit), she returned to Dallas knowing she wasn’t destined for a nine-to-five job. One afternoon, she agreed to babysit a Dallas gallery for a friend who needed to leave work early. “As soon as I walked in,” she says, “I knew this was where I wanted to be.” It was 1986, and the renowned Ron Hall Gallery was looking for a receptionist. Stubbs went for it “because I wanted to be an apprentice, to really learn international art trading. Within three weeks, while Ron was in Europe, I sold a painting by (American Impressionist) Frederick Frieseke for $350,000.” Hall made Stubbs his international sales director, dealing in American and European impressionist paintings. “We started attending art fairs around the world and sold some of the greatest art of the last 100 years, Monets and Renoirs and Giacomettis,” she recalls. “Those works don’t trade as freely today. They’re in institutions or private collections, but back then, we always had a masterpiece in the gallery.”

As the supply of late-19th and early-20th-century art diminished, the Hall Gallery moved into postwar and contemporary works by luminaries such as Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O’Keeffe and Morris Louis. Her individual reputation in the art world was growing, and she served on the advisory boards for Art Chicago and Art Miami in the early 1990s. “I had developed an eye for what’s good. When you’re in that environment, you learn.”

In 1994, Hall moved his gallery to the ground floor of a Fairmount Street church. The upstairs space was vacant, and “he was going to lease it,” Stubbs remembers. “I said I would take it. It was a little like moving out of your parents’ house and into their garage apartment.” Over the past 18 years, Stubbs has worked with savvy collectors in the U.S. and abroad, shaping her expertise in contemporary British art as well as Impressionist and Modern works. Her gallery is known for intriguing thematic shows, from “Paris > Texas” — her first, juxtaposing Matisse and David Bates — to last year’s “Eleven From London,” featuring YBAs (young British artists).

In the same way she walked into a gallery and immediately knew art would be her career, she walked into her home and knew it was … well, her home. Built in the late 1940s, its expansive walls are perfect for her big paintings. The staircase was the dealmaker, she says, “because it’s so glamorous.” In fact, the house was so perfect, it took her 12 years to change anything. “The kitchen felt like my childhood home, which may be why it took me so long” to give it a makeover. She also updated the master bath, taking special delight in the built-in shoe cabinet and the tub-filler that releases a slim column of water from the ceiling.

Art is front and center at every turn. A Thomas Osika sculpture anchors the entry courtyard. The stairs curve gently around a towering World War I gramophone speaker, next to a continuous-loop video of audiovisual artist Paul Fryer singing into it. Flanking the west windows in the living room are two vintage egg chairs, their cushioned interiors covered in chocolate velvet. “I waited years to find the second one,” Stubbs says. “And I’m really glad they aren’t identical.” Above the sofa, Alberto Di Fabio’s Galacti Synapsi asserts the similarities of the human brain and the farthest reaches of the galaxy (the artist is also an astrophysicist).

The dining room is dominated by a Damien Hirst work and a painting by British artist Brian Clarke — but it’s an 1896 portrait that captures everything she loves. “It’s British, it’s Impressionist, the artist painted with John Singer Sargent, and I found it in a little gallery on a London side street.”

The kitchen, in suave neutrals with Stubbs’ own cabinet-front design rendered by Monroe Cabinets’ Santiago Planas, houses a trio of Picasso ceramics, which she started collecting 15 years ago. She displayed a David Bailey photograph over the breakfast table after hearing Elton John had one in his kitchen.

Just outside the library, Psalm 127, one of Hirst’s butterfly works, hovers above a vintage prayer bench covered in pearlescent velvet. “When it was delivered, they said ‘Do you have an icon? You need to put it beneath an icon.’” She knew just the place.

Favorite spot (art):  At the Musée d’Orsay, in front of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.

Favorite spot (home): On the turquoise sofa in her library.

Best art book ever: I Want To Spend the Rest of My Life Everywhere, With Everyone by Damien Hirst.

Most important mentor: Ron Hall.

Biggest design influence: Barbara Barry.

Reality check: The new series Gallery Girls is “probably absolutely realistic — from what I’ve heard.”

Best advice: “Hang art at eye level so the vertical center is 58 to 62 inches from the floor. And align multiple works by their vertical centerpoints, not by the top or bottom edges.”