When I found Esther Kim Varet in the Joule hotel lobby on a Wednesday afternoon last month, she was packing her bags to move from a leather banquette to a short table and lounge chairs. “This has become my living room,” she says with a laugh. She was in town for just two days to do a series of interviews and studio visits, and to make any last-minute changes to the build-out of the newest location of Various Small Fires, her popular Los Angeles gallery, which opens on the ground floor of the Joule on April 22.
Kim Varet always intended to expand to other cities. The gallery’s name, borrowed from a 1964 book by American pop artist Ed Ruscha, was also meant to imply potential for hybrid regionality. Each new location has deep roots in her identity. She picked Seoul because she is Korean American and Dallas because she grew up here. She says she’s not chasing the art market, but it doesn’t hurt that she seems to have connections to up-and-coming hot spots.
“The gallery is not about the philosophy of one individual; I never wanted it to be Esther’s gallery,” Kim Varet says. “It’s much more about the philosophy of our generation.”
Kim Varet grew up in Dallas, attending Trinity Christian Academy from kindergarten through 12th grade before pursuing her interest in art history, first at Yale University and eventually earning her Ph.D. at Columbia University. She knew early on that she wanted to open an art gallery. In her 20s, she started a gallery with several friends in New York City, which is how she became the inspiration for the character Soojin in the hit HBO show Girls.
Kim Varet started VSF in Los Angeles in 2012 with her husband, Joseph. She proved to be ahead of the curve, as the gallery world has since become bicoastal in no small part thanks to blue-chip galleries Sprüth Magers and Hauser & Wirth’s western expansions in 2016 and the addition of the Los Angeles edition of Frieze Art Fair three years ago. Then Kim Varet rode the wave to Seoul, arriving in 2019, alongside the galleries of Lehmann Maupin, Pace and Perrotin. And now, Kim Varet sees potential in Dallas, a city she’s had a relationship with since childhood but became re-acquainted with over the years when she brought VSF to the Dallas Art Fair.
For Kim Varet, this is more than just a homecoming. It’s also a way to spur a conversation about what Texas artists mean to the contemporary art world at large. The gallery’s first exhibition, “Texan,” will take place in two chapters, the first showcasing established artists from what she calls the “Texas diaspora” who have made a historical mark. They include abstract painter Jeff Elrod and Aaron Curry, a sculptor and painter. The following exhibition will run from May 28 to June 25 and include younger artists like Sarah Zapata, Puppies Puppies and Diedrick Brackens.
“These are two generations who are radical in their own ways,” Kim Varet says. “Both are exploring the expansions of new technologies, but the younger artists are really exploring and deconstructing ideas about identity, or queerness, or the other. Our argument is that one generation couldn’t really have come without the other.”
To manage the space, she hired longtime Galleri Urbane director of exhibitions Adrian Zuñiga, who says he’s excited about the impact this space will have on the local scene.
“I think it’s the right time in this city for a gallery like this to come along,” Zuñiga says.
The Various Small Fires gallery will open April 22 in the Joule hotel, 1530 Main St., Dallas, with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m.