Kelly Cornell is a creative through and through. From childhood crafts to paintings to handbags for her line, Desert Hide, she’s been making things her entire life. Now she’s making a name for herself as director of the Dallas Art Fair. A one-time intern, Cornell worked her way up to her current position thanks to smarts, savvy and plenty of passion.
Though she’s adjusting to life as a brand-new mom—these days, she enjoys making baby clothes for 7-month-old Frances—Cornell remains focused on her professional mission of putting the Dallas arts scene on the international map.
Lives in: Oak Cliff
Hails from: Dallas
Significant other: Jack Cornell, artist
Children: Frances, 7 months old
Alma mater: Southern Methodist University, with majors in painting and arts management
Hobbies: Shopping estate sales, cooking, baking, running and taking walks with the family dogs
Go-to restaurants: Nova, Jalisco Norte, Lee Harvey’s, Sassetta
One-on-One with Kelly Cornell
DFWChild: Did you always want to work in the arts?
Kelly Cornell: I studied art in school and always loved it. But I thought it was far-fetched to work in art, so I feel very fortunate to do something I love. Being involved with artists and keeping up with art has been really rewarding.
C: Do you still have time to create?
KC: Now that I have Frances, I find myself sewing more, making her clothes and doing crafty things for her. I’ve always loved textile work and think sewing can be more rewarding than painting, because you get a product quickly.
C: How did Desert Hide come about?
KC: That was the brainchild of my husband and I. It started as a leather company, with the goal of eventually making it a lifestyle brand. We’ve taken a little break but are starting to gear up again.
C: From intern to director—what do you credit your progression to?
KC: Working with great bosses. The industry is relationship based, so making those relationships and growing them over the past six years was huge. My job ranges from relationships to sales to finances. As an art student, I never thought I would touch numbers, but I enjoy that part of it, too.
C: You work all year toward the fair. What do your days leading up to it look like?
KC: October to April is when we’re the busiest. We have tons of outreach events and do all sorts of event planning, gallery visits, content editing and business lunches—a little bit of everything.
C: What impact do you hope to make through the Dallas Art Fair?
KC: I want to continue to elevate the arts in Dallas. We’ve traveled to Italy and have talked to galleries that are aware of the Dallas arts scene. We want to continue that footprint and make sure Dallas is known as an international art city across the world—because it is.
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C: How do you hope to cultivate art appreciation in Frances?
KC: She did her first painting when she was 5 months old. I put paints on a canvas, wrapped it in plastic wrap and let her rub it all over. She’s definitely going to have her fair share of daily crafts. We’re already thinking about schools; it’s very important that art is an integral part of her education. Our goal is to raise a well-rounded adult—I don’t care if she’s involved in art, but I want her to have an appreciation of it.
C: When did you and Jack know you wanted to become parents?
KC: We were beginning to talk about having kids…then it turned out I was pregnant. We were very surprised! The timing wasn’t ideal, since the art fair was in April and she was born March 7. It was difficult, but I brought her along. We set up a nursery in the office and the grandmas rotated. It worked for us.
C: How are you balancing work with a new baby?
KC: We have a nanny who comes three days a week. Next week, we’ll be starting Parents Day Out at The Kessler School, and the other day will be divided up between the grandmas. I wanted the grandparents to be involved but didn’t want them to be raising her. What we have right now works.
C: What’s been most challenging about life with a new baby?
KC: Weeks three to five of having a newborn were difficult. You’re past that initial shock and the deep loss of sleep sets in. Figuring out breastfeeding was challenging, and during months three and four, we went through a brutal sleep regression.
C: With a new baby in the house, have you and Jack struggled to stay connected?
KC: It hasn’t been that difficult for us. We’ll put her down for bed and then eat dinner. Sometimes it’s difficult to talk about anything besides her, but I think it’s healthy, so we try to.
C: What kind of mom would you describe yourself to be?
KC: I’m laid back and go with the flow. I let the dogs lick her face!
C: Where do you see your career in five years?
KC: We’re hoping to grow the fair even more and expand our program. We also hope to have a pop-up gallery space that will operate year-round. I feel lucky because I really do love my job—it’s different and challenging every day. I don’t see myself being bored of it anytime soon.
C: And Desert Hide will continue to grow…
KC: Yeah, we’re hoping to be able to put more attention toward it. It’s one of those things that’s a real labor of love. I’d like to do children’s clothing—it’s so much fun making baby clothes. We dress Frances in a boho style, and I’d like to make more clothes like that.
C: With so much going on, how do you take time for yourself?
KC: One of my favorite things to do is go to the grocery store by myself or go get my nails done. I think it’s important to take out that time. One of my biggest fears about motherhood was losing myself. I’ve seen it happen and didn’t want to lose myself—I still wanted to be goofy and go out with friends.
C: Since Frances was born, have you gone out with friends?
KC: One thing that’s been really hard about parenthood is you realize which friends are going to be there. Your friendships change—your group changes. You have to find other people that go to bed at 8pm, but it’s all good.
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Jessica Nowitzki, president of the Dirk Nowitzki Foundation, former associate director of The Goss-Michael Foundation
Andrea Karnes, senior curator of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
The article was originally published in October 2018.
Photography by Carter Rose