The Mac-inations

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

As Brettell sees it: "The beauty of the MAC is that it can transform itself with people and money into various things."

Susan kae Grant, a member of the Artist Advisory Committee and an early member of DARE, teaches at UNT and is on the staff of the International Center of Photography in New York City. Grant believes the MAC is a tremendous opportunity for Dallas, a true gift. But she believes just as firmly that spaces like the MAC (such as Blue Star in San Antonio and DiverseWorks in Houston) work best when there's a real nucleus, a leader who has a clear purpose. "The MAC needs a leader who would empower the Artist Advisory Committee and focus them," she says. "Certain curators have an eye, a sensibility that engenders a following. The MAC needs someone with a national history of work that creates a local following." Grant sees the need for the Artist Advisory Committee but insists that "the MAC would be better off with a director with vision, outreach, charisma, and a link to the community."

Susan Magilow, who just resigned from the Artist Advisory Committee because of frustration with how it was working, agrees. "Who needs another place where local artists show their work and drag in their slides and give talks? We've all seen each others' work for years. The Albrittons have created a real opportunity for something to happen. What's not there is a curator with vision, a person who knows what's going on, a professional curator with contacts, who is familiar with the issues, who can write, who can combine ideas and art. A committee of artists can't do that." Neither can Albritton, a collector, or Brettell, whose specialty is late-19th-century art, though both are involved in programming, Magilow says.

"But basically," says Grant, "the MAC's problem is the culture's problem--the culture of this city."

Says Brettell: "The city's going to have to learn to use the MAC as it should be used. First, you have to convert the city to the mindset that would want to use the MAC." But just because something doesn't exist in a culture, doesn't mean there is a demand for it. The question is, Does Dallas want the MAC?

No one connected with the MAC seems to have asked that question. But they are all convinced that, want it or not, Dallas needs the MAC. Whitenack, owner of Conduit Gallery, admits, "The truth is, that unlike showcases in New York City, there's not a lot of demand for a space like the MAC in Dallas. This isn't the way Dallas is comfortable with art. They prefer a hand-held, guided tour, with all significance explained."

There may not be a niche for a space like the MAC in Dallas, but Albritton and Brettell are determined to blast a niche. And their efforts have been transformed from quixotic crusade to reality by the Meyerson grant. "The Meyerson grant really lent credibility to the MAC," says Whitenack. The MAC board hopes it will encourage others in the arts--really the art patrons--community to write a check and join the MAC.

Claude Albritton has a pretty swell office for a nonprofit, alternative arts space--a large room, furnished with a comfortable sofa and chairs, a coffee table, an executive-sized desk, and lots and lots of art. One Dallas art dealer speculates that Albritton owns more paintings by David Bates, Texas artist gone national and Albritton's buddy, than the artist himself.

Albritton has a reputation as something of a loose cannon who tends to speak before he thinks and prefers to be interviewed with Jeff West, MAC board president and director of the Sixth Floor Museum, sitting in. Asked if the MAC is working, it is West who replies definitively, "The MAC is solvent, it's in business, and it's showing diverse programs. It's working." Albritton adds, "We measure success by membership. Over half of our membership is at the lower level--$30-$55." West is bullish on the MAC's financial condition, and Theresa Jones claims that most of the memberships drummed up for the matching grant were in the lower end of the bracket, that they weren't just crony money. West says 17 percent of the budget is in cash reserve--rare for a nonprofit. There is no endowment established--"If projects are good enough," West declares, "there will be support for them. If not, we'll pack up our tent and go home."

Evidently, while not everybody in Dallas appreciates the MAC, enough do. And West uses this as the primary measure of the MAC's appeal. "We'll know if Dallas wants the MAC or not by whether or not we can pay the bills." But Albritton wants to move faster than that. To him, "It's weird that in a city this size, Kitchen Dog Theater is only three-quarters full on weekend nights. But I know, I'm impatient. I'm impatient."

Albritton's motives in providing the building for DARE, in his continued generosity with time and money, are several. A businessman, he says, "I saw in the late Eighties that the business of art was hammered, and I had a lot of friends in the art business, and making art. I wanted to give the situation a lift." And he owned the building. One former board member says that the MAC is basically "Claude's whim. And why not?" According to Nelson, who gave after-school art lessons to the Albrittons' daughter for several years, Albritton thinks artists are really special. He's a true art patron, and art has always lived by patrons. Brettell says that traditionally, "Art has been made possible by a patron and a visionary nut."

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