Friday, December 26, 2014

William Campbell 40 Years and counting

While we were just not able to make it to the affair at the WCCA Gallery, we certainly wish Bill and Pam Campbell all the best for the future. I have been represented by Bill and Pam most of that 40 years. William Campbell Contemporary Art was my first gallery and they have represented my work in Fort Worth ever since.

 The following is an Article from the Fort Worth Weekly

 Some folks do a good job of promoting Fort Worth by putting on tall boots and a big hat. Others do it in boardrooms and legislative chambers, in front of grand pianos, or on sports fields. For 40 years, Bill and Pam Campbell have gone another route.

With the Campbells’ help, Fort Worth artists and their works have made their way into highly respected museums as well as major private and corporate collections, to internationally known venues like the Venice Biennale — and into the homes of middle-class folks who’ve found a welcome in a world they’d never belonged to before.

Simply put, the Campbells are the heart and soul of Fort Worth’s contemporary gallery scene.

“They stoke the boiler not just for Texas artists but for the cause of art to be taken seriously in general,” said artist JT Grant. “They make Fort Worth legitimate in the national discussion of art.”

The Campbells have done it, not by any blindingly successful single show or artist represented or genre specialized in, but, local artists and art connoisseurs say, by consistently going the extra mile.

“In a sense, they have always placed the artists before themselves and the business,” said Jenny Conn, public art collection manager for the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

Bill Campbell might call it “process” — something he learned to appreciate as a student of sculpture at Texas Christian University.

“I’m interested in artists who establish early on that they know how to use their materials,” he said. “Pam and I have been sensitive to artists who’ve created an individual style,” regardless of school or genre.

These days, the Campbells, both 68 and in good health, are contemplating a different sort of process — that of figuring out how, perhaps, to take a step back from the running of the gallery that has been their passion for so many years.

They’re in no hurry.

“We’re playing it by ear,” Pam said.

The November night was stormy, but that didn’t stop more than 250 people from gathering inside the small white cottage off Camp Bowie Boulevard that is home to the William Campbell Contemporary Art Gallery. The place was packed with artists, collectors, friends, and fans who’d gathered for the opening reception of a retrospective show celebrating the big anniversary.

A jazzy R&B band played under a tent in the parking lot. Bartenders served two specialty mixed drinks, one called “Worth the Wait,” the other the “Campbell 40.” Tokyo Café chef Kevin Martinez’ servers were offering raw oysters and Asian vegetable dumplings to the crowd.

Many of the gallery’s longtime North Texas artists, including painters Grant, Julie Lazarus, and Billy Hassell, were in attendance. Two other artists, Richard Thompson and Tom Hollenback, had flown in from Oregon and Wisconsin respectively.

Notably, the Campbells didn’t make a speech or cut a cake to mark the beginning of their fifth decade as Fort Worth’s most successful and admired purveyors of abstract and expressionist paintings, modern sculpture, photography, and mixed-media works. The evening’s vibe felt more like a private party in their own home for Texas-based and Texas-connected artists and art lovers, many of whom have been patrons of the gallery for decades.

It’s a long way from the days in 1968 when TCU fine arts student Bill Campbell and fashion merchandising major Pam Brazzil, both native North Texans, were introduced by one of Bill’s high school friends at a fraternity party. He talked to her about modern art, and she told him how she’d always wanted to run a retail business. Pam admitted she didn’t know much about contemporary art; he took her to some of his favorite artists’ shows at the Modern, as eager to teach as she was to learn.

They married the next year, shortly before Bill was drafted –– just four days after college graduation –– to serve in the Vietnam War. It was scary but not surprising. Some young men they knew had been drafted, and others had managed to avoid it — but Bill didn’t have any health issues or daddy connections or anything else that would’ve enabled him to get out of service.

Going to war does lots of things to and for people. Characteristically for Bill, one of the things it did was to teach him more about art.

The Army trained him as a helicopter mechanic, and he flew some dangerous missions in Vietnam. During the early months of stateside basic training, though, he was stationed at Fort Mead in Maryland, which allowed him a few visits to the thriving gallery and museum scenes in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Direct exposure to those bigger, more diverse art scenes only cemented his desire to bring that quality of work back to North Texas.

“The thing about seeing a lot of really great art is that it makes you expect more,’’ he said. “Dallas had one or two galleries devoted to contemporary art, I think. Fort Worth galleries showed a little bit of it here and there, but they mixed it with Western and Southwestern art and a lot of craft-based work. Remember, this was the late ’60s.”

Bill survived the helicopter missions and everything else during more than two years in Vietnam. When he got out, he and Pam settled in Dallas.

