GALVESTON — Elliot Lessing is here to ignite an arts renaissance on Galveston Island. He’s here for transformation, and nothing less will do.
“Art reminds us of life beyond the day-to-day, beyond the paycheck and meaningless tasks,” he said. “Art delivers the ways and means to confront the extraordinary truth that we are alive.”
The 50-year-old executive director — on the job now for three weeks — is charged with re-energizing the 28-year-old Galveston Arts Center to make it relevant and to plot its future.
“I want to lift the arts here into the 21st century and to produce something magical, something illuminating,” he said.
Lessing is tall and slender, equal parts energy and animation. He wears a dark blue suit jacket, a slim tie and bright blue-rimmed sunglasses.
Talking with him is like stepping into an alternate universe in which people are intensely self-aware and focused on achieving cosmic goals. He drinks his Italian cherry soda with relish. The red color pops against his blue suit.
“It’s my aspiration to blow your mind while digging deep to connect the island’s Bohemian past and the gritty realities of today’s world,” he said.
Lessing plans to bring dazzling contemporary art and visionary artists, stimulate experimental arts, create artist-in-residence and visiting artists programs, as well as a guest curatorial program. He wants to champion outdoor public art on the island to reach new audiences and introduce them to the power of art.
The immediate future includes a rebranding and complete overhaul of the arts center website while raising funds to move the Galveston Arts Center into the 1878 First National Bank Building, 2127 Strand, where it was housed for decades.
Damage from Hurricane Ike and the strains of age made the building uninhabitable and in need of a complete, expensive renovation.
“Palace Revolution,” the show Lessing is curating, opens Saturday at the current ats center at 2501 Market St. It features a slew of international and national artists who have not presented work in Galveston before, including former Texan Bill Barminski from Los Angeles, Lisa Kirk from New York, David Gremard Romero from Mexico, Claire Fontaine from Paris, Sarah Castillo from San Antonio and Paul Moore from Belfast. It promises to be the art center’s first step toward a spectrum of contemporary art exhibitions.
A palace revolution is a soft to nonviolent regime change, something of a metaphor for his new role in the arts program.
“It’s the big switch, the opportunity to transcend,” Lessing said. “On the surface, the exhibition is about surface politics, but it aims to go deeper to the primal and more elegant sources for transformation and change.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Lessing comes to Galveston from San Francisco, where he graduated in 2000 from the San Francisco Art Institute with a BFA in Interdisciplinary Studies.
During the next dozen years, he curated more than 300 contemporary art exhibitions, performances, screenings, outdoor projects and live events in alternative and outdoor settings in San Francisco and Brooklyn, N.Y.
A few of his projects include:
• “Geektique,” which presented unusual personal collections, exhibited on customized displays. The collectors discussed their collections and interests with attendees.
• “Cakewalk,” a community project that invited local artists and food artisans to design edible sculptural cakes. Local dance companies offered free performances and on-site dance lessons.
• “Shine,” a San Francisco Art Walk, featuring performance art, new exhibitions at 25 galleries and music.
• “Open Skies,” a weekend-long outdoor arts festival, featuring site-specific installations, performance and workshops developed for 10 San Francisco public parks.
“People ask me, How do you do this?” he said. “And I say, just do it. I come from the New Wave/Punk Do-It-Yourself philosophy of transcending limitations and making it happen.”
He’s hoping that Galvestonians will lend their support.
“I’m enlisting help from all corners,” he said. “I want the support of the board and the staff, that’s critical, of course. But ultimately, I work for the public. The public is my boss. When I work for the community, I fire on all cylinders. I’m not just asking for support. I want to know how I can support you.
“Art is an adventure of discovery, the discovery of yourself and the people around you,” he said. “Vital art is alive with surprises, hope and possibilities. In our world, it’s so easy to become disconnected. To wonder, how does this work? We look to the arts to draw profound conclusions so ultimately: We can be free.”