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.

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.'"

This is really the party line about the MAC, but in fact, there are those who feel that as the MAC has gained stability, it has become the very thing DARE was formed to rebel against: an institution, part of the Dallas art establishment. Supposedly, the MAC is eager to engender debate and even controversy. "We were picketed? Did we tape it?" asked the excited Albritton when told that a group came to the MAC to protest what it had misconstrued as a show "celebrating" suicide. The group stayed, liked the photos, and went home happy on the bus.

In fact, the main problems with the MAC's programming have stemmed from intricate insider arguments--objections to shows like the upcoming David Byrne exhibit, which some feel is too glitzy for the MAC. Or this fall's exhibit of ex-SMU art professor Roger Winter's landscapes, considered by some to be too tame for the MAC. Neither of these exhibits originated from the Artist Advisory Committee. But neither did the MAC's Sun & Star exhibit, Contemporary Japan: The Culture of Apocalypse--and no one's complaining about that.

Contemporary Japan, the MAC's contribution to the celebration of Japanese culture that absorbed Dallas-Fort Worth arts institutions last year, pleased even those who disagreed with the top-down way in which it was conceived. And it's difficult for an outsider to see much wrong with it. Not only was the exhibit's work daring and exciting, it compared well with everything else that Sun & Star brought to Dallas. Brettell says, "Momoyama at DMA, for instance, was a huge, commodified culture exhibit. We wanted to do something that contrasted with that at the MAC, to point out the internal contradictions of contemporary Japan, take a less worshipful approach to Japanese culture. We were able to put this exhibit together with very little money and very fast."

It was precisely the kind of exhibit that the MAC wants to present--eye-popping and thought-provoking--with the kind of Gen-X sensibility that the MAC would like to attract. In fact, with Contemporary Japan, they found just the Gen X-er they needed. A big part of the reason the show worked so well was David Meyerson, Mort and Marlene's twentysomething son who had lived in Japan several years and recently moved back to Dallas. With Brettell's encouragement, Meyerson got involved with the MAC, and it was his Japanese contacts that pulled together the exhibit. As it turned out, if the Contemporary Japan exhibit had done no more than involve Meyerson, it could have been considered a MAC success. Right after Thanksgiving, the Meyerson family offered the MAC a three-year membership challenge grant: $25,000 a year for three years, which the MAC was encouraged to match two-to-one with memberships. According to Theresa Jones, one month later the MAC had raised $35,000.

David Meyerson intends to stay involved with the MAC because, he says, it allows him to. "It's unique for an institution to be as open to people being involved and getting your hands on it for an opening," says Meyerson. "You can't do that at the hallowed Kimbell, for example, where you need a Ph.D. to be on the board or whatever."

Meyerson likes the loose, fast, creative entrepreneurial process in place and is baffled at how Dallasites have kept the MAC "at arm's length." He is also fully aware that his name can bring them closer. "I'm in an awkward position, because our standard position in town as donors is anonymous, but our name does lend a certain potency. We wanted to show that the MAC is serious. My parents thought the architecture seminar was outstanding, and they wanted to show their support and invigorate membership."

The Meyersons' name and gift may have inspired art collectors to open their eyes and wallets to the MAC, but the MAC still has a rocky relationship with local artists. "One of the biggest problems since its inception is how local artists have responded to the MAC," says Whitenack. "Because a lot of programming has showcased artists from elsewhere, there's a feeling of disenfranchisement among area artists."

Dallas artists do whine a lot, although no one would allow themselves to be quoted saying that. But that's not necessarily bad. Art consultant Murray Smither, whose hands-on knowledge of the history of Dallas art institutions reaches far beyond that of anyone at the MAC, points out, "Institutions grow out of discontent with old institutions. In New York, they bitched about the Whitney, so Marsha Tucker opened the New Museum. Now they complain about that."

At any rate, MAC advocates like Whitenack insist that the MAC's mission statement does not ignore Dallas artists at all. In fact, Brettell points out, part of its identity is to be "one of the only artist-controlled, artist-driven spaces in the U.S." But he and other board members believe that the MAC offers something besides exhibit space for local artists.

"The MAC provides our best shot at providing cutting-edge, contemporary art, film, literature, that all work together to bring an understanding of what's going on in contemporary art," Whitenack says. "It's a safe place for unsafe ideas--or not unsafe exactly, but ideas that aren't 'fully cooked' yet, not completely resolved. There's room left for a lot of experience on the part of the artist and the audience. Dialogue is the most important part of it."

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."

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."

Metz says that Albritton likes to be on the edge--but it has to be a pre-approved edge--and that Brettell is the "visionary nut," as well as a scholar and a philanthropist in his own right, who gives that approval. "He's the real glue that's held the board together and kept the money coming in and got the Artist Advisory Committee reinstated," Metz says. Metz believes that the Artist Advisory Committee will lend the MAC a uniquely shifting perspective--constantly changing, avoiding a single point of view. In any case, the MAC is what DARE became, he says, and "It's not the cutting edge, it's not the top, it's what links the grassroots with the patron. It's the middle management of the art world."

"DARE was really about the artist," Metz says, "and the MAC is about the art scene. The building that is the MAC changed the idea of DARE. The emphasis became the things inside the building, not the community."

Dallas artist Robert Barsamian, who has chosen to remain outside and uninvolved with the MAC, agrees. "Originally, the premise was interesting. But all it did is involve itself with the same people who have run Dallas art and have had the money strings in the art community from the beginning. The MAC is really not so different from DMA--it doesn't include many outsiders, ethnic communities, people of color. People who provide money naturally want power to go with it. Money lends authority. The conceptual premise of these places is always great, but when they get the validation of money and society, the original group loses artistic control. Still, I'd rather see the MAC than nothing. And nothing is what tends to happen here.

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