A Talent for Bringing Art to Communities: Curator Ana Villaronga Reinvents the Local Art Museum
Updated: May 9
I'm proud of this story: it won the 2023 first-place award in the Feature Story category from Press Women of Texas.
Art Museum TX is redefining what visiting and showing one’s work in a museum are all about, thanks to Ana Villaronga’s driving force.
by Mara Soloway
First published on I Start Wondering.com January 2022
Thanks to one woman’s energy, enthusiasm, and entrepreneurialism, two new art museums are thriving in the Houston suburbs of Katy and Sugar Land. Art Museum TX is redefining what visiting and showing one’s work in a museum are all about, thanks to curator Ana Villaronga’s driving force as well as a series of pivotal decisions, strategic partnerships, and immense effort.
Art Museum TX has grown to two locations in less than two years, and both add preferred cultural destination status to the mixed-use developments in which they are located. Art Museum TX Cinco Ranch opened in Katy in June 2020 after national developer Poag Shopping Centers enthusiastically accepted Ana’s proposal to have a contemporary art museum in LaCenterra. In January 2021, the creative Dallas-based real estate developer Rebees and the City of Sugar Land began working with Ana to establish Art Museum TX Sugar Land, which opened on Sugar Land Town Square in May 2021 – within five months of the first meeting.
Meet Ana Villaronga
Ana, 56, arrived in Houston at the age of 17 after her family left Puerto Rico for moves to the U.S., including to California and San Antonio, Texas, and eventually to Venezuela where she finished high school. She began her university studies, first at Texas A&M University and then at the University of Houston (UH). Her eye for good art and design was evident in her choice of study: architecture, graphic design, and interior design, with minors in art history and Latin American literature. Leadership and nonprofit leadership training honed more of her natural abilities.
Ana enhanced her curation abilities and reputation by learning every aspect of the art business – from importing new artists’ work to representing to selling to curating – during her decades-long career in Houston’s art scene. It began with Ana taking the advice of one of her mentors, an Italian architecture professor she had at UH. “He advised me to visit all the art galleries in Houston and pick my favorites and then see if one of them would hire me,” she recalled. “Sure enough, I was able to convince the owner of my favorite contemporary art gallery to hire me. He was a fantastic teacher, and he also became a great mentor. I stayed there for seven years.”
At the same time, Ana started importing contemporary art from South America and Europe and helping the artists find representation in Houston and around the U.S. The necessary skill set to do this is all-encompassing, including learning how to become an agent, how to get galleries interested in artists, and the details in importing artwork, including shipping and crating.
Community Involvement Begins
It might seem unlikely that Ana would give up a high-powered career in the Houston art scene where she was working at the top of her game. But an idea began forming in her mind, fueled in part by thoughts of what her life would be like once her son, William Roman-Ros, left home after high school. (Now 28, William is mentoring under Ana and is in charge of installations for both Art Museum TX locations.)
“I began to ask myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life besides being a wife and a mother and at some point probably a grandmother? Is being an art consultant enough for me?’” she said. “That’s when I realized that I wanted to have more community involvement.”
As she transitioned from the Houston gallery art scene to community projects, Ana put her skill set to work and her first strategic partnership developed. She started curating for a small community gallery run jointly by the Katy Area Artists and ArtReach in Katy’s Villagio Town Center. “The owner of Babaloo Restaurant next door loved it so much,” Ana noted. “He wanted to enlarge it and asked me to partner with him. We opened Babaloo Gallery.”
Ana ran the space as a gallery, changing shows every month and hosting opening receptions. “That was the first contemporary gallery in Cinco Ranch where people could actually go and see shows and be surrounded by art.”
Ana went large-scale next, establishing the first art museum in Fort Bend County: the Katy Contemporary Arts Museum (KCAM) in 2013 in Katy’s historic old downtown. KCAM hosted more than 30 shows featuring dozens of artists, including Lee Benner, Ibsen Espada, Roberta Harris, Ron Hartgrove, Chuck Hipsher, Karen Lindeman, Felipe Lopez, Earl Staley, and Kevin Douglas West. Unfortunately, flood events in 2016 and 2017 – including the Tax Day Flood and Hurricane Harvey – damaged the building. Ana closed KCAM.
