The Bridge is Out?

Richard Baron

As recently as the mid eighties, the art scene in El Paso was a veritable desert. A couple of frame-shop/galleries offered a sampling of Southwestern landscapes; an ancient, out-of-step faculty set the pace at the University of Texas at El Pasos art department; and the El Paso Museumdubbed by many as the El Paso Mausoleumfloundered in the clutches of politically well-connected blue-hairs with a predilection for serving tea on Sundays and donating ancestral furnishings to the Museum.

The tide began to turn when a small group of hairy, unkempt local artists banded together to oppose the passage of a multimillion dollar quality-of-life bond designed to expand the Museum. This small but vocal opposition spawned a better-not-bigger revolt that captured the attention of the general public, calling into question the Museums acquisition practices and overall mediocrity. Accordingly, Paseos voted in favor of expanding the library and zoo, upgrading the police and fire departments, filling potholes and lighting the streets, but flatly rejected the expansion of the Museum.

City officials promptly appointed a committee to review public criticisms of the Museums practices. They looked to museums in other cities and concluded that the El Paso Museum of Art was indeed in need of a significant overhaul. They also recommended that the city supportin spirit if not with direct fundingthe creation of a contemporary art center responsive to the needs of the younger, more progressive art community, if for no other reason than to shut it up. For better or worse, the Bridge Gallery (later known as the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art) was created with the citys blessing and a meager $2,000 in private donations.

The timing was fortuitous. Ronald Reagan was in power and punk rock was on the rise. In New York, Minimalism was drying out, replaced by the youthful exuberance of Neo-Expressionism. The new guards excitement was contagious, as was the extravagant philanthropy that characterized the period. Even in backwater burgs like El Paso, yuppies were digging deep into their pockets in support of the arts.

Enter native son Al Harris-Fernandez. Embodying just the right blend of civic respectability and smarmy eighties punk, Harris-Fernandez was like a stray Ramone escaped from the Chamber of Commerce. In 1987 he took up the reigns of the fledgling Bridge Center and surpassed, on a shoestring budget, everyones expectations. By pairing local artists like James Drake, a relative unknown at the time, with more prominent artists such as Ed McGowin and James Surls, he was able to draw national attention to El Paso and the work of its contemporary artists. Harris-Fernandez also organized exchanges with DiverseWorks in Houston and Blue Star in San Antonio, providing many El Paso-based artists their first out-of-town exhibits.

Throughout the late eighties, Harris-Fernandez beguiled local artists who welcomed a place for their work within their own community, and patrons who had once looked to New Mexico or California for their contemporary art fix. It was a heady if somewhat hand-to-mouth time.

It wasnt so much that everyone loved Harris-Fernandez; it was more that everyone loved that he did such an excellent job of pissing everyone else off. Despite this, he was able to raise money from the hoity-toity, draw the attendance of the hoi polloi, and keep the artists involved with a system of committees. This insured maximum community involvement, a diverse base of financial support, and a complex exhibition schedule of local, state and national art. Ultimately, Harris-Fernandez laid the foundation of a durable organization that no one has been able to snuffno matter how many noble stabs have been made at it. By the end of the decade, the Bridge became the happeningest space between Houston and L.A. and the hottest contemporary art salon the sleepy Chihuahuan Desert had ever seen.

By the early nineties, however, Harris-Fernandez was a pretty hot property himself and was lured away from El Paso by higher paying directorships. By then, the Bridge was graced with a solid board which included patrons, bankers, doctors, businessmen and their spouses who saw Harris-Fernandezs departure as an opportunity to remake the gallery in their own image. Mary Evelynn Sorrell, former director of Lawndale Art Center in Houston, was hired as Harris-Fernandezs successor and seemed the ideal choice to implement the boards ambitions.

Whereas under Harris-Fernandez, the Bridge had been functioning in a tiny storefront at the edges of the citys center, the Board secured a grander, more upscale facility at ground zero of downtown redevelopment, and the sound of Harris-Fernandez working-artist boot heels clumping on concrete seamlessly melded into the click-clack of Sorrells high heels on beautifully polished hardwood floors.

Under Sorrells leadership during the glory period of her stay in El Paso (the first two years of her five year tenure), donations, sponsorships and memberships poured in, along with formidable grants from private foundations and the NEA. The Bridges fund-raising events became the social darlings of the Junior League, as de rigeur as the annual Heart Association Ball or opening night of the El Paso Symphony. The Bridge was suddenly alternative no more, arguably (though briefly) the standard bearer of the finer arts in El Paso.

However, in the organizations new, upscale downtown gallery, programming veered away from locals in favor of mid-career artists like Benito Huerta and Sara Waters from around the state and prepackaged survey shows such as those initiated by the Austin-based Texas Fine Arts Association. As a result, local artists began to lose their enthusiasm for the Bridge. Before long, El Pasos elite, temporarily enamored of the social scene surrounding Bridge exhibitions and fundraisers, lost interest as well. Whether due to the economic downturn or the directors political and social missteps, the Bridge lost its lease in 1995 and suddenly found itself in a tiny office space with a skeletal board. With neither patrons nor a plan, Sorrell tendered her resignation and left town. Like the El Paso Museum of the eighties that spawned its formation, the Bridge was in need of serious repair.

