The art of moving
Austin’s largest contemporary art gallery reframes its future at The Arboretum
Austin’s best gallery greets visitors with loud music — Morrissey included — and a simple hello. No salesperson follows unless called for. Somewhere past the maze of free-standing display walls, gallery director Todd Gresley snaps to the beat. The absence of pretense at Ao5 Gallery (formerly ART on 5th) is exactly what makes it so popular.
“We like loud music so people can talk,” explains Gresley. “You go to galleries, you can hear the footsteps. People are whispering. We want people to be able to exclaim how they feel. And everyone gets welcomed when they come in, no matter how you’re dressed.”
Gresley, donning a T-shirt and mixed bracelets, relives the times he’s quietly walked through other galleries, been ignored by the staff, and dropped a business card on the way out, “like Julia Roberts,” he says, slapping an imaginary card down a la Pretty Woman.
Some of the contemporary art seller’s loyal fans are disappointed to see it packing up to leave for a larger space at The Arboretum in February. The South Lamar Boulevard location, as large as it is, is already packed with art on every surface, from $10 movie posters to $30,000 rare Dr. Seuss works, and a large midrange of works priced from the low hundreds to the thousands. There is, legitimately, something for almost anyone. On top of that, several new artists are joining the roster at the new location, at 10000 Research Blvd., suite 118, next door to Pottery Barn.
The new space will also allow the gallery to expand its events, which in the past have sold out before even making it past the VIP list. Typically twice a month, Gresley says, the gallery flies an artist in for a feature that includes professional bartending (and themed drinks), more loud music, and lots of connection-making between art lovers and artists.
A recent event for the graphic artist responsible for nearly every Rush album cover was Hugh Syme’s first-ever art show in a prolific career of roughly 50 years. With tickets at $50 a head, visitors flew in from Los Angeles, Seattle, and even Mexico. Ao5 artists from all over — there are works on the walls from five continents — are calling in to make sure they don’t miss the grand reopening at The Arboretum.
When Gresley looks for new artists to show, he focuses on less-obvious art fairs than, as he cites, Art Basel. A handful of the gallery’s more than 65 artists are based in Indiana, a result of the Broad Ripple Art Fair in its capital city. Every artist Gresler has brought in since becoming gallery director in 2013 has sold well. He attributes the success to the energy of the work, which he considers carefully before sending it to influence anyone’s home.
“Austin’s the only city that I’ve been in that I can’t figure out,” says Gresley, “and I’ve been working in Austin since ’98. One of the exciting things about the evolution of this gallery is that I’ve never figured [it] out, so I keep bringing in stuff I think the Austinites will like. And they do.”
As one could guess from the name, this isn’t the first time Ao5 has moved. While on Fifth Street, it was selling more traditional Texas art: landscapes and more obvious local imagery. (There are still works that reference Texas, and specifically Austin, in the gallery. Local artist and Ao5 framer Bill Stearn paints bus tickets with images of the Austin skyline.) But since Gresley started his tenure, he’s worked on gathering artists from a wider perspective who make art that is fresh but still relatable.
“I wanted to make it stuff people hadn’t seen before, but still obtainable,” says Gresley. “You wouldn’t look at [it] and go, ‘I don’t know what to do with it,’ [rather,] ‘I really like it. I’ve never seen [it] before, and I have to have it.”
One of the gallery’s more worldly acquisitions after this shift is a collection of works by collage artist John Morse, who is a long-time personal friend of Gresley and doesn’t show in any other gallery in the world. Another is the gallery’s custom frame shop director Ellen Van den Bergh, one of few certified picture framers in Austin. Ao5 sees some museum pieces come in for framing specifically from patrons who know Van den Bergh is uniquely qualified for the job.
Gresley assures friends of the gallery that leaving South Austin is nothing more than a change of “boroughs,” and he hopes one day the gallery can maintain locations both north and south of the river. Named the best gallery or museum in Texas by the American Art Awards three years running, Ao5 could likely achieve this goal.
“When the water rises, all the boats will float. But I think the reason our boat’s bigger is because of our attitudes towards our customers,” he says. “We let everybody know that comes in, if you need us, please come to us.”
The Ao5 showroom will be closed for the beginning of January, with more details on the new location and reopening party to come after the move. Pieces will still be available to view and purchase on the website, ao5gallery.com.