The Historic and Avant-Garde Living Space of a Gallerist and Game Changer

Dealer David Shelton holds court at the infamous, 1920s Isabella enclave.

When David Shelton relocated his eponymous burgeoning art biz from San Antonio to Houston last September, that city’s loss was our gain: Shelton’s stable is packed with solid, stellar talents. Where did Shelton select to hold court in Houston? The charming circa-1929 Isabella Court, long a haven for architects, designers, performers, and now an art enclave. The building once famously housed Evelyn Wilson Interiors and portraitist Paul Gittings, who often employed the building’s scenic stairways as backdrops for family photographs. Built by enterprising Houston developer Pierre Michael, he tapped Miami architect William D. Bordeaux, AIA, to create the glamorous Spanish Colonial Revival-style mixed-use Isabella residential-commercial building for the booming Main Street corridor in 1929.

Art dealer Shelton’s recently minted digs rub shoulders with other important art destinations — Inman Gallery, Art Palace, Devin Borden Gallery and Kinzelman Art Consulting — to complete the midtown/Main Street art-power picture, with the new DiverseWorks a block away. Fortuitously, Shelton’s move coincided with the availability of one of the fabled residential spaces for which the National Register Isabella building has long been famous — this one located just above his new gallery. This is home as distillation of work. Inside is a unique apartment where eight decades of history and touches of the Spanish Colonial Revival style make an engaging receptacle for Shelton’s eagle-eyed contemporary collection, which mirrors his trend-setting aesthetic and timeless stable in the gallery below, containing coveted internationals such as humorous pop-text master Alejandro Diaz and Vince Valdez of the exquisite drawings of boxers, as well as dazzling emergents such as San Antonio-based collagist Kelly O’Connor and conceptual landscape painter Sara Frantz.

Geography. Originally from Houston, grew up in New Braunfels.

Influences. My most transformative period was a summer studying art, culture and history in Europe when I was 17.

Schooling. SMU, where I studied political science, business and art.

First job. Winn Morton Designs in Dallas. I began working with him during my last year at SMU and stayed for almost a year after graduating. Winn is an extraordinarily talented and sophisticated costume and scenic designer, and a consummate gentleman. I was fortunate enough to work with him on spectacular productions including Crystal Charity Ball, Mayor’s International Ball, Opera Ball and the Tyler Rose Festival, which he still does. He gave me the fortitude to move to NYC, for which I will always be grateful.

The road to DSG. Between 2005 and opening in San Antonio in 2009, I worked with two artists/friends on various museum, gallery and art fair shows around the country. Prior to that, I spent many years in marketing, branding and advertising at Nina Ricci, Max Factor, Netscape, and Young & Rubicam in NY, L.A. and SF.

Converting your parents. My parents collected difficult children. Of course, I am referring to my siblings, of which there are two. As far as collecting art, no, they didn’t, but they have acquired some formative works since 2009.

Biggest break to date: The tale of Vincent Valdez’s six-figure suite at the 2011 Texas Contemporary Fair.Vincent, his fiancée and I were at the gallery one evening several months prior to the inaugural Texas Contemporary Art Fair. We were talking about art, what we wanted to do, and what statement we wanted to make. Vincent said that he could produce a new suite of drawings, which he proceeded to describe. Loving the idea, I told him that if he could do that, then I could give him his own booth at the art fair. This is how we ended up with two booths, and Vincent’s work was acquired within the first 15 minutes of the opening preview, leaving another stunned collector to ask if he had just missed it by two seconds as he hung up his cell phone.

Why you packed up and moved to Houston. What initially prompted the idea was the temporary exhibit we did in Fall 2010 at the Inman Annex in Isabella Court, which is where Devin Borden is now. It was a fantastic experience, and we received an enormously gracious and supportive response from Houston friends, collectors, museums, institutions, artists and enthusiasts. The Texas Contemporary did further cement the idea, but I also felt that if we were to relocate to Houston, it would need to be at Isabella Court. During this time, I had a number of important conversations with Betty Moody, Kerry Inman and Julie Kinzelman, all of whom were instrumental in the process. Serendipitously, things pretty much just came together a year later.

First art acquisition. My first contemporary art piece acquired after moving back to Texas was a small, gold-plated sculpture by San Antonio artist Daniel Saldana. The second was a monumental Western belt buckle that an artist, Michelle Valdez, found in her grandfather’s pickup truck, onto which she simply engraved: “I Love Beuys.” These are two of my favorite works.

