The museum in Arlington

Arlington Museum of Art offers a suburban haven for contemporary art

Several years ago, the Arlington Museum of Art made a decision to be a museum--without a permanent collection. The AMA sent it's small collection away in what you might call a fire sale.

"It wasn't an important collection," museum director Joan Davidow recalls, "so what the board opted to do was to see that everything was framed and we donated it to the city police and fire department offices. We even did the installation."

She doesn't mourn the loss. "There is so much good art being done right here in Texas. There's actually a lot of freedom in not owning."

Davidow, who is celebrating her fifth year as curator of the AMA, acknowledges that the word "museum" causes some confusion for many people who expect a museum to have a permanent collection. "The definition of 'museum' is 'a repository of artwork,'" she says. "We are a contemporary museum, noncollecting, with a focus on Texas art."

Hunkered down in the middle of what many people consider an artistic and intellectual wasteland--the Midcities suburbs--the AMA struggles to challenge expectations. Housed in a discreet, white 1950s-modern building that was formerly a J.C. Penney department store, the 20,000-square-foot space provides lots of natural light, tall ceilings, and an attractive mezzanine conducive to the display of art. More importantly, "We almost own the building," Davidow says. "We're only $50,000 shy."

A nearby wall displays the list of donors who contributed to the $60,000 that the Arlington Art Association, renamed the Arlington Museum of Art in 1990, initially paid on the $150,000 mortgage in 1987. "I don't think you had to give very much money to get your name on that wall," she says, laughing.

Yet, from the very beginning the museum's mission has been to showcase contemporary art, a revolutionary idea for a small bedroom community whose residents might be more comfortable with traditional landscapes and figure-painting.

"I think of the general art audience as a triangle," Davidow says, steepling her fingers. "You have people who are interested in traditional art and Impressionism and representational art, and they're all filling the base of the pyramid. At the very top are people interested in contemporary art. It's the smallest part of an already small group. These are the people who are interested in the things that we show."

The limited size of her audience doesn't discourage Davidow, because she's focused on the future, busy educating the audience she has and trying to build a new audience of museum goers among the community's young people.

"Arlington has a population of about 280,000 people," she says, "and last year, we probably had between 10 and 12 thousand visitors through here." This figure is small compared to the hundreds of thousands who visit the Dallas Museum of Art each year (or the Sports Gallery at the Ballpark in Arlington, for that matter), but the museum is growing. In the past five years, the AMA's annual operating budget has grown from $75,000 to $235,000, most of which it raises itself.

"I call what I do 'refined begging,'" Davidow says. "Reduced government funding means that I have to knock on different doors." Yet, only 13 percent of the museum's budget actually comes from government sources. This includes money from the Texas Commission on the Arts (which distributes NEA money), the Arts Council of Fort Worth & Tarrant County, and the city of Arlington.

The museum's single greatest source of income is the public. "I'll raise 25 percent of my budget at our annual art auction," Davidow says. And private and corporate contributions count for a fair share. Beyond that, the museum gets creative, hosting an extremely popular haunted house in its basement every Halloween, a 5K run, and a pottery sale.

Davidow considers one of her biggest tasks to be developing a larger museum audience. "I believe that everything I do is about education. People have to feel comfortable when they come here in order to come back."

One of the things she does to educate her visitors is to document each exhibition with a video interview of the artist. Drawing on her six years of experience as an art critic for public radio, Davidow follows the artist through the show, interviewing him about his work while visitors follow along and ask questions.

"People often don't know how to talk to artists. They feel that they don't have the right background or the right vocabulary or the experience, so what we're doing is building all that," she says. "People learn to have their own way of looking at art that is curious from their own point of view, and they learn that that's acceptable."

Davidow was working as the interim contemporary curator at the Dallas Museum of Art when she was approached about directing the new museum in Arlington.

"When I took this position, a colleague said, 'You're going to use your radio work in your new position.' I said, 'Oh, don't be silly. There's no way.'" But now Davidow is enjoying the documentary process and makes the videotaped interviews available to museum visitors. She has even acquired a wireless microphone, prompting one friend to dub her the "Oprah Winfrey of the Art World."

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