From Gallerist to Agrarian Art

Inside the Pastoral Nest of Curator Cynthia Mulcahy and Artist Robert Hamilton

Here, the remains of 1,700 sunflowers and fresh beets rub shoulders with Brazilian graffiti artists and Texas’ top art provocateurs. And Billecart-Salmon pink champagne is often on ice. Enter the casa of Oak Cliff’s most game-changing couple, Cynthia Mulcahy and Robert Hamilton.

It’s just another day for Cynthia Mulcahy and Robert Hamilton. More than a hundred pounds of spring onions litter a corner of the kitchen floor in their cozy bungalow, waiting to be weighed, gathered in bags, then dropped off at the Oak Cliff eatery Bolsa or the neighborhood co-op Urban Acres, where Mulcahy often volunteers. Nearby, an earthworm farm — a large wooden trough covered with newspapers that made an appearance last year at a show at the Reading Room — awaits its next home at Mulcahy Farms, 90 miles away. Cutting-edge contemporary art (from the gallerist’s Mulcahy Modern stable, including Margaret Meehan and Celia Eberle) cozies up to a collection of odd piñatas, Hamilton’s monochromatic photo-emulsion paintings and remnants of last summer’s social engagement/art endeavor Seventeen Hundred Seeds, which is still being talked about and was celebrated in the “Food” exhibit at Eastfield College Galleries earlier this year. The home bustles with activity, humming from a charming art- and book-lined office as a new curatorial project takes shapes — one involving the topic of war, which opened this spring at NYC’s powerhouse dealers Klemens Gasser & Tanja Grunert, Inc. But this dwelling is also a Mecca for entertaining. After our photo shoot, flutes of the house beverage, Billecart-Salmon pink bubbly, were passed. Now enter the live-and-work space of two Oak Cliff creatives you need to know as told to us by Miz Mulcahy herself.

Stats. When and where did you start Mulcahy Modern Gallery? State Thomas Historic District in Uptown was the first location, opened March 1994. Moved to Bishop Arts District in March 2000.

The road from curator to private dealer and now farmer. Closed the gallery in Summer 2007. I’ve been a private dealer since then. My father was fighting serious lymphoma cancers at MD Anderson (he did not leave the hospital for six months), and I was in the midst of another multi-year lease renegotiation, so I decided to step away and help my family take care of the family farm while taking some time for myself. But the truth is, I think the gallery had run its course for me.

It was a wonderful experiment for over 13 years, and I was completely and utterly committed to it, but at some point I realized I wanted to pursue my own projects. And there was, admittedly, an unyielding desire to simplify my life. I have more time to pursue varied interests, collaborate with other curators and spend time with good friends. I volunteer two to three hours every week at my local food co-op, and I commit time to working for Democratic elections.

And mostly, the farm setting [Mulcahy Farms is 90 acres deep in the heart of North Texas farm and ranch country in the Brazos River Valley] ultimately led to a radical rethinking of how I viewed art and its place in a community, which led to the public art projects Square Dance and Seventeen Hundred Seeds, both literally in a field.

I’ve been working on a small number of clients’ collections in the last few years, and I love the freedom of not being tied to a space. In retrospect, it was a timely decision, as the Great Recession began a few months later and galleries were hit hard.

Very first art acquisition. In my 20s with hardly any money, I bought a tiny Edouard Manet 1865 etching on paper of a portrait of Baudelaire based on a photograph by the prominent photographer Felix Nadar — weirdly, maybe my earliest interest in documentary work. It’s still hanging in my kitchen. Together Robert and I bought a folk-artist drawing from Webb Gallery. The artist was Willie Wayne Young. That was 1999, and it’s still hanging in our bedroom.

House music. Constant rotation of old-school tunes like The Velvet Underground, Nigerian ‘60s jazz and Miles Davis to Four Tet to local Dallas bands The Beaten Sea and the Fox and the Bird and Austin’s Yppah. On trips, we like to buy a lot of vintage Brazilian vinyl in Rio’s abundance of used-record stores.

In the garden. We like to eat seasonally, so at the moment we are growing all kinds of greens (mustard, kale, heirloom lettuces), root crops (beets, carrots, radishes) and herbs. And it’s pecan season! We belong to a food co-op CSA Urban Acres that supports surrounding Texas farmers. All organic produce every two weeks.

Libations. Champagne, beer and wine never stop flowing ‘round these here parts. House cocktail: Just about anything you can juice and add tequila to, right? Robert makes a mean Mulcahy Farms beet margarita with lime, mint and agave syrup.

Fave menu item now. Bolsa’s pork pâté with Mulcahy Farms pecans.

Recipe to share. Tossed raw salad with blue cheese, dried cherries and Mulcahy Farms-grown kale, radishes, pecans and sunflower sprouts and house-made mustard/agave dressing.

