Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report
It was more than 100 degrees outside when Veronique Le Melle emerged from the doors of the San Anotnio International Airport into a humid evening last August. She was on her way to interview for her current position as executive director of Artpace.
"I was on the phone with my husband and immediately said, ‘I’m home,’” Le Melle recalled.
She had spent the last seven years weathering, well, the weather of the Northeast as Boston Center for the Arts president and CEO and had grown tired of rock salt, heating bills and frosted windshields. The arid, subtropical climate of San Antonio beckoned her forth, as did the vacant executive director position at one of the city’s most prestigious nonprofit arts organizations. Artpace's mission paralleled her own, promising to support the creative process of contemporary artists and engage audiences with innovative art. She started work at Artpace in late January 2016.
In the stifled, historically turgid world of contemporary art, Le Melle seems like a breath of fresh air and a welcome sigh of relief for Artpace, which has had four executive directors in the past five years – including Sue Graze, who served as interim director for a year when Amada Cruz left to lead the Phoenix Art Museum in January 2015. An unassuming discussion with her concerning the guises of modern art makes even abstract expressionism seem infinitely more approachable. Le Melle is endearingly feisty and irrefutably engaging, traits that are the cherries atop three decades of experience in the art world.
With experience in fundraising, public policy, arts advocacy and business development, Le Melle has all the markings of a leader that can strongly represent Artpace in San Antonio's exploration of its artistic identity and pull the nonprofit through a precarious funding future.
Shortly after taking her place at the helm, Le Melle was heaved into her first controversy. The Guadalupe Cultural Art Center’s withdrew from participation in hosting an event for Contemporary Art Month in March, a citing a lack of diversity, specifically the “lack of representation of Latina artists.” As a neutral party and now central figure in the arts community, Le Melle was invited to participate in a panel discussion in March, organized to discuss diversity in the arts. She proved to be a levelheaded contributor to the heated conversation that ensued. Many rejected the panel as a credible forum because it, too, neglected to include a Latina artist.
“I felt as though I was in a familiar place," she said. "The kind of miscommunication that led to the division between CAM and Latina artists is not rare, unfortunately, and it’s not just in San Antonio.”
Le Melle has been knee-deep in cultural tensions during her time in both Louisiana and New York.
“During my years at Cultural Affairs in Queens, there were over 170 different languages spoken in public schools with a population of over 2.2 million people. The CAM situation wasn’t new to me," she said. "This is what happens when people are too polite and not real. A direct dialogue and honesty about needs and expectations is vital.
“People need to vent, but then after that you need to figure out a path forward. That’s where I hope we are and that’s what I’m most interested in. What do we do next?”
Another issue at the forefront for Artpace is the significant funding loss from the Linda Pace Foundation that is scheduled to decrease to zero in the coming years.
Le Melle has helped raise millions of dollars for artists and organizations over the years and has built her career gathering resources and attention for the arts, a reputation she aims to build on at Artpace. She's had a few months to assess the situation.
“Currently the staff and I are in a process of looking at what we do and how we do it," she said. "We are evaluating how to make Artpace more sustainable.”
In addition to her time at BCA, Le Melle’s extensive resumé includes time as the executive director of the Louisiana Division of the Arts and the director of Cultural Affairs and Tourism for Queens, New York. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in business administration and economics from Colorado College and holds a Master of Fine Arts in arts management from Brooklyn College and a Master of Public Administration in public policy from Columbia University.
Le Melle’s business degree was initially a fallback for a performing arts minor, but she quickly learned that “economics is my jam,” she said.
After college, Le Melle started focusing on multidisciplinary organizations and working with some of the best curators in New York during the '90s. As she gained experience in advocacy for the arts and public funding, the city-led discussions about economic and business development expanded to the arts.
“All of the people doing city planning spoke a specific language, but there weren’t enough people in the field who were truly arts supporters who could speak that same language," she said. "I went to Columbia and got a degree in public policy to advocate for the arts as an industry that is right for the same development and support that restaurants were getting – we are small businesses in our own right.”
Following an international director search that took about 10 months, Le Melle was chosen as the new executive director in January. While she has allotted the next year to observe the organization in action, she has implemented regular “What If” lunch meetings – opportunities to dream, brainstorm, discuss new initiatives and assess the current mission of Artpace and its value to San Antonio.
What’s next for Artpace in Le Melle’s eyes is a focus on the organization’s transparency. She believes that too many people have too much misinformation about what Artpace is and what it can do. To be all-inclusive, increased accessibility and honest communication are essential. Le Melle emphasized openness as well as diverse, collaborative offerings of arts experiences as top priorities moving forward.
“It is how every discipline survives – there is a diversity and a continuum that leads to cross pollination," she said. "In Boston, we held salons, talks and gallery showings that included visual artists, writers, musicians and theatre people of all backgrounds. It created an appreciation between the genres and artists. Those conversations started to mold how they saw their work and began to change how we presented it.”
To its core, Artpace is a visual arts organization, but Le Melle hopes to incorporate other cross-disciplinary projects into the repertoire. She noted that older generations and art purists tend to think that genres are mutually exclusive, but the best artists of today aren’t working in a vacuum.
Taylor Bates, Artpace’s director of programs and exhibitions, said Le Melle brings and exciting fresh perspective to the table.
“She is exactly what Artpace needs right now," Bates said. "We are in our 21st (year) – a great time to acknowledge our history and evaluate what to do moving forward. We have been doing things a certain way for 20 years, and having a non-San Antonian in the executive director role means that she has no preconceived nostalgic notions about the art community.”
Top image: Executive Director of Artpace Veronique Le Melle speaks at SA2020's Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts discussion in March 2016. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.