Heart to Art: Thao Votang and Brian Willey of Tiny Park (Part I)
Living half a block from West Chelsea's gallery scene equalled art overload for this former New York City resident. I figured I wouldn't find the same convenience in Austin, TX...until I discovered the adorable apartment gallery Tiny Park, within walking distance of my flat. Tiny Park's petite size belied its creative and compelling exhibitions, organized by owners Brian Willey and Thao Votang. Less than a year after opening their doors to the public, Tiny Park moved to a proper commercial space on Austin's east side. I spoke with Willey and Votang about their plans for the new, not-so-Tiny Park. — Brian Fee, Austin contributor
Brian Fee: What are you backgrounds, and what considerations led you to opening an art space in Austin?
Brian Willey: I went to graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago and have a history of working in galleries and non-profits, so I've been doing related things for many years. When I moved to Austin, I specifically chose it as a city where I felt I could start something that would actually add to the community. In other places I lived (NY, LA), I felt like I'd be completely redundant starting a gallery, because there were already so many.
Thao Votang: I have an undergraduate degree in art history and began participating through internships in the local arts community. Soon after, I started to purchase original works and decided that I would collect. Before I met Brian, I had considered having shows in my apartment, but never took any steps toward that goal. My dream was to retire and have a space for my collection and guest exhibits. Meeting Brian was definitely a catalyst to do something now. Having him as a partner personally and professionally has been exceptional.
Nick Brown | Southern Pacific, 2011, oil on canvas, 36” x 60”. Courtesy the artist and Tiny Park, Austin.
BF: What were some of the unique challenges in operating an apartment gallery?
TV: The apartment gallerist has to be especially careful in the size and potential damage to their home. Zoning in Austin inhibits sales and a bad relationship with your landlord or neighbors can also be detrimental. In our case, we had to worry about our cat damaging work.
BF: Brian, what were you able to do with Tiny Park that you feel differs from your experience at commercial galleries?
BW: There were limitations to the house gallery. The space was fairly small, we didn't have art insurance, we couldn't legally sell work, and we were in an isolated location. However, the house gallery was financially very low impact and had a nice, casual feel. There was no pressure to always have a show going, so we just organized shows as we got ideas that excited us. We could have an installation like Deborah Stratman's FEAR Call Center and not worry that there was nothing to sell. Of course we still don't care, and we'll put on shows and have events regardless of whether or not they are commercially viable, if we feel strongly about the work.
BF: How has the public responded to Tiny Park?
BW: So far the response has been incredible. We've had great experiences with artists, the media, and the viewing public. I think this represents the huge desire that exists in the city for more art and culture venues.
TV: The public seems to like us...as far as I can tell. Above all, we want the public to be honest to us and let us know what they like as well as what they dislike.
BF: What is the vibe with Tiny Park and other local galleries?
BW: We're good friends with many of the other people running creative spaces. We promote one another's exhibitions and hang out together. It doesn't feel overly competitive, and conversely, I think we push one another to be better and to develop what we're doing in a positive way.
TV: We're such a small community, I feel as though we're all a part of a big family with some of the dysfunction and much of the love.
BF: How does Tiny Park integrate into Austin's art scene? Or more specifically, what are your thoughts on Austin's art scene and how does Tiny Park work into that?
BW: Austin's art scene has been in a weird "growing pains" stage since I got here 7 years ago. Some of the bigger institutions have had serious problems that they are still working out, and there are very few commercial galleries, so the alternative spaces—like Co-Lab, Women and Their Work, SOFA, Okay Mountain—have been very important and have done a great job of building and maintaining a creative community. Also, the new Visual Arts Center at UT is spectacular. Austin does have some very good artists and I've been impressed with artists coming out of UT's MFA program. We also have some new publications, Pastelegram and Gopher Illustrated, making an important contribution. I definitely want Tiny Park to bring something unique to the situation here: a mix of local, national, and international artists, and a mix of exhibitions and other creative events like readings, film screenings, listening parties, and performances. We want Tiny Park to be a dynamic and eclectic cultural venue rather than just a static exhibition space.
TV: Tiny Park integrates into Austin's art scene by not really fitting into a specific category. Many people called our old space an apartment gallery, but we tried very hard to make the "home" disappear. Aside from the kitchen, you might not know we also lived there. As we build our programming in the new space, I think we'll fit less and less into any one category and I hope this gives visitors a sense of energy. Additionally, I hope that as Brian was a catalyst for me, that Tiny Park acts that way for the arts scene. While I am extremely new to it, I also feel like it needs to be challenged and supported. The participants—Tiny Park included—will only find that in each other.
Michael Sieben | Flash Card 7, acrylic and pencil on paper. Courtesy the artist and Tiny Park, Austin.
Tiny Park's inaugural exhibition at its Navasota St space, Greatest Hits, continues through July 28. Check the gallery's Facebook page and follow its super-active Twitter account for special-event information.
Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee's List covers his three loves (art, film, live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo).