When John Runyon was growing up in Dallas in the 1970s, the city was known for a lot of things—and art was not one of them. Nonetheless, Runyon's father, a dentist who had developed a serious collecting habit, filled their home with major Pop and Minimalist works and, today, Runyon has made it his life's work to expose others to the joys of living with art. That now includes his own children, as well as a rapidly expanding base of Dallas collectors whom he caters to through his secondary-market gallery Runyon Fine Arts, traveling the world to broker blue-chip deals on their behalf.
Runyon spoke to Artspace about helping to pioneer the fledgling Dallas art scene, and what he looks for when collecting work for his own home.
You were the first person to stage a show for Richard Phillips outside of New York, at an early incarnation of your gallery. How did you discover his work and what made you want to bring it to a wider audience?
I learned of Richard Phillips's work through a mutual friend, an artist in New York. I witnessed Richard's inaugural painting show at Edward Thorpe Gallery in 1996. I was taken by the show and by one painting in particular—the work selected for the invitation, titled MASK. I was told the work was sold, but I vowed to own that painting one day. I was persistent and patient, and now I do. But, at the time, I had a public exhibition gallery in Dallas, and I visited Richard's studio and he agreed to an exhibition there, only his second painting show. We placed every work with strong collections. One of the largest, best works was acquired by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. It was recently exhibited in a show celebrating the museum's tenth anniversary in their Tadao Ando-designed building. Richard and I have worked on many projects since then, and we remain close friends.
What are some of the challenges and rewards of being a collector and dealer in a young art scene like Dallas?
I love being a father of a six-year-old daughter, Ivy, and a nine-year-old, Liam. But, in my business as an advisor, I must travel. It's required that I experience the art in person, meet with collectors, galleries, and artists. And New York is not one-stop shopping anymore—there are so many fairs and cities to consider. When I am on the road, I have a fantastic time. Conversely, the reward is the experience of travel, research, and relationship building. As a result, we acquire meaningful work in collaboration with passionate collectors and galleries. However, the greatest challenge is leaving the family behind.
Another responsibility and challenge is making the galleries aware of the merits and commitments of each particular collector. Galleries that present artists with high demand and a limited amount of available work are looking to place the art in the care of committed collectors. A large part of my effort is locating work and explaining to the galleries why my collector is worthy of acquiring it. That sounds so masochistic, but it is a harsh reality.
Do you feel a responsibility to support local artists and institutions?
The responsibility stems from a natural attraction to and alignment with certain institutions and artists. Quality artists and institutions deserve our support. The patrons of the Dallas Museum of Art, some of whom are clients, have created a solid team and exhibition program. Its director, Max Anderson, is a star. He's smart, diplomatic, and inclusive. We are lucky to have him. Also, we have Jeremy Strick next door as director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, and he's transformed the place into a vibrant source of entertainment for both young and old. The Nasher collection is the expected attraction, but Jeremy has also added a forward-thinking exhibition program. These days, the Nasher has the feel of a lively Kunsthalle, not a trophy case.
In what ways have you seen the Dallas art scene change since you became involved?
When I started in the art business 25 years ago, there was virtually no contemporary art scene. There was the encyclopedic Dallas Museum of Art, the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, and a handful of galleries in Dallas. The scene has changed dramatically. There is fantastic new architecture throughout the community, specifically in the Dallas Arts District. There are four buildings designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects within blocks of one another. Twenty years ago, those blocks were crime ridden and dangerous at night. Now we are celebrating a vibrant and more pedestrian-friendly arts district filled with museums, performance venues, high-rise living, parks, and quality restaurants—not to mention the fantastic hotel blocks from the arts district, the Joule Hotel, exhibiting a quality art collection in the heart of downtown. I have collaborated with the hotel's owner, Tim Headington, for many years to acquire a compelling art collection for the guests of the hotel to enjoy. They are just completing a $78 million renovation.