Photo by Steven Thomson
It was 7:30 p.m. on a brisk Saturday evening in February, and Esther Gutstein rushed to mount the final pieces for the opening of her gallery, the Brayer Room. The first guests had already arrived: a mix of camera-clad young artists and their friends, along with a bevy of older art collectors. The crowd populated the gallery’s one-story, historic 6,000-square-foot building at 214 Fairview Street, seeking a glimpse of the city’s emerging artists, or at the very least, a view on one of Houston’s newest gallery spaces.
Only days later, not a trace of the Brayer Room would remain. That’s because Gutstein mounts a gallery pro tem, arguably the first local incarnation of the international phenomenon of “pop-up” art spaces. In the wake of a global recession, a glut of unoccupied real estate has been reinvigorated as alternative art spaces in the vein of the Brayer Room. While this pattern can be traced to the art nexuses of London, New York, and Chicago, the Brayer Room is a distinctly Houston endeavor.
Gutstein, 28, had previously spearheaded a First Ward community arts initiative, entitled The Boiler Room, at the Jefferson Davis Hospital. When that project dissolved, the artist cum curator descended into a period of despondency. In the summer of 2010, when her sister and brother-in-law temporarily converted the Montrose eatery Just Dinner into a pop-up restaurant, Just August, the cogs in Gutstein’s head began to turn again. “I thought, ‘Why can’t I do that with art?’” she recalls. “That was the spark.”
The gallery show in a former convenience store at Fairview and Taft streets represented the second Brayer Room incarnation; the first launch was at the studio of a photographer friend of Gutstein’s, in the maze of warehouses northeast of downtown. Although her selection of 10 artists was wholly contemporary, Gutstein insists that the roaming Brayer Room be held in historic buildings. She says that she had jogged past the vacant Fairview space daily, and on a whim called Page Partners, the real estate company posted on a window.
“The broker immediately said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” she recalls. She rented the space free of charge, only paying for insurance. Nearly singlehandedly, Gutstein built out the space. On the night of the opening, an electric generator whirred in the parking lot adjacent to the building, powering a network of track lighting, transmitted by orange utility cords snaking through the exposed rafters. To mount the dozens of chosen artworks, she contacted a custom door builder, who supplied her with 22 discarded doors. “I still have bruises all over my body,” Gutstein says when describing the two-day process of connecting the doors and rendering them canvas-ready.
Amid the harried preparation process, Gutstein soon found her gallery as the locus of an urban regeneration. During the four-hour opening, the neighboring businesses — Ziggy’s Grill, Boheme and the Fairview — experienced record numbers of customers. “It’s been beautiful, meeting every single store owner around here,” she says. Indeed, the location may be an ideal property for a nascent art gallery, but Gutstein isn’t ready to relinquish the Brayer Room’s nomadic prerogative.
Among the featured artists were George Manzur, Ryan Thauburn Rich Cartaxto, and Gutstein herself.
More than an art venue, the Brayer Room’s evolving identity has also made it an equalizer in the art community. By adhering to a typical gallery business model (Gutstein reaps a 50-percent profit on sales), the Brayer Room claims the commercial viability of a mainstream gallery. But through its inherent “under the radar” appeal and receptivity to emerging talent, the venue has captured the hearts and minds of an otherwise underground youthful art subculture. This dichotomy made the Saturday night vernissage unlike any art opening in the city. Stalwart society-page collectors mingled with University of Houston B.F.A. candidates, all while curious neighborhood residents trickled in. By dissolving the traditional art gallery’s white cube, the Brayer Room’s free flowing architecture pits strangers’ gazes against one another, stimulating a vibrant art discourse that is absent from the clubby atmosphere of typical gallery openings.
“That mix of younger and older — that’s what I’m really going for,” says Gutstein. “In Houston, there are these two art groups: the warehouse artist, and the kind of couture Museum District crowd. They don’t really mesh a lot. But there doesn’t necessarily need to be a gap between them. If we work together, then we could make something really great in Houston.”
Gutstein, who has managed galleries in Southern California, can be spotted at a Brayer Room opening talking up the circles of gallery goers. “I’m never standing still,” she says. “I spend five minutes in a single group, and then I move on. No more than five.
“But I’m not too good for anyone yet,” she adds.
Now that the Brayer Room’s model has proven fruitful, the gallerist has set a standard for future spaces. She lists an Inner Loop site, adequate parking, proximity to bars and restaurants, and foot traffic as requirements on her checklist. Most importantly, the building must possess an architectural heritage.
“I think it’s the story behind historic buildings that draws me,” she says. “Even in the building’s decay, you can see that there’s a story there. It has to deal with our own inevitable decay.”
Ironically, the Brayer Room speaks to anything but decay. More than a catalyst of change in a slumping real estate market, the gallery represents how an innovative disruption in urban space can effectively dismantle the barriers of a community, laying bare a city’s explosive creativity.