The Mac-inations

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

Dialogue is what DARE was originally about, and the MAC has tried to keep that emphasis. The monthly Artist Talk series at the MAC, which features two Texas artists talking to a small group about what they've been doing lately, is an idea inherited from DARE, as is the annual member exhibition.

It all sounds very exciting, but drop into the MAC one fine day, and chances are, you won't exactly feel the energy. In fact, unless there's a gallery show opening or a play at Kitchen Dog, the MAC can be a pretty lonely place. Marjorie Myers, who recently resigned from the MAC's board but remains on the Artist Advisory Committee, says the much-lauded design of the space itself is partly to blame. "The lobby is huge and imposing, comparable to the gallery space, and there's no staff, so it seems empty half the time." On a recent Sunday afternoon, the MAC was so silent that it seemed as off-limits as, say, a temple.

The "lobby" is euphemistically called the MACafe; it's one of the best ideas at the MAC, and one that perhaps most perfectly synthesizes DARE, the community organization, with the MAC, a building. The problem is that it's still just an idea. It's supposed to be a gathering place, a place to hang and talk, instead of the usual functionless lobby. But no food is served at MACafe, coffee is only occasionally available, frequently all the staff is out of sight in the offices, and visitors are likely to feel like trespassers. Nelson thinks the MACafe alone could be a big part of fighting art's elite image: "It would be better if there was real food there, and we could create the kind of cafe society that would make artists feel like it's really their place."

There is a need for an "on-premise" personality, and the Meyerson money means that there is money now to hire a facilities manager, a staff person who will actually be the MAC's liaison with the public. But right now, the Atrium Cafe at the monolithic, traditional DMA is actually more welcoming than the MACafe. "Dallas is an event city," says Brettell. "We only hang out in gyms and restaurants. The MAC is not either one."

Perhaps it should be.
Part of the problem--part of any struggling venture's problem--is that there's no money to advertise to tell people what's going on. The MAC can't even afford to send a mailer for each event, so it relies on the calendar to let people know what's going on, but you don't get a calendar if you're not a member--which, of course, unintentionally creates an insider group, an elite. It also brings us back to money, a touchy subject since Victoria Corcoran, the MAC's first director, left last year. Corcoran's strength was programming, which is exactly what the Artist Advisory Committee was set up to do. Not only did that mean two entities were performing the same job, but Corcoran's free hand with the budget meant that she and most of the money were gone in a year. Most MAC members are still very careful when discussing Corcoran. Everyone generally agrees that she "brought in some great stuff," and no one wants to complain too loudly or take the blame for a business error that could give the MAC the aura of incompetence that results in reluctance on the part of potential benefactors.

When Corcoran was dismissed, the MAC restructured itself. Instead of replacing her, Theresa Jones, the new administrative director, is primarily in charge of bookkeeping, fundraising, and facilitating shows that have evolved in the Artist Advisory Committee and been approved by the board's programming committee. Jones is not a curator. The artists are supposed to run things, but of course, artists don't want to write grants and fill out forms and make a million phone calls nailing down the details of physically pulling together a show that's not their own. An artist's job is to make art. Someone else should have the job of exhibiting it. And it's on this point that the MAC board splits.

The MAC should be fluid, flexible, to the moment. If you schedule exhibits two or three years ahead, you've lost the immediacy which is the point. It's supposed to address current issues, to be constantly evolving, but not knowing what will be exhibited in 12 months means that finding underwriting for exhibits is a last-minute job. Ironically, for the MAC to be successful by its own definition as a center for new art, it should always be struggling, because new art is controversial and because, Brettell says, "The MAC is not supposed to have a clearly defined message--everything is open for discussion with the public and even among ourselves." Pam Nelson observes that "the main friction comes from its being experimental. There's no established point of view. The MAC changes a lot--its direction, its focus; some shows are really good, and others aren't, depending on your point of view. It isn't supposed to have a point of view."

That's OK and should be understandable, she says, because "artists change a lot, too. Their work isn't always the same. But people might go to see one play at the MAC or see one exhibit they don't like and never return. The controversy is supposed to generate thinking, but it could just turn people off. So I don't know if it leads to success or not to not have a point of view, but that is what's good about the MAC."

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