Presa House Gallery in San Antonio, Texas focuses on Latinx artists across south Texas, the Rio Grande region, and Mexico—and skirts that whole “artists-must-make-sales” model.
A hallway, a house, a launchpad for a growing community of artists. This is the abbreviated story of Presa House Gallery, one of San Antonio’s pivotal art galleries that celebrated its five-year anniversary in October 2021.
Presa House describes itself as “a DIY, artist-run house gallery” that hosts monthly art exhibitions featuring “notable regional, national, and international visual artists.” Located in San Antonio’s Lavaca Historic District in a 1,306-square-foot home from the 1940s, the gallery was founded and is owned by artist/designer and director Rigoberto Luna and photographer/multidisciplinary artist Jenelle Esparza.
Voted Best Art Gallery in San Antonio Magazine’s Best of the City 2020 Readers’ Poll, Presa House is home to a lively, supportive spirit of promoting emerging creative talent. Luna and Esparza operate Presa House under an event-driven model, meaning that they showcase music, poetry, film, and more alongside exhibiting works by visual artists. With a lineup that focuses on Latinx artists across south Texas, the Rio Grande region, and Mexico, the focus is always looking out for and nurturing artists and their work, in all its forms.
“It can be really difficult when you’re from either a border region, or maybe a southern Texas area, or a small city, or something like that. If you’re an artist, it can be difficult to grow outside of that area or show outside of that place,” says Esparza. “And so [Luna] has worked hard to provide that for artists. And we’ve been fortunate to meet such talented people in all those regions. It’s been great that they’ve become part of our little gallery family.”
Esparza, who plays a support role at Presa House, says, “The style is very DIY, very community-driven. I want to support that because I see how important it is. I kind of pop in and pop out when I’m needed.” And while she is quick to credit Luna as the driving force behind the gallery, she manages vital operational components such as the financial matters. She also serves as the in-house photographer, documenting and tracking the exhibitions and events for the gallery’s archives.
Presa House started out as a hallway gallery inside a hair salon next door to their current location at 725 South Presa Street. The salon owner, a friend of Luna’s from a family in the neighborhood, recognized the importance of the arts and the value of a supportive, generative arts community. When Luna asked if the salon could host exhibitions in the hallway space, it was an easy sell, so to speak. Although the hallway shows were fun, well-received, and attention-gaining, he explains that a long-term plan wasn’t necessarily the plan—or even the point.
“It was a humble start. I don’t think there’s any way we imagined we would be here this long,” he says.
Luna curated Esparza’s works into one of those early hallway gallery shows. The two artists found that they worked well together, began programming the space, and have built its program and reputation since.
After the first few years of presenting exhibitions and programming, then relocating to the house, Luna and Esparza decided to simply go all in, recognizing that they did, indeed, have a full-fledged gallery in the works. Their first challenge was creating a system of scheduling to present shows on a regular basis, a consistency that seemed vital in terms of continuing to establish trust among artists and the public alike.
In addition to working as independent creatives, both owners have day jobs: Luna as exhibitions graphics specialist and art handler at the San Antonio Museum of Art (he was also the curatorial assistant and exhibitions coordinator of the 2020 Texas Biennial), and Esparza as education coordinator at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. And that’s the real hustle, they say.
Although Presa House is not organized as a nonprofit, any proceeds from sales (the gallery takes a small commission) go right back into programming and paying the rent, utilities, and other basic costs of running the space.
The two explain, however, that they don’t want to pressure any of the artists about sales because making money wasn’t the purpose of opening Presa House. “We didn’t really do it for any sort of financial goal. We were just trying to support the artists who we felt should be given an opportunity to show,” says Luna. “Emerging artists are very talented and need a space where they can exhibit their work, not just here in San Antonio. We can provide a platform and make them more visible.”
The success of the gallery is because of the freedom artists have to do what they want to do in the space, whether visual art, installation, performance, or other creative forms.
For example, recent shows include Four Rooms in which Jennifer Arnold, Alexandria Conchola, Lauri Garcia Jones, and Audrey LeGalley each had a dedicated space to transform into a series of installations. And for but always near poets, andie flores, a visual and performance artist, writer, and comedian, created an immersive new-media installation using her family’s old Sony Hi8 films to reexamine key moments from her formative years.
To accommodate these solo and group exhibitions and more, the gallery spans the entire house with three main exhibition spaces, a backroom, plus the hallway, which harkens to the gallery’s early days in the salon hallway, funky lighting system and all. A small bar area displays artworks hung salon-style and serves as an homage of sorts to the old local watering holes of the 1990s that artists would frequent.
Presa House also includes a performance space, a necessity for Luna considering that the majority of the art spaces where he has worked lacked the ability to present music performances, poetry readings, film screenings, and similar.
He explains that Presa House matches such programming with the type of work on view in order to highlight the numerous talents of artists and to appeal to numerous interests.
“There’s no recipe or ultimate model. It’s seeing these artists take off and go on to do bigger things, knowing that it came out of Presa House,” says Luna. “It’s a jumping-off point. And yeah, it’s extremely gratifying to watch them succeed.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Presa House, like many (if not all) art spaces, had to figure out how to stay visible and accessible—not just for artists but for patrons and collectors. As a result, Luna implemented online sales, curbside pick-up, and virtual 360-degree gallery tours created by artist Nain León. The gallery is also active on Artsy as a sales platform. These strategies, coupled with the support they had already gained through a strong exhibition program, resulted in the support they need to keep going.
For 2022, Luna is working on an exhibition in Albuquerque, coordinated by Vicente Telles, which will take place in August at Exhibit/208, Tortuga Gallery, and El Chante: Casa de Cultura with works primarily by artists from San Antonio, San Diego, and New Mexico. Presa House is presenting sixteen of their artists.
As Luna and Esparza move forward with exhibitions, programming, personal projects, and identifying additional ways to support their community, the initial reasons that jumpstarted Presa House in 2016 still motivate them today. “We’re always looking.”