After 14 years, the artist colony inside a former Amarillo shopping mall is being laid to rest. Now the Panhandle creative-types who called the place home “are just gonna get scattered.”
It was a fine funeral for the fine arts.
In early August, the denizens of Sunset Center, a 1960s-era shopping mall in northwest Amarillo that found a second life as an artist colony, bid the place adieu. The roof is shot. The 200-plus air conditioning units require constant maintenance. The red “ARTS” sign near the front doors is faded from exposure to the unforgiving Panhandle sun. But the 50 or so artists—some hobbyists, some professionals, and lots in between—who worked and exhibited at Arts in the Sunset for the better part of 14 years say they’ll miss it terribly. So on the evening of August 2, the bereaved threw a bash.
That night, the mall buzzed with a diverse collection of visitors: the well-heeled crowd dressed in business casual attire and gold jewelry; old-timers with walkers and cowboy hats; teenagers draped in leather jackets with spikes on the shoulders. This was the final First Friday ArtWalk, a monthly event when the Sunset Center sees most of its foot traffic. The galleries, which feature paintings, photography, sculpture, and more, were as eclectic as the visitors themselves. In an alcove that looks like it might’ve once been a food court, a band filled the space with the sound of drums and harmonica.
“It was unique, the whole thing,” said B.J. Smith, a dry-witted, sun-weathered woman who makes glass mosaics and gourd art. Smith is one of the dozens of artists with galleries in the honeycomb of vacated storefronts. Smith’s is a wide-open square with an attached office and ample wall space for displaying her creations. She points out one gourd hanging there, a bowling pin-shaped object with beads tied around it, similar to the shekere used as a musical instrument in Nigeria and Ghana. She gestures over to another gourd, this one hollow and cylindrical, with an opening at the top that tapers at the bottom. “You’re not gonna ask me what this one is,” Smith says. “It’s…” She pauses for dramatic effect. “A penis sheath. I put flowers in it—you can use ’em all kinds of ways.”
Smith will soon need to find a new home for her gourds, shaker or sheath or otherwise. She and the other gallery owners have been put on notice by the foundation that owns the mall that they’ve got to clear out by the end of the month. In other words, they’re being evicted. Smith is further explaining the myriad artful possibilities of gourds when a visitor approaches. “I just wanted to say hello and goodbye one more time,” the woman says. “Bless your heart. What are you gonna do?”
“I’m gonna go home and drive my husband crazy,” Smith says. “Why not? He drives me crazy, so I might as well return the favor.” Smith’s levity about her imminent departure from the gallery—where she says she’s toiled six days a week for 14 years—is at least partially feigned. She later says that the situation is “gonna put a big hole in my heart.”
Mary Solomon, a painter known for hiding faces in the rocks of her canyon landscapes, brushes away tears as she greets visitors packing themselves into her small gallery. I ask if seeing the crowd for the last time is bittersweet. “It’s a bitter night for me. I’m not seeing the sweet part,” Solomon says. Another artist remarks: “It’s kind of like someone died, with everybody coming by to say how sorry they are.” Marsha Clements, a painter who defected from the mall in 2017 to open a gallery in nearby Canyon, wonders what will become of her contemporaries, many of whom live in rural areas of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. “These artists are just gonna get scattered.” Though Amarillo has other galley spaces, this is the only real art collective in town.
Long before it was a mainstay of the Amarillo art scene, Sunset Center had a history of drawing folks from all over the region. It opened in 1960 as Amarillo’s first indoor shopping mall, boasting a Sears Roebuck & Co., an automotive shop, and a litany of department stores. But in the following decades, Amarillo went mall-crazy, opening a bigger one just across Interstate 40 and yet another on the town’s western edge. The place went mostly unused from 1983 to 2005, when artist and philanthropist Ann Crouch reopened a portion of the 332,000-square-foot building and invited artists to set up shop in the abandoned storefronts. She also founded the Amarillo Art Institute, a studio with art instructors, and placed it inside Sunset Center.
Everything was rocking along until Crouch, who had already been widowed, unexpectedly died in January 2017. With no heirs willing to receive her real estate holdings, Crouch’s estate fell into probate purgatory for about a year until the Crouch Foundation was created to direct it. Though the estate is currently valued at $14 million, foundation leaders told artists in May that they were seeking nonprofit status to avoid paying $6 million in estate taxes. The Internal Revenue Service won’t grant a nonprofit designation to the foundation while it operates the galleries, which are for-profit enterprises, said Rachel Flores, the foundation board’s secretary and executive director of the art institute.
That meant the galleries had to go.
Flores said the staggering cost of operating Sunset Center played into the foundation’s decision—the electricity bill alone for the massive, aging building is $18,000 a month. The foundation was faced with a tough choice: Keep the galleries open and risk causing Crouch’s estate to bleed out in a few years, or close the galleries to secure a financial future for some of her other projects. In the end, they chose the latter. “The worst thing we could do is keep going how we’re going and just have to close the doors in a few years anyway. I don’t think that’s what she had in mind,” Flores said.
Some artists say they understand the decision. “They’re trying to extend what’s there, but it’s heartbreaking,” said Chris Rogers, a painter who makes Christian-themed pieces. Smith, the gourd artist, said she doesn’t believe the estate was intentionally hamstrung by its directors. “I just think they’re not as smart as the average jackass,” she said.
As the event came to a close, the gallery artists decided to salute Sunset Center with a final procession. Each picked up a favorite piece of art and trotted it around the mall, single-file; it was an allusion to the inaugural First Friday event more than a decade ago, when artists and visitors marched through the place hoisting paintings, a literal take on the term “artwalk.” This month, as the line wound through Sunset Center, an acoustic guitarist heaped the melodrama on thick, playing a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” The artists still managed to slap on smiles, making the scene feel less like a dirge and more like a jazz funeral. “Can you believe this is the last Artwalk? I can’t,” said Dallas Mayer, a painter near the front of the line.
When the galleries close on August 31, the art institute will remain, said Flores, the foundation’s board secretary. And she hopes to invite some of the artists back to their to use the former galleries as workspaces instead, which the IRS apparently does not mind.
Perhaps there’s hope for a new day at Sunset Center.
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