During the transition period before she opened Art Museum TX, she continued her mission through an entity she called CAM Fort Bend, presenting pop-up art exhibitions throughout the area. Her successes include forming new partnerships with national organization Latino Art Now!, the international FotoFest, Fort Bend Art Center, Fort Bend County Libraries, Willow Fork Drainage District, and Johnson Development’s Harvest Green.
Art Museum TX
The museums bring community-based perks: visitors can see contemporary art for free in their area; local artists have two new venues to show their work; and, as artists and residents mingle at openings, classes, and other events, people get a deeper sense of how to appreciate art and some begin to collect pieces they value. And as more classes taught by artist instructors are added at both Art Museum TX locations, more people of all ages will gain artistic skills and understand contemporary art. “We’re educating the public, not just in classes but by them coming in the museums – people are learning by seeing,” Ana says.
Accessibility is Ana’s driving force. Area artists who want to show their work and want to be known locally need more options than yearly art festivals. Area residents should be able to see contemporary art without having to plan a day specifically to do so, as is the case for those living miles away from the central Houston Museum District. “People should be able to just see some great art close to where they live. Art needs to be part of the everyday fabric of your community – that when you go out with your girlfriend for lunch or are going to see a movie with your husband or a date, you can walk into the museum and catch the latest exhibition. I’m trying to provide something that’s easy for people,” Ana says.
Ana’s Vision of Contemporary Art
As director and curator of both museums, Ana has featured the work of scores of greater Houston-area artists that have now been seen by more than 50,000 museum-goers since June 2020, even with the constraints of the pandemic. Artists in the Art Museum TX family include Lee Lee Brazeal, Susan Budge, Lindy Chambers, Ronnie Conlin, Kelley Devine, Tatiana Escallon, Rachel Gardner, Guadalupe Hernandez, Veronica Ibargüengoitia, Cedric Ingram, Felipe Lopez, Anat Ronen, Carrie Swim, Joel Stanulonis and Nancy Viola.
“I’m looking for artists that are doing something that I believe the community needs to see. It’s actually easy to find someone who can take great photographs or can paint well. What’s important to me besides having the skills is that you found your voice in a way that is worthwhile for the community,” Ana says. “And it doesn’t matter to me if artists are self-taught or if they have a master’s degree in fine arts. It’s not at all about that.”
Ana is energized by her role as curator. “Meeting new artists, helping artists, and choosing the pieces – it’s really fun for me. I love curating. It’s constantly changing and stimulating,” she says.
The response of museum visitors is also exciting. “They love having a place to come see great art. People take the time to tell us they really enjoy the shows – some have even taken the time to send me thank you notes. All that really makes me feel that we’re making a difference. It’s not just that we’re helping artists – we really are helping the people in the community.”
Visitors from cultural centers like New York City and Chicago notice the quality of the art and compliment the accessibility of the museums. “This helps prove that what we are doing is something not readily available in other parts of the country,” Ana adds.
Capturing the Need of the Art-hungry Community
Art Museum TX has grown due to Ana’s natural leadership abilities, her drive to create community-based art venues where art is accessible, her experience in the art world, and her knack for creating and becoming part of strategic partnerships and community organizations.
As is typical of her, Ana downplays the significance of her role in redefining what visiting and showing one’s work in a museum is all about. “I think the success of the AMTX locations is that I’ve been able to capture the need of community artists and museum visitors. Through these strategic partnerships, we are now open to the public with a priority of educating. But it’s a natural progression that we will ultimately be creating more opportunities for artists and thus opportunities for collectors. We’re educating first-time collectors and helping them through the process,” she says.
“What is the proof to an artist that what they’re doing is valued? To have their art purchased. That’s a pretty important piece of how I measure if something’s working – that’s the ultimate proof.”
It’s a win-win not just for artists and community residents but for area businesses, too, which benefit from consumers who spend more time in LaCenterra and Sugar Land Town Square. The idea of bringing community museums to mixed-use developments could work everywhere, even in small towns. Ana is working on franchising Art Museum TX in the near future.
“What we’re doing will enable future art galleries in Fort Bend County to survive because we are making new art lovers and collectors,” she said. “Other communities can use Art Museum TX as a model to make the arts thrive in their area.”
Find Art Museum TX online at https://artmuseumtx.org and on social media at @artmuseumtxcr and @artmuseumtxsl.
Photo Credits: Debi Beauregard @Debi_Beauregard on Instagram