A small core of supporters regrouped, rented a modest storefront in a less well-traveled neighborhood and hired as director a working artist who had served on the board of the Bridge in its earliest days and was versed in its operationsmoi. In an attempt to both re-involve the community and keep exhibition costs manageable, I attempted an intense schedule of literary, visual and community events with an emphasis on established artists from the region, including many from the faculties of the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP) and New Mexico State University (NMSU). I also brought in a few high profile shows of work by non-area artists including Strange Ritual, photography by David Byrne, a multi-media installation by Joe Lewis (founder of one of the first alternative contemporary galleries in the country) and recent works by Harris-Fernandez (who by that time was the director of SUNY Buffalo).

Progressive programming is not necessarily safe. One exhibit in particular caused quite a stir. An exhibition of drawings and paintings by Rudy Royval, an El Pasoan who was then living in San Franciscoworks that humorously examined sexual stereotypes and had been exhibited extensively in New York and Europewere inaccurately judged by some to be inappropriate for local exhibition. A local media controversy ensued, permanently tainting relations between myself and several board members. As a direct result I felt compelled to resign my position in the fall of 1997.

From its inception the Bridge fell prey to a cycle of ups and downs inherent to every struggling contemporary art space; from 1997 onward, however, the organization seemed to lose its focus altogether.

Architect Frederic Dalbin became chairman of the board shortly after my departure. Dalbin convinced the owner of a landmark downtown department store that was being refurbished to donate 4,000 square feet of space to the gallery. The Bridge was then able to secure a six-figure urban development grant, assuring the organization much needed breathing room. A well-traveled El Paso musician and hipster named David Romo was hired as artistic director, and suddenly the Bridge seemed poised for halcyon days. Alas, the good times rapidly gave way to a period of self-indulgence and benign neglect. There is a lesson here for other alternative spaces: Be careful what you wish for!

Without the compelling need to raise money, vital board committees put in place to guarantee input from artists throughout El Paso and environs dissolved. Board membership fell to less than two-thirds of the quota required in the Bridges bylaws. Months went by without board meetings, and when they were held, minutes werent recorded. Elections in 2002 were suspended and the board no longer exercised its authority over financial and programming activities. Without artistic oversight committees in place, responsibility for programming fell into the hands of a few individuals, each of whom pursued his or her own area of interest independent of a larger plan.

Romos focus fell on hosting musical events featuring bands that often drew light audiences. He also oversaw publication of The Bridge Review, a tabloid that addressed provincial music, visual arts and literature through the lens of border politics. A single member of the Boarda hospital administratorselected visual art exhibitions, the bulk of which included work by local artists and represented a constrained, subjective point of view. Ruth Romo, office manager and wife of the director, managed the gift shopan odd assortment of Tex-Mex tchotchkes.

Finally, a major commitment was made to open a caf/coffee-shop within the space when an unemployed member of the board with experience in restaurant management offered to supervise the venture as a paid part-time employee of the Bridge. Romo stepped aside as director but continued to manage the newsletter, and his salary was allocated toward the new staff position. The theory behind the caf was that revenue from the project would one day underwrite programming, but instead the Bridge Center for Contemporary Arts resources were drained from arts programming in favor of selling soup, salads, sandwiches, exotic coffees and teas. At the end of 2002, when there was no more grant money to spend and the rent was finally due, the restaurant manager resigned, the caf closed, and once again the Bridgein the hands of a reduced board in total disarraywas homeless, deeply in debt and without a director.

Now, once again, concerned citizens have come to the rescue. A concerted effort to expand the Board was undertaken in the first half of 2003. Committees have been re-established; a new mission statement and five-year business plan are reportedly in the works. Thanks to the sale of the restaurant equipment, a successful fundraising party in 2003, and some generous donations, the Bridges debt has been retired. The Bridge seems to be back, at least for the time being, though the future is still uncertain.

Both the El Paso Museum of Art and the galleries at UTEP are far different institutions than they were when the Bridge opened in reaction to their ineptitude. Now there is much local banter about whether the city still needs the Bridge. To those who care about such things, however, the conclusion is unanimous: if El Paso has room for another mall or Mexican restaurant then of course it has room for another contemporary art gallery, particularly if it can carve a niche and stick to its guns.

Marco Delgado, corporate lawyer and a new board member, has a distinct vision for the organizationthe most literal to date. Delgado envisions developing the organization into a cultural bridge between the United States and Mexicothe physical locus of an ongoing cultural exchange. Unlike many of his predecessors, Delgado is a realist acutely aware of the need to engage the community in this transition. But El Pasos not an easy town to play; Delgado and the rest of the board have a steep hill to climb. They also have a lot of people rooting for them, because over the last eighteen years El Pasos cultural desert has been in blossomthanks in no small part to the Bridge Center, in all of its incarnations.

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