Break it down

Praise and bellyaches for the Dallas art roller coaster that was 1998

It's a new year. Time to stop asking the question: "How does the Dallas art scene compare to other cities?"

Replacement query: How is the Dallas art scene doing, period?
I won't pretend that I'm intimate with every dent and cranny of the local artistic community. For various reasons, from political to personal, I skip plenty; the handful of galleries I didn't set foot in this year is a heavy one, I'm sure. As a relative rookie, I've covered the visual arts in this town for less than two years--beginning at The Met in early 1997 and moving over to the Dallas Observer last February.

So by one standard, I'm still getting my feet wet, or rather, by this time, my knees. By another, I'm not so tangled in local political red tape and in-club schmoozing that I can't see the big picture for the haze. What I do see: a damn fine art scene that's constantly threatening to drown under Dallas' shallow, shiny priorities.

Dallas-Fort Worth is one of the fastest-growing centers in this country; corporate ladder-climbers from all over the map are migrating to this area's suburbs in droves that would put God's plague of Old-Testament locusts to shame. The DFW combo is usually ranked as the eighth largest metropolitan area in the United States.

So great. Dallas is growing, and surely its culture will expand and deepen to reflect that, right? What seems true, rather, is that the bulk of these new Dallasites (or rather, Planoites) don't care much about art. They're perfectly content to keep north of LBJ Freeway and west of Loop 12, gorge themselves on Outback Steakhouse, the Gap, and Barnes & Noble--their version of culture. After all, they didn't move here to hang out at the DMA, they moved here because they got a job at EDS. Why brave the gauntlet (Central Expressway) to see...what, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra? You mean Dallas has a symphony? And a museum? And dozens of galleries and theaters and rock bands and so on that suburban sprawlers--our own burgeoning population--won't even touch, much less support? Seems to me that the majority of those attending art openings week in, week out are the same urban dwellers that have been going for years, plus trickling handfuls of incoming young artists from area universities.

Face it: Some cities are more culturally responsive and encouraging than others. Once a strong art seed is planted in an area, people flock there because it's artistically established. And not just the obvious hubs of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago--add to that, smaller but no less culturally motivated towns: Austin, Santa Fe, Seattle, Atlanta, even Houston. If an art-loving yuppie were transferred to a new job in one of those places, he likely wouldn't scream "Egad! Where will I get my art injection? That place is bereft!" No doubt that's what plenty of people have yelled upon receiving orders from the top to relocate to Dallas. Built upon foundations of real estate, oil money, and more recently corporate headquarters and technology, this city's profile has never been particularly artsy. Even after a decade of promises from city leaders to develop an arts district downtown, we're still waiting. In a bid to become a "world-class city" (as late mayor Annette Strauss so often labeled it), we've spent far more cash on the cosmetic rather than the interior culture. Why else would city leaders gladly earmark more than $100 million for another sports arena? Instead of diversifying, Dallas is running on the momentum it's already got: Come to Big D to shop in our stores, to do business, and while you're here, catch one of our four pro teams! People head to New York to see the Metropolitan Opera. Few people travel here just to see the Dallas Opera. That little fact ain't changing anytime soon. Dallas has never been equated with great art. The Nasher Sculpture Garden could help change that, but I have yet to see anyone break ground on Olive Street.

Case in point: That preposterous "painting is dead" posit--a basic 1980s art-hound topic hotly debated and then rightfully lampooned in most other cities--never even applied here. Oh, perhaps deep in the graduate-level classrooms of the University of North Texas, an artist-professor named Vernon Fisher might have brought it up, but painting (and its painters) have hardly taken up residence long enough in Dallas even to inspire such dialogue among civilians, and more crucially, art hasn't enjoyed the kind of massive splintering and variety in these parts to raise that kind of question. To most Dallasites, about the only kind of visual art there is is painting. "Painting is dead? What else is there? Oh, yeah. Sculpture." And try video, film, conceptual, printmaking, photography, folk, low-brow, illustration, and so forth.

So let's put the "how do we compare to other cities' art scenes?" thing to rest. Until the world--and we--start to think of Dallas in art-culture terms, the point is moot.

But how can I write about Dallas and not touch on Forth Worth? Boiled down to its basics, the Dallas-Forth Worth relationship plays out like this: Fort Worth has the museums but not the galleries; it has the artist support (in spirit, anyway) but few showcases for those artists. Dallas has the galleries but not the museums, and little incentive for artists to stick around. So choose your lesser evil.

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