Collecting advice. Go with what you like, but challenge yourself a bit. I don’t believe that you need a “place” for a specific work of art that you like. That will happen on its own.

Blogs you read every day. I read The New York Times print edition every morning.

Home decor: Personal style. I could describe it as I wish it to be, which is quite minimal, but the reality is more eclectic.

House music. A messed-up playlist that often includes Mercury Rev, Nina Simone, M. Ward, Gorillaz, LCD Soundsystem, Elvis Costello, Sarah Vaughan, K.D. Lang and Louis Armstrong. And I love John Cage.

Night table. The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide to Houston and When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. I have seen him twice, and his books are best when he reads them.

Films. I still need to see Lincoln. I love period pieces and depressing drama.

Restaurant after an opening. Double Trouble, but it’s a bar.

Power lunch. I enjoy Max & Julie on Montrose, especially this time of year. Plus, it’s close by. My other favorite is Provisions, which is calmer during the day.

Libation. Red wine. My current sensation is Neal Zinfandel from Rutherford Dust Vineyards in Napa.

Tweet, Facebook, Instagram and/or blog. I use Facebook a bit, but try to live in the actual world for the most part.

Guilty pleasure. The cookies and brownies at Pondicheri. Absolutely the best.

Wardrobe staple. Boots. I love boots. Usually brown, often suede.

Upcoming for DSG. This spring, solo exhibitions with Cruz Ortiz, who had a one-person exhibit at the CAMH two years ago, and Vincent Valdez, both of which are very exciting and quite divergent. For the fall, we are working on exhibitions for James Smolleck and Margaret Meehan, as well as a couple of interesting new additions for 2013. Stay tuned.

Blockbusters. I’m very excited about Tony Feher being the opening act for the new Blaffer Art Museum, as well as his current installation at DiverseWorks. And I look forward to the James Turrell Retrospective at MFAH. Of course, this will necessitate visits to L.A. and NY, as well.

You on the big screen. Jude Law. With dark hair.

Last art jaunt. Miami, this past December.

Next art trip. San Antonio. I go frequently but want to see the new installations at Artpace, including window works by Leigh Anne Lester and “Transitisos,” which is a group of artists from the Mexico City-based Changarrito Collection, as well as Vincent Valdez’ solo exhibition at The McNay once more before it closes. These trips always include studio visits and meetings with artists. Next up is Dallas.

Ultimate destination. Paris. I love to eat and wander aimlessly there. Never quite certain what I may find.

Three artists you are tracking. I can’t say, because I am interested in them for the gallery, but they are fantastic. Aside from that, some of my favorites are Joseph Beuys (especially his drawings) and Al Taylor. I also love Peter Doig’s work. There are some inspiring artists in Houston who are making incredible work, and I really believe in the three young artists in our current exhibition at the gallery, Ted Gahl, Lane Hagood and Nathan Hayden. It was organized by Shane Tolbert, who is not only the assistant gallery director, but also a great Houston artist.  

To take visiting artists. Vinoteca Poscol on Westheimer is perfect for great food for sharing, comfortable conversation and good lighting. We always have a great evening there.

Cocktail party menu. I love all sorts of cheeses, breads and condiments. And radishes with a bowl of course sea salt have become a tradition of sorts.

Never leave the house without. A watch. I would not know what to do — fully acknowledging, of course, that I could simply look at my iPhone.

Gallerist in history that you emulate. Hopefully no one. I am not a product of the traditional gallery culture, nor have I worked at one other than my own.

Aesthetic. The gallery program presents a vigorous narrative that transcends contemporary political, social, cultural, and gender issues, which often overlap. At times it is delivered within an historical context or through humor, though not in a particularly overt manner. Our intention is for the viewer to interact with the work on a personal level and interpret it on their own terms. If their interpretation evolves, develops, or changes over time, all the better as that indicates relevant moments of discovery.

You and your artists. We have very close and individual relationships, which I find necessary. Something that the outside world does not see is how each of the artists continually challenge and surprise me, in very different ways, through their creative processes, with the evolution of their work, and in the development of their practices. This is the most invigorating aspect of being a dealer, and I hope to do the same with them.