While in college, Bill had helped at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, setting up their contemporary art exhibits. In Dallas, he worked for a commercial art firm, while Pam was employed in various capacities at Neiman Marcus. That company also put her through an executive-management training program that would later be invaluable to running the William Campbell.

Bill lost his job a couple of years later. By then, the couple had a baby son. Feeling fearless, Bill borrowed some money from his dad and leased a small space off Camp Bowie that had housed another gallery. Bill and Pam opened Gallery One there in 1974, the first incarnation of William Campbell Contemporary Art. It was Fort Worth’s first gallery dedicated exclusively to contemporary artists’ work. The Campbells also offered framing and mounting services — and still do.

“There was a little bit of naïvete going into that,” Pam said. “We did most of our learning on the job. If we had known all the work that it was going to take, maybe we wouldn’t have done it.”

Bill is more blunt about his own inexperience: “I was too stupid to know any better,” he said, laughing.

What the Campbells did have was a fairly coherent vision of what they wanted to achieve: In addition to highlighting so-called modern art done by living Texas artists, they also introduced the “white-box” gallery concept to Fort Worth — bare walls and minimal interior furnishings, to put all the focus on the work.

From the start, they were determined not just to sell contemporary art but also to nurture the careers of talented young artists by establishing long-term business and personal relationships with them. And that’s what happened.

Pam Campbell “We did most of our learning on the job. If we had known all the work that it was going to take, maybe we wouldn’t have done it.”

Pam Campbell “We did most of our learning on the job. If we had known all the work that it was going to take, maybe we wouldn’t have done it.”

None of the dozen or so Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio artists they represented at the start –– most of them acquaintances of Bill’s from his college days –– are still with William Campbell. But many of the 40 or so painters, sculptors, and mixed-media artists they currently represent have been with the gallery for two or three decades.

Brad Alford graduated from TCU with an interior design degree and has been attending the Campbells’ shows since Gallery One opened. He now runs G. Bradley Alford & Associates, a Fort Worth-based interior design firm with clients all over Texas and across the country.

He figures he’s purchased hundreds of pieces of art from the Campbells for clients and for his own private collection, which is composed largely of Texas contemporary artists. He owns pieces by William Campbell mainstays like Grant, Benito Huerta, and Robert McAn. He remembers the sense of freshness Bill and Pam brought to the Fort Worth gallery scene.

“They were definitely the hot ticket in town,” he said. “They had art that was sharp, clean, and modern. It was obvious as soon as you walked in the door that they were aiming higher than the ‘bluebonnets on a landscape’ crap.”

While the Campbells struggled to get the gallery going, they stayed afloat with help from two sources — Bill’s full-service expertise in framing and mounting artists’ work and Pam’s small art exhibition poster shop, which she operated at Hulen Mall from 1977 to 1981. There has never been a strict division of labor at the William Campbell –– they both dabble in the business and artistic sides –– but Bill insists that if it wasn’t for Pam’s business savvy and organizational skills, the gallery “would’ve sunk like an anchor” long ago.

Their careful cultivation of partnerships with artists they admired as well as with Texas collectors –– some of them wealthy but many not –– allowed them to move in 1981 to a larger gallery space a few blocks away. They renamed the business the William Campbell Contemporary Art Gallery, and it’s been there ever since.

By then the couple had co-founded both the Fort Worth Art Dealers Association and the city’s annual Gallery Night (which now happens twice a year) to help bring a sense of community and cohesiveness to the scene. But their lasting legacy is probably more broadly influential –– their mission to educate the patrons of their gallery about the latest in Texas art.

“Contemporary art” is a wide umbrella term, of course, and the Campbells have shown many different styles –– abstract, conceptual, expressionist, and so-called pop art. They’ve generally avoided anything deliberately provocative a la Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano, a concession to the conservative climes of a city like Fort Worth.

But that doesn’t mean their art has been decorative or shallow. Many of the works they’ve showcased –– the tiny, eerily detailed sculptures of Robert McAn; the paintings of houses wrapped in cloth by Carol Benson — invite and reward closer scrutiny. William Campbell artists have been Fulbright Scholars and National Endowment for the Arts grant winners and shown their work at big-deal international venues like the Venice and Paris Biennales. Bill said that what interests him isn’t so much a particular style or school of contemporary art as it is the technique that the artists use.

“I think I’ve always been cognizant of process, the methods people use to create their art,” he said. “Maybe that’s because I studied sculpture. Sculpture is very process-oriented, and if the process isn’t there, it shows.”

Conn met the Campbells back in 1984. A TCU graduate who studied photography, she remembers keenly the sense of excitement in those days among local art fans, with the William Campbell Gallery at the center of the experience.