Daily reads. I really can’t live without The New York Times in paper form every day. I’m old school. I read a lot of newspapers online, like The Guardian, the L.A. Times and The Rio Times and tons of organic farming blogs and food-issue columnists like Mark Bittman and art blogs like Hyperallergic and Glasstire, NY Times’ Lens blog and At War blog.

Personal design style. We’re fond of mixing recovered sidewalk furniture finds and family antiques with work by contemporary-artist friends, folk art, piñatas, farm cacti, documentary photography, fresh seasonal farm flowers and wildflowers and books galore. I think that covers it.

On your night table. Two books of fiction about Iraq war veterans, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Dallas’ Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, both National Book Award finalists; Organic Fruit Gardening; chief Creative Time curator Nato Thompson’s Living as Form about socially engaged art over the last two decades.

Fave city in the world. We both work in the arts, which allows us to check out for a month every August in Rio de Janeiro, where we rent the same apartment. After a decade, it seems like a second home for a tiny bit every year. Rio is a gritty, violent, breathtakingly beautiful city with its own unique culture of music, visual arts and folk traditions. It reminds me in a way of what NYC used to be like before it got scrubbed clean by Giuliani. Rio is changing now, too. They hired Giuliani to consult on the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

All the museums are free, as well as concerts and films, because it’s a social democratic country that makes culture for its people a priority. The Brazilian government just announced that all public and private sector workers will receive $25 a month on a card to spend on any cultural activity including museums, concerts, films. Wow, huh?

Biggest break to date. Leaving the white walls for the field.

Square-dancing adventure. Leila Grothe and I wrote a grant to The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts for an Idea Fund Grant, where we proposed art as social practice in the form of an outdoor seasonal dance in our city, and we were surprised to be awarded one of the 10 grants that support new forms of contemporary public art.

The City of Dallas has an early history of sponsoring square dances in city parks in the 1940s and ’50s especially, and much documentation exists in the city municipal archives about the dances: thankful letters from city residents, band contracts, caller invoices, even photographs of the dances. The resulting one-night event [in 2011] at the Trinity River Audubon Center under a full November moon required participation on the part of the audience to complete the work. The event was free and open to all, with a vegetarian chili bar, beer, a live band (the Quebe Sisters Band, all either Texas, National or World Champion — five times! — fiddle players) playing tunes in the 1940s and ‘50s square-dance tradition, licensed square-dance caller Mr. Wayne Shoemaker and the audience. You could not just dance with the person you came with, but rather you were forced to interact with others and touch strangers. There was a humility and beauty created by this type of forced interaction amongst the audience. People still talk about that night and how transforming it was.

In like manner, Seventeen Hundred Seeds was a form of artistic intervention, or farming as street theater, and it also forced a response from the surrounding residents passing daily — bus drivers, curious passersby, paleta cart operators and area business owners. There was an almost transcendental aspect for those who really took the time to enjoy the life cycle of the field through its many stages of growth over the three-and-a-half-month duration of the project: from the sprouting of 1,700 seeds to the peak of blooms turning to giant seed heads and finally their death in the field. On either end of the field were two large sets of stadium seating made of hay bales for viewing.

With both Square Dance: A Community Project and Seventeen Hundred Seeds, I admit I enjoy irritating those whose definitions of art are limited to object making and commercial success. For me, art is about ideas, period.

Latest curatorial endeavor. “Engines of War” is an exhibition co-curated by myself and Charles Dee Mitchell that examines how the United States of America conducts war in the 21st century, from the soldiers who fight our wars and their recruitment to the high-tech use of drones to the American people and the media’s reaction to a decade of war. The exhibition is undoubtedly as much about the seduction of war as it is the consequences of war, from stunningly beautiful portraits of soldiers to work that addresses the physical and psychological damage caused by war (wounded veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder and military suicides). We are now in our longest war in U.S. history (Afghanistan). Also, my dad is more specifically a nuclear weapons engineer
and an aerospace engineer, now retired. This has given me added insight into the subject of war.

The exhibition, which ran March 28 through May 4 at Gasser & Grunert gallery in Chelsea in NYC, included the work of 11 artists who vary from conceptual research-based practice artists Lisa Barnard and David Cotterrell to documentary photographers Eugene Richards and Anthony Suau to war photographer Benjamin Lowy to the street photography of Jamel Shabazz. Visitors to the exhibition were able to play the U.S. Army-designed war video game America’s Army, the military’s most effective recruiting tool since WWII, as well as the U.S. Army-designed comics for iPad and Android tablets.

Preferred restaurant for a power art lunch. Bolsa and Bolsa Mercado are both three blocks from my house.

Fave spot for dinner with fellow creatives. Cedar Social.

What do you never leave the house without. Curiosity.

Wardrobe staple. Cowboy boots and flip-flops.