Stable as Texas-centric. Yes, definitely, although we plan on introducing a few East and West Coast artists who will be important to the roster as we further expand our reach on a national basis.

Geography. We have quite a number of San Antonio and Austin artists currently on the roster. I suspect that new additions will be from elsewhere, including Houston, which will be good for the overall group of artists. From the beginning, I have wanted to maintain a fairly tight roster in order to work with each artist on as personal a level as possible.

The latest and greatest. The three most recent additions are James Smolleck and Leigh Anne Lester, both from San Antonio, and Margaret Meehan from Austin/Dallas. We are planning upcoming solo exhibitions for all of them, and I am extremely excited to introduce their new work in Houston.

San Antonio as Texas’ talent pool. I definitely believe that it is, and one of the most relevant. The challenge is to gain exposure to a larger audience outside of San Antonio, and especially outside of Texas.

Last acquisition. A graphite drawing by Sara Frantz. She is extraordinary.

Next acquisition. It will have to be some of The Cards, which are small ink-on-paper drawings by Nathan Hayden in the current exhibit at the gallery. There are over 300 of them as part of a large installation piece, titled unkindofremarkable, so I’ll wait for people to choose theirs, which will make it profoundly easier to decide.

Scoop from the fairs in Miami Beach. Inman Gallery and we did the inaugural Miami Project, along with about 60 other galleries. It was organized by Max Fishko and Jeffrey Wainhause, who also produce the Texas Contemporary here in Houston. It is exciting — and quite stress inducing — to do a Miami fair, much less a new one. But Max, Jeffrey, and their team did an amazing job and it turned out incredibly well. We will definitely do it again this year.

Buzz from your booth at the Miami Project. We were just inside the main entrance, so were able to hear the immediate response from people. The most common refrain was that it was a “quality fair,” and people sounded relieved as they said so. It really was beautiful — open, bright, easy to navigate — with a lot of impressive art. And more than a few people wanted to talk about Texas and Houston, which is even better. Marty Walker from Dallas was directly next to us, so they got a double dose of Texas.

Which artists drew the biggest interest in Miami, and sales. Alejandro Diaz, with his Happiness Is Expensive neon sign, of which the edition is now sold out; Kelly O’Connor’s collage works; and Vincent Valdez’s large-scale pastel on paper all drew a tremendous level of attention from collectors, dealers and museums. We did well, as did most of the dealers. Not only were we able to place work in existing and new Texas collections, but also in multiple collections in New York, London and other cities.

Next fair. Texas Contemporary 2013. We treat art fairs as a sort of exhibition and tend to show new work, which we are already working on.

First six months in Houston. The fall season was insane. Coming off of our move to Houston, we did three art fairs and three openings over the span of three months, but it has been fantastic. People are extraordinarily supportive and welcoming, and there is such great creative energy and confidence. I really believe that this is a seminal time for Houston, specifically regarding art and culture. There is increasingly a national, and international, impact that people are discovering and appreciating. The New York Times obviously agrees; they cited Houston as the #7 place in the world to go in 2013, largely due to art and culture.

Biggest surprise about Houston. The level of generosity and support from artists, collectors, enthusiasts, galleries, art consultants, museums, institutions, and organizations, as well as artist-run spaces, critics, writers and publications, all of which speaks very well of Houston as a community. The best part of which is that, while respectful, you also know that expectations are high.

Favorite person, place or thing about the Houston art world. The significance and quality of our museums, institutions and organizations. Houston draws so many interesting people who come here specifically to view, discuss, show and purchase art, or at least include it as a meaningful part of their visit in between some really great meals.

How you decided to go for it and open David Shelton Gallery. I had known quite a few Texas artists for years, primarily in San Antonio, and had been thinking about opening a gallery for some time. Franco Mondini-Ruiz was the first person to suggest that I come back to Texas because so many great things were happening. Anjali Gupta, who was then editor of Art Lies, was also instrumental. After I saw the quality of contemporary art being produced, the decision was easy.

Inspiration: Collector, artist, fellow gallerist or curator that most shaped you. It is an ongoing personal endeavor.

Do you still live with your first acquisition. I do! The sculpture is on a table in my foyer, and the belt buckle is framed on a shelf just above it — but I might need to take it out for Rodeo Houston.

Most thrilling discovery. The artists with whom I work are continually coming up with new ways of challenging themselves and evolving their work. This is what I most enjoy.