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Arts / Galleries

Latin American Art’s Great Champion

The Dynamic Woman Behind the Sicardi Gallery

BY // 08.27.15
photography Shayna Fontana

With its stunning metal-clad building — a temple to Latin American modernism if there ever was one — exquisitely sited a block from The Menil Collection, and an impressive annual presence at both Art Basel Miami Beach and New York’s Armory Show, Sicardi Gallery numbers among America’s most powerful dealers. Yet few would have predicted such an outcome 20 years ago, when an Argentine immigrant touched down in Houston for her son’s medical treatment, then tentatively dipped a toe into the art world by opening a modest 800-square-foot space behind Kirby Drive. Catherine D. Anspon speaks with founder María Inés Sicardi about the saga that unfolded and the making of a gallery that would go on to be a game-changer.

Sicardi Gallery’s West Alabama space, designed by architect Fernando Brave.
Sicardi Gallery’s West Alabama space, which was designed by architect Fernando Brave.

A plucky woman with an iron will in reverse proportion to her diminutive stature, María Inés Sicardi began in the art biz in 1994, taking over a micro space from curator Sally Reynolds to try an experiment: presenting and selling Latin American art. The location was not along Upper Kirby’s Gallery Row, which was then the booming heart of Houston’s art world; Sicardi did not feel confident enough to lease space on Colquitt because her program was untested.

The scene 20 years ago was a very different place than it is now — buyers regularly sought out tropical landscapes, but there were rumbles of change, predominantly from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where the Core Program was taking off and a breeze of internationalism blowing in. Sicardi, who had studied art in college, practiced real estate in her hometown of Buenos Aires before relocating to Houston in 1989 for treatment of her son’s leukemia. He passed away; she stayed in a new city to build a new life. Turning tragedy into hope, she took the opportunity to introduce her country’s artists, initially offering a portfolio of 20 works on paper to curious collectors. She still remembers her first transaction: “two prints by Argentine artist Ana Eckell that Bill Broido and his wife Marisol bought.”

With that, she was on her way. The early years on Kipling (in a building that has subsequently been razed) were not always encouraging. Tony River Oaks customers flocked to the beauty salon next door, but despite a common hallway, few ever stepped into the gallery. With such an obscure location, Sicardi had to rely on innovative programming to attract the art crowd. Saturday afternoons were occasions for artist lectures. Scholarly guests including MFAH photo department head Anne Wilkes Tucker and FotoFest’s Wendy Watriss and Fred Baldwin joined an intimate assembly of 20 to 30 rapt listeners who sat crosslegged on the floor to take in exhibitions that leaned towards photography and works on paper.

Video was also a part of the roster of the first decade. The year 2000 saw the debut of Argentine artist Liliana Porter’s work in that media, even though at that time in Houston there was only one collector of video, Sicardi recalls. A pivotal encounter connected her with the couple and the doctor who would share the financial burden of running a gallery for conceptual, non-figurative art from an underknown continent. “I met Allison and David Ayers in January 1996, shortly after they were married,” Sicardi says. “They literally walked in after looking in the phone book for art gallery listings. They were the first clients who were committed to collecting Latin American art in a passionate way. Allison started working with the gallery in 1997, organizing events and developing a marketing plan. She’s been a major part of the gallery almost since the beginning, and she is involved in every aspect of its operations.”

Around that same time, Carlos Bacino came into the picture. “Patrick Reynolds, director at Kerry Inman Gallery, suggested he should meet me, since we both are from Buenos Aires and shared an interest in the arts,” Sicardi says. “From then on, he visited every Saturday, stopping by and learning about art from Argentina, looking at books with a cup of coffee (always!), and we became close friends. In December 2000, we established a partnership, including Allison and David Ayers, Carlos Bacino, and Zuzette and Greg Cullinan. Since 2007, it’s been the three of us — Allison, Carlos and me.”

Another fortuitous turn of fate was a chance conversation with fellow art dealer Robert McClain during a gallerist reception at the Menil House. Sicardi announced that she was seeking a new location; McClain’s new building was nearing completion and had an ancillary space available for lease.

Jesús Rafael Soto’s Houston Penetrable, 2004-14, at MFAH. THOMAS R. DUBROCK © ESTATE OF JESÚS RAFAEL SOTO. PHOTO © MFAH.
Jesús Rafael Soto’s Houston Penetrable, 2004-14, at MFAH. THOMAS R. DUBROCK © ESTATE OF JESÚS RAFAEL SOTO. PHOTO © MFAH.

 

The timing and synergy were perfect, and soon Sicardi moved to a handsome new building on Richmond Avenue, adjoining McClain’s new digs, both designed by Houston architect Marshall Reid. Despite opening one week after September 11, Sicardi persevered with a fresh approach to match the amped-up square footage, which had doubled to a still concise 1,700 square feet. Reflecting upon the sea change of the Richmond years, she says, “We were able to show larger pieces, sculpture, installation and videos as well … This is around the time that we started working with more established master artists from Latin America, many of whom make large-scale and kinetic work — objects that need more space and light than what our previous location offered. The aesthetic of the gallery changed, and while we had always worked with contemporary art from Latin America, suddenly we were presenting historical works by major artists from the 20th century. Our mission grew.”