Define your aesthetic. Since I don’t have a space anymore, I am more interested in originating projects outside of a gallery. The last two have been literally in a field.

Qualities shared by all your artists. I prefer the authentic loner vision to the fabulous, cool or popular.

Last art acquisition. Lisa Barnard’s Head Gear portrait of soldier.

Next art acquisition. Hugh Holland’s 1975-1978 documentary photography of the California skateboarding scene.

Down the road: rumors of art at Mulcahy Farm. Yes, Robert and I are restoring an 1890s building, Spring Tavern, in the heart of farm and ranch country based on a found farm diary, turning it into a “tavern” to which we will invite artists to do projects and ply them with beer. This has been postponed while we do a project for MAP [Make Art with Purpose] this October.

We can’t wait to be served! You betcha. I promise a farm-grown beet margarita in your future.

How “Engines of War” came to be. Tanja Grunert attended the Dallas Art Fair and heard about the exhibition “XXI: Conflicts in a New Century” Charles Dee Mitchell and I curated in 2010 at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center, the city of Dallas’ newest cultural space. They asked us to propose an exhibition, and we wound up doing an entirely different exhibition than the Dallas exhibition for their very large space.

Charles Dee Mitchell and I work extraordinarily well together, and his self-deprecation and dry humor are unmatched among curators I know. We share a lot of the same interests in documentary photography, folk art and conceptual work, and at this point in my life, I really enjoy collaborating with others on projects. Almost all of the exhibitions or projects I have done since the gallery years have been collaborations (Leila Grothe and I curated Square Dance together, the war exhibitions with Dee, and Robert and I on “Seventeen Hundred Seeds”).

How and when you and Robert met. We met at 24FPS, which does framing and conservation of art for museums and collectors. Robert manages 24FPS and has been there 19 years.

Next collaboration. Robert and I are working on another project, as yet unresolved, for October 2013 for Make Art With Purpose (MAP) — a month of socially engaged artists’ projects in Dallas, opening in October. (makeartwithpurpose.net). This is going to be amazing for Dallas. They are bringing in many international and national artists, doing this kind of work from all over, along with local artists.

We’ve seen some of the best exhibitions ever, from 20th-century documentary photography at the Instituto Moreira Salles to a Miles Davis retrospect and a punk exhibition that recreated Warhol’s foil-covered walls of the Factory, both traveled from Paris. The Helio Oiticica Center hosts wonderful exhibitions that usually address the community, and we always visit the quite incredible Rio Botanical Gardens established in 1810 by the Portuguese king when Rio became the capital of the Portuguese empire during the Napoleonic Wars. Rio is full of Neoclassical and modernist buildings that house cultural institutes, and you can take the subway everywhere.

Next collaboration. MAP is an innovative organization that produces international projects and partners with artists and organizations who are making work that leads to or creates positive environmental and social change. MAP exists to advance an alternative model for art making that is not bound by, but does not exclude, the museum and gallery system, is more expansive than individual expression, and includes ideas for local and global transformation.

MAP projects include communities as partners in the production of the work, directly engage the audience to participate beyond the role of passive observer and can also involve creative collaboration from government, NGOs and other partners. Often providing solutions to some of the world’s most critical problems, these projects affirm the meaningful role that artists play in the larger world.

The MAP Web site is an open, source creative resource for artists and organizations who are creating projects that lead to positive change. The site includes how-to guidelines that will help users replicate similar projects in their own communities. MAP also produces exhibitions, projects, public programs and other events around the world. Founded on the belief that artists have the knowledge and skills to make positive, lasting environmental and social change, MAP aims to make a constructive contribution to problems connected to climate change, world health, immigration, refugees, and other issues that are shaping the world.

Trajectory to white cube. Grew up in Arlington, Texas, and at the family farm in Paluxy, Texas.

Influences: Reading, travel, nature and art are my biggest influences. Schooling: Graduated magna cum laude Texas Tech University in 1991, degree in History. Rice University in 1991, after undergrad for writing/book publishing studies. First job: I wrote about Korean politics for an African-American newspaper in Dallas, my only job out of Rice before opening a travel agency at age 22 during the agency boom years (pre-Internet). I briefly spent time living in Mexico City and, at 27, opened another agency location in Dallas in 1994. I opened the gallery shortly thereafter. I came from a family of entrepreneurs and naturally did not want to work for anyone else, so I decided to just open my own space.