“The most important thing about Bill and Pam is that they are completely ego-less in an ego-driven business,” she said. “They were kind and very patient to college kids like me who didn’t know much about the art world. They’d take time to talk to you about the artists they represented, even if they knew you weren’t buying something.’

One of those artists is Grant, the Fort Worth painter whom the Campbells have represented since they saw his TCU graduate thesis show in 1992.

The connection with the Campbells didn’t develop immediately, however. They were skeptical about his earliest work.

“An acquaintance took me to their gallery to meet them and show my work,” Grant recalled. “All I had at the time were a few undergraduate images. They very gently suggested there wasn’t anything to look at. But they don’t automatically close access to anyone, because when they saw my graduate show at TCU, they immediately asked if they could represent me.”

Through the years, Grant and the gallery owners have become close friends; they called him and came to see him in the hospital when he got so sick three years ago from a neuromuscular condition that he could barely lift his arm to paint. The Campbells have been instrumental in his acclaimed career. They’ve helped arrange sales of his paintings to both individual collectors and corporations –– including the purchase of a small group of his most recent paintings by a collector in London. Fort Worth Weekly contributor Annabelle Massey Malloy has noted “the extraordinary use of light; earthy, rich color choices; and meticulous brushwork” in his vivid neo-classical portraits.

“What sets Bill and Pam apart is that they serve as agents for their artists, and that’s different from a lot of galleries,” Grant said. “Most galleries act as waystations for the work. They’ll promote your show, but that’s about it. Bill and Pam go further to make sure their artists are paid attention to. They contact collectors they think might be interested in your work, they send out images, and they take the time to tape video interviews to promote the artist.”

While the Campbells were building a stable of both Texas-based and Texas-connected artists, they were also cultivating a loyal following of buyers from around the city and, eventually, around the country.

Bill declines to reveal names, citing the ethics of discretion between gallery and collector. (“The bank manager never tells you who has how much in his bank,” he said with a laugh.) But William Campbell artists are in the permanent collections at the Kimbell, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; in the corporate collections of AT&T, Exxon, and Frost Bank; in family foundations like the Gund Collection in Boston and the Goode Collection in Washington, D.C.; and the personal collection of playwright Edward Albee.

It’s among smaller, less affluent collectors that the William Campbell has really made its mark, educating two generations of buyers in North Texas and later in New Mexico, California, Florida, and New York about Texas contemporary painting, sculpture, photography, and mixed-media. Bill said he’s seen the addictive nature of art collecting take hold in middle-class folks who don’t have a lot of discretionary income.

“Once people start collecting art for art’s sake, too much is not enough,” he said. “They’re not buying just to decorate their homes. There’s nothing wrong with buying art for decoration, of course –– we wouldn’t still be in business without that. But once people buy that first painting they love, it’s hard to stop. We’ve sold art to people who made a first down payment, then paid us so much per month for years.”

Alford has a theory about why the Campbells were able to establish and maintain a large following of small-time collectors –– Bill and Pam make the process simple and unintimidating.

“They allow buyers to collect what they want, but they guide you through the purchases based on your taste and price range,” he said. “There’s no attitude, and you don’t get the ‘used car salesman’ attack when you walk into the place. Not every gallery is like that.

Even though they’re not quite ready to surrender their gallery to someone else’s ministrations, the Campbells have been pondering its future without them. Their son occasionally helped out at the gallery when he was young, but as an adult he chose to chart his career in a different direction. They definitely want the gallery to continue long after they’re gone and for others to carry on in nurturing the careers of upcoming artists and the tastes of newbie collectors.

To that end, they recently opened a small satellite gallery called ART7 Crockett Community Gallery in the thriving West 7th Street corridor. The idea was to create a contemporary art outpost in a hot new location that would attract a younger generation of both collectors and artists. Though ART7 Crockett is less than a half-mile from the main gallery, “In Fort Worth nowadays, a half a mile can make a big difference [if you want to reach a new audience],” Bill said.

About five years ago, they hired a young assistant named Sam Brown to help them run both the commercial and artistic halves of the William Campbell. Bill and Pam are impressed with her smarts and dedication, and they talk openly about handing the gallery over to her when they’re ready to take a smaller role and — probably years from now — step down. They’ll never retire completely, they insist, but they know someone else must be groomed if their Fort Worth contemporary art institution is to continue.

When they talk about the future, they sound a bit like people who, indeed, were young during a time far more laid-back than this one.

“We’ve never been good planners, the kind of people who think, ‘What are we going to do with the rest of our lives?’ ” Pam said. “We’re able to plan the next show, and that’s about it. Right now, we’re just dancing around the idea of retirement.”

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