January 2016 Feature: KEN GENERAL
Ken General is the founder and director of The Duende Art Project in Houston, Texas. Founded in fall 2014, The Duende Art Project is a philanthropic gallery that supports creatives from all over the world and donates a percentage of all purchases to charitable causes.
The Duende Art Project has organized the TX30 exchange between Houston and Busan, South Korea; the Texas Abstract exhibition at Galveston Arts Center, and several solo and pop-up exhibitions in collaboration with BLUEorange Contemporary. Upcoming events include a solo show featuring printmaker Kathleen Clark, opening on January 9.
Janna Añonuevo Langholz: Hi Ken! Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up and what brought you to Houston?
Ken General: Hello there. Well, my name is Ken General and I am the founder of The Duende Art Project amongst other roles in the Houston art community. I am also on the board of directors for PrintMatters Houston, a 501c3 arts organization, and the creative director for Arts+Culture TX magazine.
I grew up everywhere. I was born in Manila, Philippines but much of my family is from a small island called Biri off the northern coast of Samar. When I was 4, my mother remarried and since my step-dad was in the U.S. Navy, we moved to Yokosuka, Japan where I spent most of my childhood until I was 11 years old. My family and I moved to the U.S. in 1993 where we lived north of Chicago then eventually settled in in a small town in northern Indiana called Elkhart – not too far from Notre Dame.
After graduating from Indiana University with degrees in printmaking and art history, I worked as an assistant in a contemporary art gallery, which unfortunately then closed its doors due to the economic collapse. Shortly after a year of working in a factory warehouse, I saved some money, packed my essentials into my car, and drove down to Houston (about 5 years ago) to begin my career in the arts as a curator/director.
JAL: How did The Duende Art Project get started?
KG: It’s something I’ve always done but never had a name for it. While in college I exhibited my artwork and gave portions of my sales to charitable causes. When my last job as director for an art gallery in Houston ended with my boss’s retirement, I decided to take another chance pursuing my projects and continue adding to Houston’s art community. I came from an extremely humble beginning and am fortunate to have found my way to where I currently am with an opportunity to go even further. If a kid from the poor streets of the Philippines can graduate from a major university and build his career as a professional artist, curator, and leader in the art community of the 4th largest city in the U.S….just think what other children can do if given a chance.
So instead of doing this on my own with my own artwork, I involve others. I partner with artist friends that I believe make incredible art that should be seen by as many people as possible. I highlight a growing list of charities, that portions of art sales are donated to, thanks to patrons from all over world. The more people that participate in the project, the more good we can do together.
JAL: How did you decide to name your project after duende? My mother used to tell me stories about the duende as a forest-dwelling spirit or ghost; does the name reference this character in Filipino folklore?
KG: Duende, in terms of art, is a Spanish-Latin word describing a state of heightened being and the mysterious power of art to touch/inspire/move a person’s soul.
It was used frequently by the Spanish poet, Francisco Garcia Lorca. My belief is that every piece of art should have duende in it, because if it doesn’t then it’s not art.
JAL: How did you transition from printmaking to becoming a gallery director and philanthropist?
KG: I took a moment to ask myself what makes me happy and then decided to follow it. I knew I had the ability to become a successful gallery director because I had experience in college, organizing and curating exhibitions while I was vice-president of the university’s fine arts student association. So it was merely a matter of making the decision to pursue something new and believing I could do it.
After showing my work and even having my work collected by university departments and international museums/art centers, I started at the bottom of this new career when I moved to Houston. I interned at the Lawndale Art Center, worked part-time at the MFAH (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), and part-time at an art gallery. At one point I did all three at the same time. Eventually my skills and dedication were rewarded with promotions that eventually made me gallery director for a major art gallery in Houston.
When my boss retired and the gallery closed, I did the same thing again. I took a moment to ask myself what makes me happy and then took a chance on myself rather than work for another commercial art gallery. It’s not easy and there are plenty of tests, but that’s what makes life fun and interesting. I made more money working at a cabinet factory warehouse before starting Duende Art Project, but when you’re building something meaningful it requires patience and dedication.
JAL: If you received a MacArthur Genius Grant tomorrow to support your work, how would you spend it?
KG: I would continue doing what I do, but on a larger scale and employ a staff to help me accomplish more in less time. I would involve more artists, have more exhibitions in more locations around the world, and partner with more charities. Maybe eventually attract the attention of Bono and Warren Buffet and ask them to help out. The more people involved, the more good can be shared. If it all goes well, hopefully I can build a school or start a scholarship program for children in the poorest parts of the world as well.
JAL: What kind of work do you like to look at and who are some of your favorite artists?
KG: My taste in art evolves because I evolve so I don’t have a set of favorite artists. I enjoy learning about other forms of art. I approach art like I approach people. There are all sorts of different kinds with their own stories and that’s great, but the best ones to me are the ones that are genuine. The ones that have duende if you will.
JAL: What advice would to give to someone reading this to better support his or her local art community?
KG: Go out there and be supportive. Netflix can wait. And don’t be afraid to buy your first piece of art! A good place to start is with talented emerging artists that are starting their way. One of the saddest things I see is when a young talented artist gives up on their art career before it even starts because people looked but never asked.
Visit The Duende Art Project at: