Camiba Art is an alternative gallery nestled in East Austin along the lively E. 6th Street corridor. Glance inside the bright, modern space, and you see a riot of color, thanks to the thousands of strings of monofilament (fishing line) strung around a wheel–an installation by artist Ender Martos. The gallery’s owner and director, Troy Campa, took a circuitous route to his current role as curator: originally a partner in a successful Houston architecture firm, he felt he needed both a change and a new challenge. After moving to Austin, Campa and his partner, Rene Ibarra, who is an advisor at Camiba, soon found themselves passionate about the city’s art and potential. While we wandered through the gallery, Campa discussed the space, the importance of regional art, and the reasons behind his career change.
Tell me a little bit about where you grew up and went to school, and how you got started.
I was born in Houston, grew up in Houston, and decided early on that I wanted to be an architect. Within a couple of years of working after college, I founded an architecture firm with one of my co-workers called Newberry Campa Architects. So pretty early in my life I was a business owner. Over 16 years we worked all over the world–I think we were pretty successful, and it was definitely a passion of mine.
So what happened?
In 2012 I decided that it was no longer my main passion. I was ready to do something new. That’s when I decided I need a break, and that’s when I moved to Austin.
What prompted that? Was there something specific, or was it just time for a change?
It was just time. We had designed this perfect house, and it was exactly what we wanted and close to both of our businesses and everything was just… almost too perfect. I’d gotten to that point where I loved my job, I loved my house, and things needed to be stirred up a little. We’d gotten a little too comfortable with life.
So what made this the change that you decided to go for?
I really moved here not knowing for sure what it was that I was going to be doing. Art was definitely a passion: My partner and I started collecting in earnest when we became a couple, and we were very involved in the art scene in Houston, and I said, “It would be neat if I could take that passion for art and making a living at it.”
Have you always been passionate about art?
I bought my first piece of art while I was at university and I got more passionate about it. As I lived with each one, I’d see another piece and think, “I need that piece too!” The collection started to grow out of that obsession: seeing a piece and saying, “I must have this, I need it more than new clothes or anything else.”
That’s when you know you’ve really gotta have it.
Exactly! Much to my partner’s dismay– “No really, we need new coats!” “No, we can patch those!” “I made a clear decision with my business partner when we opened the architecture firm, 18 years ago now, that we were not going to hide who we were. He is also gay and we both decided that that was an important factor of who we were, and if a client had a problem, it was going to be their problem, not our problem.” – Troy Campa
Has your sexuality ever affected your career?
“I made a clear decision with my business partner when we opened the architecture firm, 18 years ago now, that we were not going to hide who we were. He is also gay and we both decided that that was an important factor of who we were, and if a client had a problem, it was going to be their problem, not our problem.” – Troy Campa
My career has spanned a good amount of time, and I think that acceptance has come rather recently in general, especially in Texas where we tend to be slower about some things. I made a clear decision with my business partner when we opened the architecture firm, 18 years ago now, that we were not going to hide who we were. He is also gay and we both decided that that was an important factor of who we were, and if a client had a problem, it was going to be their problem, not our problem.
So in that sense I do think it’s played an important part because I’ve been able to be who I am, without being afraid of who I am. I’ve been able to focus on being creative and being the best at whatever business it is I try, instead of being afraid of being found out so I need to be careful about what I say or what I do. So in that way maybe being gay has affected me in the sense that I’m okay about being out about it. I think it has less and less significance, for most people, thankfully.
As it should be!
I think that’s a great thing about Austin in general. Houston was very accepting, but I was definitely in a bubble. We came to Austin as partners, and have never hidden it, and it’s been great how accepting it’s been as a city in general.
What was moving to Austin like?
First, I looked around the city for a niche I could fill. What I think I’m really good at is curating, putting pieces together, and making people see things that they might not necessarily see in a piece by itself, but that suddenly speaks more because you see it in contrast to something else. What I’d like to do is help people realize what a great resource we have here in town with local artists, how they all work from each other and work together, and how can we as a community can support them to create something beautiful.
Good question! How can we support them?
Well, I think a lot of it is buying their art! But it’s also about promoting art and educating people about it so they can then support the art in the way that best suits them.
So tell me a little more about Camiba Art. How would you describe it to somebody who’s never been to the gallery before?
It’s not your traditional square box gallery. It’s large so there’s a lot of space to curate, but it also has nooks and crannies that create opportunities for highlighting small pairings of works. I think it’s in a very vibrant part of town. There are a lot of new restaurants and new housing being built, and it’s very much a walking area–I get a lot of foot traffic, people just walking by see the sign and say, “Oh, an art gallery, let’s stop and see what’s inside.”
So what’s next? I know you originally signed a short lease on this place.
I’m a little nervous about anchoring down, being so new to the city, and also being so unsure of exactly what it is I’m going to be doing for the art community other than that I want to help strengthen it any way I can. I’ve done another short-term agreement for the property, so I’ll be here for at least another six months, and I’ll be doing a show about every two months.
In conjunction with that, I’m hoping to do some pop-ups around town in order to continue exploring different areas. That was always my goal with this place, that it was just a short-term thing and I’d move on to somewhere else, but this has worked out so well that I’m hesitant to give it up. I’m also looking at continuing to do these curated tours, like I did through the East Austin Studio Tour. I’ll definitely plan on doing it when the West Austin studio tours come up, but I’m also looking at doing it on a monthly or semi-monthly basis where I just pick four artists and say “on the second Saturday of every month, we’re going to go see these four artists.”
That sounds cool! I’d go on one of those.
I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses, so I think I’ll try that, maybe pick one gallery and three artist studios and have a box lunch and make a Saturday out of it. As I said, I’m still exploring the opportunities and trying to make connections and stay grounded.
You’re right though, it seems like Austin’s art scene is ready for someone to do whatever they want with it.
I think it’s ripe for development. I didn’t come to Austin to take somebody else’s job or take over what someone else has been building. I’m here to add my voice to what they’re doing. Austin needs more places with people who are focused on what they love, and they’re passionate about, and they’re going to make it happen. And that’s what I want to do with Camiba–I’m hoping to develop it into something that I’m passionate about, and other people see that passion and support me and support the artists that I’m supporting. And whether it turns into a full-time gallery or whether it’s always just pop-ups or whether it’s curated tours, I don’t know– right now it’s all those things! [laughs] But as people support me, and I figure out what works and what I enjoy and what brings the most support to the community, I’ll follow that.
Camiba Art, 2000 E. 6th St., is open Tuesdays 1pm to 6pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to5 pm. The current exhibtion “AusTEN,” with work from 10 local artists, runs through January 31. A closing reception is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 17 from 5:30pm to 8:30pm.
Interview by Janet Jay