The Mac-inations

The McKinney Avenue Contemporary has survived a turbulent birth, but its artistic mission remains more confused than cutting-edge

The man should be relaxing in a calm bath, but his hand is gripping the soap dish. There's a coffee mug on the edge of the tub, and a bathmat spread out neatly beside it. The man is wearing a watch. There is a toaster resting on his lap. The toaster is plugged into a big timer. It won't be long before the man is toast.

Life is a risky business, as this photograph from The Art of Suicide, showing at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, illustrates. And art is a risky business, too, as the brief but twisted history of the MAC itself illustrates. In the beginning, the MAC was very nearly burned by bad management, a confused identity, and financial crises, but Dallas' wannabe alternative venue finally seems to have the odds in its favor. Two years after its founding, the MAC has found steady financial footing with the help of a matching grant from the scion of one of Dallas' most famous philanthropic families. And it has returned to its grassroots, with its programming being planned by an Artist Advisory Committee, as it was when "the MAC" still meant "DARE." Not D.A.R.E. the drug counseling program (although the MAC still receives frequent misguided phone calls for help with someone's cocaine abuse). DARE, in the art scene, stands for Dallas Artists Research and Exhibit. Confused? Don't worry. So is almost everyone connected with the MAC. Its financial future may seem secure--at least no one is questioning the MAC's survival, the way they were a year ago--but its mission and its modus operandi still seem more confused and contradictory than cutting-edge.

Greg Metz conjectures that this "may be the MAC's signature--no one knows what's going on." Metz founded DARE, the arts advocacy organization that was the original programming entity for the MAC, and he was DARE's president for five years, from the days when it met on members' living room floors, through the triumphant Texas Biennial show at Fair Park, to its agreement with the MAC, its eventual permanent home. And though the move to the MAC seemed inevitable--"DARE was an orphan; we were tired and homeless," he says--the grassroots group was subsumed by the MAC and is now virtually extinct. Still, its influence and ideas linger. The MAC's Artist Advisory Committee, which currently plans all programming, is DARE's legacy.

The MAC, that purple brick building on McKinney you've always wondered about, is owned by businessman and art collector Claude Albritton and his family, who paid for its redesign, leased it to DARE for a dollar a year, and then contributed $100,000 a year in operating expenses for each of the first two years. When DARE moved into the MAC, there was trepidation on both sides. Albritton was afraid of a financial black hole, and DARE members were fearful of the strings that are usually attached to money, of losing artistic control. As it turned out, both fears were justified. Metz says now, "We got a high-powered board going, but it wanted to control the Artist Advisory Committee." And Albritton's two-year programming grant, under the management of the MAC's first and former curator, Victoria Corcoran, had disappeared by the end of the first year.

"Here, direct from Hungary, is the expert mud wrestler, monster truck driver, and star of Tim Conway's golfing video. Please welcome...Dr. Rick Brettell!"

The small group gathered in a room at Cafe Society was still drinking wine and chatting when the introduction was made for Rick Brettell, Dallas bad boy, art raconteur, and scholar. He was there to talk about The Art of Suicide and, by the way, stump a little for the MAC. Besides all the activities involved in being the world's leading Pissarro scholar, this is what Brettell does. His official MAC title is board vice-president in charge of programming, but you could as easily sum up his job as MAC staff art evangelist. When asked about Brettell's connection to the MAC, Claude Albritton describes him as "Sneelock," referring to the ringmaster character in Dr. Seuss' If I Ran the Circus. (That, of course, implies that the MAC is the Circus McGurkus; Albritton admits it's been a three-ring circus since it opened.)

"The MAC is programmed by a committee," begins Brettell. "Which a lot of people think is a terrible idea, but it means the MAC is artist-driven again." He's leaning forward on the stool, and evidently, someone just pushed his "on" button. Famous for his charisma, his knowledge, his command, and his charm, Brettell seems most comfortable when he's the center of attention.

"The academic art world is necessarily interested in success," he says. And he goes into a fervent explanation of the MAC: "We wanted a place small enough physically and small enough budget-wise so it didn't have to be afraid to fail. If you have to succeed, you have to play it safe and dull." He points out the contrived synergy of Dallas' official Arts District as an example, where a cluster of multi-million-dollar institutions exist as physical neighbors only.

The MAC, it's been said many times before, is intended to be a mini-arts district under one roof, with the visual arts, theater, dance, and literature all nourishing, energizing, and cross-fertilizing one another. It's a great idea, but it hasn't really worked that way, just as the MAC isn't always as fluid and experimental as it's supposed to be. The theater, for example, could be a place for fledgling theater groups to have a secure home for a year and get their act together. Instead, the MAC is landlord to a resident theater company, Kitchen Dog. Still, "synergy" remains a favorite word at the MAC, although even Albritton's sidekick and board president, Jeff West, admits, "We haven't achieved synergy yet," and Dan Day, founder and artistic director of Kitchen Dog Theater, is more than a little fuzzy as to whether that's even a goal of his company.

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