First brush with art. As a child, I took classes at the Kimbell Art Museum, and it must have stuck, because in high school, I used to skip school and go hang out at the Kimbell. I was lucky to be born into a family that travelled greatly. We were a solid middle-class family with a high priority on travel and visiting museums with the occasional symphony, musical or opera. We did a lot of educational travel to Washington, D.C., Williamsburg, Salem and Boston and later to Europe, where my mom and I spent summer after summer traveling in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland. Because of my dad, a huge priority was placed on nature, so we regularly visited dozens of Texas state parks, national parks like Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We hiked, fished, trail rode, skied, backpacked and canoed every year for family vacations. I remember the family ‘70s Goodtimes van waiting on the curb at my elementary, middle and high schools, loaded up and ready to haul ass to some national park in Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Montana. My dad had us hiking the Continental Divide Trail and the Pecos Trail in our teens.

Were your parents collectors? My parents were not collectors, but the education they gave us provided the foundation for a love of the arts and a curiosity about the world outside of my own city. Both attended UT. My father was an engineer, and my mother taught school for a few years before quitting work to raise two children. During the space-program years, my dad worked on the spacesuits for the lunar landing, and then he was a lead engineer on the design of the nose cone and all the leading edges of the space shuttle before quitting the aerospace industry to start his own engineering/industrial irrigation firm.

Films you’ll see this spring. I am looking forward to Sebastian Junger’s film about the life of Tim Hetherington, Which Way is the Front Line From Here? Tim’s intimate portraits of U.S. soldiers were included in our “XXI” exhibition, and he was tragically killed five days after the show opened and a couple of weeks before [he was set to come] to Dallas as part of our programming to give a talk about his film Restrepo, [which] we screened free to the public, one of the most important war documentaries ever made. His death still reverberates, as he was a uniquely visionary artist, filmmaker and humanitarian.

Must-see blockbusters in 2013? MoMA’s “9 + 1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design” and also at MoMA, “Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde.” The Met’s “Photography and the American Civil War.” And I would love to see the Ray K. Metzker exhibition at the Getty Museum. Any documentary photography exhibition or contemporary artist retrospective like Fred Sandback’s at Rio de Janeiro’s Instituto Moreira Salles, my favorite small museum in the world. Anything at the Helio Oiticica Center in Rio as well.

If a movie were cast about you, which actor would play you? An unknown. And Robert? Will Farrell, no doubt, since he’s probably told on a weekly basis of the resemblance.

Last art jaunt. Holiday-break cross-Texas tour of the Harry Ransom Center in Austin (William Bel Geddes’ “I Have Seen the Future” exhibition), Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum (loved the new commissioned Jenny Holzer work), Amon Carter for the traveling Phillips Collection exhibition and Kimbell Museum and the ground-breaking “War/Photography” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Next art trip. NYC for “Engines of War” opening reception and museum visits.

Collector, artist, fellow gallerist or curator that most shaped you.  Too many to name just one, but I remain committed to exposing myself daily to artists and their ideas.

Curation as community. This type of artistic practice is variously referred to as social practice, relational aesthetics, community art, socially engaged art or social justice art.

“War” in Chelsea: What is the space at Gasser Grunert like? Arguably one of the most beautiful gallery spaces in Chelsea designed by noted Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. Up until Hurricane Sandy (which Robert and I rode out in NYC while I was visiting to plan the show), the exhibition space was a gorgeous raw-concrete bunker-like space unlike the rest of Chelsea’s galleries, but repairs had to be made since October, and it is now a more finished-out space. The gallery is on 19th Street across from David Zwirner.

Three artists you are tracking now and why. I really love keeping up with the current work of old gallery artists like Margaret Meehan in Dallas and Charlie Morris in Houston and the amazing San Antonio artists I showed who are always popping up artist-run spaces, like Nate Cassie and Meg Langhorne. Their contributions to their San Antonio community are inspiring. And Janeil Engelstad’s upcoming MAP in Dallas bringing in the work of social practice artists. Dallas needs a focus on this type of art.

Besides the Texas artists I follow, I am most interested in the work of social-practice artists like SuperFlex, artist collective Basurama’s urban-waste projects, Andy Minton, Fritz Haeg, Mel Chin and other artists like [the late] Tim Hetherington who are crossing boundaries between documentary work, photojournalism, human rights and filmmaking. Sadly, he was one of the best.

The most potent works in “Engines.” Christopher Morris’ photographs of graduating West Point cadets have the power of Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits, and I’m especially interested in artists addressing pressing contemporary issues of our day, such as Lisa Barnard’s work on PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and drone warfare. Her photograph of a soldier wearing headgear that utilizes a virtual reality program to treat PTSD is, in my opinion, a defining work of the last decade. Suicides have now surpassed combat deaths in active duty military personnel.
 
Gallerist in history that you emulate. Few have the grace, loyalty and commitment of a gallerist like Houston’s Betty Moody, and I cannot overstate my admiration for Tanja Grunert’s unwavering commitment after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation to their ground-level space to do a show that examines war during the prime NYC Spring art season.

Favorite guilty pleasure. Spending time by myself gardening, while purposely ignoring all electronic devices. And long walks with Robert at the farm or Oak Cliff parks.

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