How Cydonia gallery owner Hanh Ho is coaxing the Dallas art scene onto a slightly different course

by DANIELLE AVRAM | photographs by NAN COULTER

Named for a remote region on Mars, Cydonia art gallery is living up to its namesake by operating as somewhat of an outlier on the Dallas art scene. Nestled inside a small brick building just off a main drag in the Design District, Cydonia is owned and operated by Dallas native-turned-expat-turned-reborn-Dallasite Hanh Ho, who has her sights set on conquering the city and beyond.

Although barely cracking 5 feet, Ho has a commanding presence. Her exacting professionalism, polished candor and business acumen are indicative of her financial background — Ho has an MBA from the University of Dallas — as well as her years spent studying and working abroad. A graduate of the University of London’s Goldsmiths Curatorial MFA program and a former assistant at the prestigious Cranford Collection, Ho’s brand of gallerist is an anomaly in a town that prides itself on a glamorously laid-back, kick-off-your-Manolos approach to art. She sees Cydonia as multifaceted: “a contemporary art gallery dedicated to supporting careers of emerging artists whose practices have cultural and historical insight, conceptual rigor or they are an original voice within their generation.” Ho is quite serious about building a sustainable enterprise rooted in conceptual discourse, rather than catering to see-and-be-seen event dwellers.

Upon entering Cydonia, there is a palpable shift in the air, the pristine white-cube interior belied by the building’s modest blue-collar façade. Guests are greeted swiftly and offered an exhibition checklist, a cup of coffee and an invitation to set down their bags, then they are left to peruse the deftly curated exhibition — a considerate labor of love between artist and gallerist. If guests are fortunate enough to be invited behind the rope that separates Cydonia’s gallery from its back offices, they will be offered further beverages, a thoughtfully prepared assortment of snacks and a hefty dose of warm, yet purposeful, conversation punctuated with insightful asides about the various works that populate the space. Throughout Cydonia’s freshman year — the gallery just celebrated its first anniversary in September — my conversations with Ho largely centered on a recurring sentiment: that the relationship between a gallerist and his or her stable of artists is similar to that of a marriage. As Ho says, “When I extend [representation], I am making a commitment to an artist that I will do my best — with my given resources — to take care of their ability to continue their practice.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Cydonia’s artists, both exhibiting and represented, all of whom speak openly about Ho’s willingness to cultivate interpersonal relationships, not only between herself and the artists, but also amongst the artists themselves. Glasgow-based artist Bronwen Sleigh says, “Cydonia is the first gallery that I have worked with where I have felt fully supported as an artist. There is a huge emphasis on the idea of a team, which means all of the gallery staff and artists working together.” Cydonia pulls this off despite its small size. In addition to Ho, who is the owner and principal director, the gallery employs twin sisters and Texas Christian University art-school graduates Alden and Briana Williams as artist liaisons, preparators and communications managers. Brooklyn-based exhibiting artists and twin brothers Alan and Michael Fleming, whose practice is based on the theme of teamwork and intuitive connectivity, had an exhibition at Cydonia this past summer. Called “Gemini,” the show marked the 10th anniversary of their artistic collaboration through a series of in-gallery works and a gymnastics-meets-trust-exercises performance in Klyde Warren Park. “We had a very specific vision for our exhibition and Hanh was very flexible in letting us manifest that vision in her gallery space,” Michael says. “The entire process for selecting work, planning and curating the show was very much a conversation between us and the gallery to arrive at a shared vision that we could all get behind … this is refreshing for artists to experience and be a part of.”

From left, Identical twins Michael and Alan Fleming (cq) from Brooklyn, New York at thier exhibition Alan & Michael Fleming: Gemini at Cydonia gallery – June 26 – July 31, 2015. Photographed on June 25, 2015 at Cydonia gallery.

In a field littered with the remains of failed galleries, stalled careers and soured relationships, it’s refreshing to see a gallerist committed to what some would call the seemingly foolish errand of building a bastion of self-awareness, transparency and servitude. Working against the stereotypical notion of a moneyed art-world outsider misguidedly constructing a bloated roster and unsustainable gallery model, Ho is content to carefully select and nurture artists alongside whom she and Cydonia can grow, keeping her eye towards building an international presence. It’s an approach that has garnered her some criticism as being dismissive of the local scene, as Cydonia has historically not exhibited Texas or Dallas artists. This fall heralded a slight shift in the gallery’s trajectory, as Dallas sculptor Frances Bagley debuted a two-person show with Oregon artist Ryan Burghard, centered on the idea of — of all things — marriage and unification. (The exhibit, “Where You End and I Begin: Relational Dialectics,” runs through January 9.) Ho describes the exhibition as a collapse “between a mature, local, female artist and a young male one based on the other side of the country,” an indication that Ho is looking beyond the Dallas-rooted physical space of Cydonia, staring out into the future. Perhaps the show can be seen as an olive branch to the local community, with hometown star Bagley one half of it, or perhaps it’s a cleverly crafted step on the path towards Cydonia’s ultimate destination. As Berlin-based gallery artist Michael Just says, “Great art is shown and collected in Dallas, but Hanh is raising the bar in that she’s making the city a part of the international primary market. That’s radically new.”

DANIELLE AVRAM is a curator and writer based in Dallas. She is currently the Pollock Curatorial Fellow at Southern Methodist University.