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Tiny Park art gallery moves out of couple's home to commercial space

Luke Quinton

You probably don't realize that there are galleries with serious aspirations operating out of the houses and apartments of young curators all over Austin.

One of them, Tiny Park, has just left its North Loop Boulevard neighborhood behind for a proper commercial space at the intersection of Navasota and East 11th streets.

For the past nine months Tiny Park would emerge each weekend from the nondescript bungalow of partners Brian Willey and Thao Votang like Superman exiting a phone booth.

"Whenever we had a show we had to jam the couch in the hallway," said Willey, as Votang grimaced at the memory.

"We got tired of climbing over it," she said.

Yet the welcoming space imitated a gallery as closely as possible, down to the hidden electrical cords, track lighting and formal write-ups on each show's contents.

Of course, it was still a house. Even though they selected it with a gallery in mind, a kitchen and a ceiling fan are hard to cover up. But that is also the appeal of these spaces.

Willey, from Alabama, and Votang, from Dallas, are both soft-spoken and engaging, making for skillful hosts. And their cat, Rabbit, became their unofficial mascot, prone to lounging on the bench in the center of the room.

And after enough shows and after-work appointments, they got pretty good at making the switch.

"We could break down our living room, our stereo and speakers, in 10 minutes," said Willey.

But there was one drawback more serious than the others. You can't sell art from your house.

Instead, they'd put buyers in touch with the artist and hope the artist would kick back some of their costs, namely shipping and installation. "It was never enough to cover all the expenses," Willey said.

And the artists were taking some risks, he explained. "We needed to be able to say (to them), ‘Your art will be insured.'"

But not every obstacle suddenly disintegrates in the new space. As we met outside in the swelter of 100-plus degrees, the gallery's air conditioning was not cooperating.

"It was literally 99 degrees on the thermostat," said Willey. He smiled thoughtfully. "There may not be a third digit."

Luckily the art seemed unperturbed. A huge mock boulder sat "crushing" a blue pallet, while paintings, drawings and sculptures lined the walls, work from the artists they've shown since last September. Austinites Michael Sieben, Miguel Aragon and Leah Haney, and artists from Chicago, New York and Los Angeles — including Nick Brown, Sam Prekop (from the band Sea and Cake) and the interactive telephone of Deborah Stratman, who has exhibited at the Whitney Biennial and Paris' Centre Pompidou — all included pieces.

After working in galleries across the country, from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles, the Austin community has been much easier to approach, said Willey.

"When I was living in Los Angeles, I was like, ‘Does Los Angeles really need one more gallery?'" The goal, said Willey, "Is to have an impact and not be completely redundant."

"Rather than waiting for the perfect scenario — which I had been doing for five years — it was just a way to get moving," Willey said of the domestic space. "It was cheap."

And the community just seemed to fall into place. More than 120 people passed through on their first opening, and since then they've hosted many hundreds more, as well as impromptu dinners for people who were away from family on Christmas and Valentine's Day.

"We've met so many people so quickly," Votang said.

If the buzz the couple have created in a short nine months is any indication, making an impact seems within reach.

The 12-foot ceilings and white walls give the new space that instant gallery aesthetic, but, as gallerists will tell you, the space on its own isn't enough. Austin has a plethora of artists without an abundance of buyers. So to bridge the gap, Willey and Votang, who both work at the University of Texas, are planning to expand the weekend gallery times to host readings and film screenings.

But their North Loop Boulevard house is still not completely theirs. What's another way to help afford a new commercial space? Acquire a roommate.

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