Founded in 1995 by San Antonio-born artist Alejandro Diaz, Southtown mainstay Sala Diaz has been instrumental in defining Alamo City’s distinct art scene. Much like Artpace – which also opened in 1995 – Sala Diaz champions experimentation and the conceptual, often hosting world-class exhibitions that challenge viewers and defy categorization.
Set in a 1920s duplex, Sala Diaz is essentially the public anchor of the Compound – a collection of five historic structures owned by beloved San Antonio personality Mike Casey. For decades, Casey has rented the Compound’s duplexes to local artists for a fraction of the market value. In doing so, he invested himself in the careers of many San Antonio creatives – including Chuck Ramirez, who lived alongside Sala Diaz until his tragic death in 2010. With the late great Ramirez as the instigator key and organizer of impromptu events, the Compound has become an eclectic gathering place for the San Antonio arts community as a whole.
Since the departure of Alejandro Diaz in 1997 for New York – where he still lives and works – Sala Diaz has had only three directors: Hills Snyder (1997-2015), Anjali Gupta (2015-2020) and now Heyd Fontenot, who had been appointed director of the board earlier. this year.
Originally from Louisiana, Fontenot ran the CentralTrak gallery and artist residency in Dallas from 2011 to 2016, and landed in San Antonio the following year as part of Artpace’s international artist-in-residence program. After a two-year stint with the Tulsa Oklahoma Artist Fellowship, Fontenot returned to San Antonio in 2019 and settled at Casa Chuck – a residency program under the auspices of Sala Diaz and housed in the former home of Chuck Ramirez. Thanks to this residence, Fontenot has become an active member of the community surrounding Sala Diaz.
“When I moved to Casa Chuck, I had known Sala Diaz, but that’s where I really got a feel for Sala Diaz and the history of Casa Chuck,” Fontenot said. “But it was also right before the quarantine. I went to parties and always invited with people who were part of the Sala Diaz family. And then the social scene in San Antonio just evaporated because of COVID. … I was working on my own business, but as I learned more about Sala Diaz from Casa Chuck, there were all these things I wanted [propose] … Types of programs or strategies to strengthen Sala Diaz. I was just thinking about the overall health of the organization and where it could go – I just wanted to be of service. … And then they asked me if I would like to be the manager since Anjali left.
Above all, Fontenot has the support of his predecessor and of the founder of Sala Diaz, Alejandro Diaz.
“I understand that in these times of global uncertainty, Heyd has taken on the role of director of the council, which is essentially the spearhead of the gargantuan effort to compile a comprehensive archive of the rich 26-year history of Sala Diaz, ”said Gupta, who resigned. from his position to pursue independent curating and writing projects. “I had a great run in the city’s most stimulating and – in my opinion – important independent and experimental artistic space. I fully support Heyd in all his efforts.
Diaz himself said he was never able to attend Sala Diaz’s meetings since he lives in New York and the rallies were held in person.
“I am delighted that I can now attend and have a more active role as the meetings are conducted through Zoom,” he said.
“In just a few months, Heyd presented a series of new and exciting projects. … He is a person of many ideas and talents and takes a comprehensive 360 ° approach to guide Sala Diaz in his next post-COVID phase.
We recently caught up with Fontenot to ask him about the future of Sala Diaz, artistic programming in the COVID era, and the impending sale of the Compound, now on the market for $ 1.2 million.
Any highlights you can share about your new post?
One thing I recently negotiated is that the Sala Diaz archives have been accepted by UTSA. As I familiarized myself with Sala Diaz and realized how there was a rich history and 25 years of contemporary art in San Antonio, it aligned with the timeline with Artpace. And I was like, “Wow, what kind of astrological situation allowed these two organizations to be founded at the same time?” And [they’ve] been able to hold on and do so much cool stuff that really helped define the San Antonio art scene. … In this case, a graduate student from UTSA is going to write her thesis on the history of Sala Diaz. Ethel Shipton is leading an effort to collect oral histories around Sala Diaz. This resource will also go into the archive. … Alejandro Diaz sends more things from his personal effects. It has stuff from Sala Diaz’s early years – party photos, videotapes that will also go into the archive.
When does your programming start?
We are planning shows for the fall but, due to the pandemic, I am a little hesitant about the high contact programs. While we have a moment to take a break, watch Sala Diaz’s 25-year story [and] search the archives, [I’d like to] not focus on programming and physical and in-person gatherings. Because I just want people to be safe. … Every day you hear people say, “Oh, I can’t wait to get things back to normal.” And guess what? Things will not be normal. Things are going to be changed forever by this pandemic and by this time in history, where we are looking at many systems that were not working before. Especially for people of color and other oppressed minorities. Sala Diaz, founded by a queer person of color, has always been an organization that considered these things.
That being said, do you have a mental list of artists you want to fit into the space, or are you going to be making open calls?
Certainly not an open call. Because I think it creates a rush, and I want to be really caring. … I know this might sound like a pretentious example, but you know like when John Galliano takes over at Christian Dior and he looks at what the house meant, what were the shapes and why the house is famous? I could put my mark on it, like right now, but I want to be more sensitive to the story of Sala Diaz. … I have a huge network of artists that I have worked with before, that I would love to work with again, and would love to bring them to San Antonio. But I think it’s still too early for me to say that. I know we’re gonna do a show in the fall with Celia Muñoz, [who had] one of the first shows at Sala Diaz.
Has your management transferred to Casa Chuck?
It does. I have a few critical writers who have been doing projects with us since I started. … It is above all a place for critics and writers. Right now we have a poet in residence named Clem Heard. I actually invited him when we started, because Casa Chuck wasn’t busy and Clem has this really important book coming out this fall on the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. [It seemed] like a very good fit for us. It is very timely. Plus, Casa Chuck can’t really support the work of a visual artist – unless he’s working with miniatures, because while it’s a really comfortable chalet, there’s no appropriate studio space. … Clem will be with us most of the year. And again, it is a product of the pandemic. Just for the sake of safety, we don’t want a high turnover in space, because as we always learn more about COVID, we wouldn’t want to put anyone at risk. So it makes sense to slow everything down. … We’re not going to adopt a model of trying to change the shows every six weeks.
I noticed that the compound is for sale and I wonder what this sale would mean for Sala Diaz.
Sala Diaz owns our building so we are not part of this sale. But the other four houses are for sale. They are owned by Mike Casey and are historic and protected by historical codes. … No one knows what’s going to happen there. But Sala is very much married to this space. … Because Mike Casey gave it to Sala Diaz – and also just the story, and so many people have very nostalgic emotions around Chuck Ramirez and that time period. … So we’re not going anywhere. … But the other four houses, I guess any variety of things could happen. It would be great if someone stepped forward and wanted to preserve the history of the compound. But it’s a steep price, so who knows. … Mike Casey has been so generous for so long, and I think a lot of artists probably owe him a lot in terms of what they were able to do and how they were able to manage their time and focus on their careers. because they had a cheaper rent – and that’s huge. What Mike Casey has done for the San Antonio art scene is a bit beyond comprehension.
Stay up to date with news and views from San Antonio. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.