Among the presses, workshops, galleries, and classes that take place in the Flatbed compound off Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd is CAMIBAart gallery. On the Saturday that I met with Troy Campa, the sound of conversation from a workshop down the hall drifted into the gallery space. People walked by on their way to their studios or to look at the art on display through the building and occasionally dropped into CAMIBA.
Campa was looking for the next stage in life when he and his partner, Rene Ibarra, moved to Austin after selling their dream home in Houston, Texas. They established CAMIBAart, the name a combination of the first three letters of their last names, in 2014.
“Ultimately, I was looking at myself in my mid forties — I had a company that was at 15 employees and growing, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be part of it,” says Campa. “I knew I didn’t want to be 20 years down the road and still doing what I was doing. Still staying up late at night worrying about how I’m going to feed the employees and keep going. So that is just where I was like, okay, if I’m going to do something different, now’s the time to do it. When I’m still young enough to be able to create something new and be successful at it before I need to start slowing down.”
Campa grew up in northern Houston. The family later moved to Conroe, a small town 45 minutes north of downtown Houston, where his parents and brother still reside.
“The Menil Collection had these free seminars, one Thursday a month they would do a lecture around ideas of collecting. How do you know what style is your style? Or how do you start a collection? How do you insure a collection?” describes Campa. “That’s what really planted the seed that you can own art, it doesn’t just have to be at a museum. So I started buying art. My first art piece was a piece I bought from a street artist in New Orleans. It was something I had seen on a trip and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. But it was $120 and I just didn’t have $120 to spend on it. I had no way of contacting that artist, so the next few trips, I would go around the streets looking for that artist. After several times, I found her again.”
However, art isn’t Campa’s first love.
“I always knew I wanted to be an architect from a very young age,” describes Campa. “I had this hobby or passion for drawing house plans. I would go through the newspaper, and I was so fascinated with that section of the newspaper. I started drawing my own house plans when I was eight or nine years old.”
Campa studied architecture at Texas A&M and spent eight years in College Station. After some degree olympics, he graduated with a bachelor of environmental design/architecture with a focus on historic preservation and a minor in elementary education. When he returned to Houston, he took odd jobs until he was able to get a part-time position as a student intern at the firm of his landlord, Ken Newberry. He worked up from there and eventually left with Newberry to start their own firm.
“We became very successful very fast,” Campa says. “If I would have been a little older, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I would have known how much that would have tied me down. After being involved in the firm for several years, I realized I’m never leaving Houston. This is it. I’m locked in. I have a company. I have employees that rely on me. And I felt very trapped.”
Campa and Ibarra made a list of potential places to move, cities from Vancouver to Mexico City. The cities inched back toward Texas, and they eventually landed in Austin. Campa didn’t rush into any new projects. He took a year to figure out what the next step would be — only sure of one thing: it would be something in the arts. Experimenting, Campa decided to do a pop-up exhibition and rented a space in Flatbed.
“I sold a piece on my very first day. The show hadn’t even opened. The opening was that night,” says Campa. “Then I did a pop up show at the space on East Sixth.”
The luck of selling a work quickly gave Campa reason to regularly put together exhibitions at his East Sixth Street location. And though Campa’s optimism keeps him going, he faces the uncertainty that every gallery not bankrolled by angel funds must face.
“I like supporting artists. I would love for every artist to be able to support themselves. And if there is a way that I can personally help them do that, that’s great,” says Campa. “I’m just not sure selling art is the way because I’m not good at it. And I think I’m getting better, but if I’m gonna get better fast enough, I don’t know. I was under the impression that if I worked hard to sell art that the sales would come and it’s not necessarily that easy. Especially here in Austin. It’s really funny because I can find myself getting buyers from out of Austin much easier that I can get buyers in Austin. It’s frustrating.”
However frustrating, Campa is not yet ready to call it quits.
“For me it is running a business, and I see it as a second career — a way for me to make a living by doing something else I am in love with,” describes Campa. “But I’m also open to breaking the mold on what the business model looks like so that I can do that. So the gallery may not be in the form of a traditional gallery in the sense that it’s not only the gallery. It may have other operations that happen that tie into the gallery. And I think that’s necessary and I think that’s part of my entrepreneurial spirit. I’m willing to look at these things and not say, ‘Oh I can’t make it as a gallery, let’s close up.’ I don’t look at it that way. I say, ‘Maybe it’s too hard to make it just as a gallery, but maybe we can make it as a gallery and something else.’”