The Mac-inations

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

But at the MAC, it's OK to be fuzzy. "There's no clearly defined message--everything is open for discussion between the public and the MAC and even between ourselves," Brettell says. "The MAC's not about received ideas."

Dressed in professorial brown jacket and hush puppies, sipping red wine, an exuberant Brettell engages in a dialogue with the group, and his remarks about suicide and art are punctuated with bursts of contagious, red-faced laughter. He uses no notes, but then, tonight he's preaching to the choir. His audience is Lisa Taylor, who does public relations for the MAC; Albritton and his wife, Susan, who sits on the board of Kitchen Dog Theater; a visiting museum director, a friend of Brettell's who is curating a show for the MAC; and three or four others who look to be art students. Brettell gets happy and starts smiling as he describes William Scarborough's suicide machines as "cheerful."

"The bright green of the disembowelment machine is the precise complement of the bright red blood that will obviously result from its use," he gushes. "It's gonna look great!" He segues from an examination of the art in the MAC to an explication of the MAC itself, as if the institution were a collaborative work of art. "The suicide show is about a serious subject, but it's not a serious show," he says. His point: "That's another thing the MAC can do that other institutions can't--be funny.

"Artists and the art community tend to prefer aesthetic questions and philosophic questions," he says. "The MAC is trying to engage a larger world than the little art world."

When the conversation turns to the "Scrub" performance piece that was presented in conjunction with the killing machines, Albritton stands, drink in hand, to make his point, stealing the spotlight from Brettell as he describes the technological difficulties of the piece. For a minute, this cafe society has turned into a MAC board meeting, and everyone is drawn into the landlord's view of what could be improved, discussing which glitches in the performance were the artists' problems and which were difficulties with the MAC's facilities. Brettell sums up by saying, "Well, it's a work in progress. And so is the MAC.

"What's good about the MAC is what's the trouble with the MAC," Brettell declares after his official informal address has ended. That is, the MAC has its roots in DARE, a group of artists that had lived up to its acronym and audaciously boycotted the Beaux Arts Ball, the Dallas Museum of Art's fundraiser, seven years ago. For years, the social queens that ruled DMA fundraising had solicited donations of local artists' work for the high-dollar Beaux Arts Silent Auction, without offering any reciprocity--no cash, no DMA exhibit of North Texas artists; usually, not even tickets to the gala society event.

Surprisingly for DARE, Brettell, DMA director at the time, backed it in its refusal to donate art to the museum which offered Texas artists little recognition and no money, and he instituted the artist advisory committee at the DMA that was part of the manifesto DARE had presented. "Brettell actually welcomed us and wanted our energy. He acted as an advocate for DARE," recalls Metz. He still sounds surprised.

DARE was founded as an advocacy organization about art issues and the community of artists. It evolved at a time when the art market had crashed, when the NEA was being strangled. DARE's secondary mandate was to present "new" art in all its disciplines. Pam Nelson, a Dallas artist who serves on the MAC's Artist Advisory Committee and was a founding member of DARE, explains, "Dallas artists don't see a lot of stuff that artists in other cities do. We wanted to see contemporary art that was too raw for DMA to show. We didn't have an exhibit schedule in mind, but we wanted to show our own work along with work from other places."

If the MAC had started slower and evolved more in "real time," there might have been fewer expectations. But, says Nelson, "We did the 'Dallas deal.' We got a big, beautiful building, and then you have to try to fill it with art. It's harder to live up to. You have to think big budget. DARE went from the living room floor to a big building very quickly."

DARE was the entity; the MAC was the building. "And their missions weren't identical," MAC board member Nancy Whitenack, owner of Conduit Gallery, points out. "We needed an agenda of our own for the building, a separation between the MAC and DARE. The MAC's mission--they called it a 'vision'-- statement originated with DARE, but the MAC needed its own clear identity."

It still does.
Albritton complains that there's been no media coverage of The Art of Suicide, but Brettell, the self-described contrarian, guides his thinking in another direction, suggesting that the MAC might make its niche as an entity outside the mainstream media, affirming itself as contrary to the concept of art as a scary, elitist thing and establishing itself as an anti-art establishment "The MAC is about accessibility, it's a place where people can look and talk without having to explain. It's the alternative to the 'art temple.'"

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