Within four years of this move, the gallery was tapped to exhibit at Art Basel Miami Beach, where its booth paired dizzying chromatic wall pieces by Cruz-Diez with Thomas Glassford’s suspended Plexiglas palm leaf, effectively communicating a dialogue across generations of Latin American artists. Sicardi signals out a 2004 exhibition as perhaps the gallery’s most unforgettable. The politically tinged Ambulatorio by Oscar Muñoz was “an important piece of 36 floor panels of shattered glass with aerial photographs of Cali, Colombia.” Despite its highly experimental nature, it sold twice — one edition to the former president of Colombia, César Gaviria, and another to a Houston collector. Sicardi recalls “hearing the noise of the glass continuing to break for hours after we’d taken a hammer to it” — a step required to properly install it and complete the artist’s vision.

The Muñoz work is one component of dual directions: on one hand, kinetic masters Soto and Cruz-Diez, with whom Sicardi developed warm friendships during frequent Latin American and Parisian travels, and on another spectrum, artists such as Muñoz, based in Cali, Colombia, whose work possesses a minimalist, refined aesthetic even as it addresses his country’s drug trade and rampant social problems. Other gallery artists in this sociopolitical vein include another Colombian, Miguel Ángel Rojas, who often employs surprising materials such as coca leaves and U.S. dollar bills, and Argentine Miguel Angel Ríos, whose retrospective featuring the metaphoric video of spinning tops was shown at the Blaffer Art Museum in 2007. (One of Rojas’ seminal works is a life-size nude photograph that resembles Michelangelo’s David; only later does the viewer discover that the subject, a soldier, has lost part of his leg to a land mine.)

Then there is the perfect confluence of the gallery’s immersion in the rewriting of art history — much of that being done in Houston thanks to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s pioneering Latin American curator, Mari Carmen Ramírez. Sicardi first heard of Ramírez in 1990, during a trip to Argentina. The pair did not meet until 1996, two years after the gallery opened, because Sicardi wanted to be ready to have a dialogue with the star curator. Another seminal experience was seeing “Inverted Utopias,” first mounted at Madrid’s Reina Sofia in 2000 — the exhibition that Ramírez organized the year before she arrived in Houston, which was subsequently presented to both critical and audience acclaim at the MFAH in 2004. Sicardi herself has played a role, being in on the ground floor of the founding of the museum’s most important collector’s group, the Latin Maecenas. The well-heeled, influential group was born after Sicardi, with the approval of then-director Peter Marzio, invited 30 patrons — Argentinians, Peruvians, Cubans and Americans — to fund acquisitions of Latin American art. “It didn’t really take off, though until Mari Carmen came to the MFAH in 2001,” Sicardi recalls. “The Maecenas has been a great help to build the collection; it’s a dynamic, fun group of sophisticated collectors and travelers.”

Luis Tomasello’s Atmosphere Chromoplastique, 2011, gets installed at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
Luis Tomasello’s Atmosphere Chromoplastique, 2011, is installed at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

Coming full circle, collectors surprised Sicardi last December with a gathering at the warehouse/art space owned by Leslie and Brad Bucher, where they made a donation in her honor in celebration of the gallery’s 20th anniversary towards funding future museum acquisitions. Gallery artists also each contributed a work to enter the MFAH’s Latin American collection. The current gallery chapter is being written from a jewel of a location that was intuited years ago. Of her friendship with the architect who designed the serene, yet breathtaking 5,900-square-feet structure, Sicardi says, “Fernando Brave was one of the first people I met when I came to Houston. I think he was finishing at the University of Houston. I told him then, ‘When we build a gallery, you are going to do it!’ I said for years that the perfect location was to be near the Menil. In 2007, Fred Armstrong [Allison Ayers’ father], a realtor with Martha Turner Properties, found the land, which had a small cottage, in the area we wanted. We bought the property, tore down the house and began planning.”

Waiting until after the 2008 downturn passed, the new Sicardi Gallery, designed by Brave, opened in May 2012. Boasting lightfilled, 16-foot-high spaces downstairs and upstairs, expansive offices, additional galleries and an outdoor area, it combines the feeling of a kunsthalle with a nod to Houston’s tin-building movement as well as “the use of corrugated metal exterior siding, traditional in the unique area of La Boca in Buenos Aires,” says Brave. The architect savored this project, creating a building perfectly in tune with the nearby Menil neighborhood (whose parking lot it faces on West Alabama). Brave, also a long-standing gallery collector, notes, “A great building is the result of a great client. María Inés allowed me to freely design with an open mind … From this collaboration, I learned as much as I offered.”

Sicardi and the gallery she co-owns played a role in 2014’s breakout posthumous Soto installation at the MFAH, which garnered worldwide attention. Sicardi says, “Allison and I had planned to go to Paris to visit him and several other artists, so we talked to Mari Carmen and offered to help with anything she needed. We took blueprints of the museum with us, and we sat with him and his wife at their house, and he drew the Penetrable in front of us. He passed away a few weeks later; it was the last design he made.”

For the future, Sicardi weighs the challenges of a bigger operation — “in the past two years, our space has tripled in size, and our staff has grown to seven full-time employees” — alongside a mission to support 22 international artists. But as the MFAH ramps up for its third building (the Latin American department is considered its breakaway star) and worldwide collectors continue to embrace the light and spatial wonders of Cruz-Diez and Soto or investigate politically tuned-in talents such as de la Mora, Muñoz, Ríos or Rojas, it’s a very good time to be Sicardi Gallery.

“I’d always hoped to be where we are today,” its founder says.

[This article originally appeared in the May 2015 Houston edition of PaperCity Magazine.]

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