Against the wall

Despite regional rivalries and hard times, the Fall Gallery Walk has picked up its pace

If you believe the urban legend, then Amon Carter started it: a bitter rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth that goes back for generations. Carter is the Fort Worth tycoon who supposedly packed a lunch before traveling to Dallas, just to make sure he wouldn't have to spend a nickel in support of Cowtown's ugly stepsister. But really, Dallas attorney Robert E. Cowart started it, by writing in 1875 in the Dallas Herald that Fort Worth was so dull that a panther could sleep, undisturbed, on a downtown street.

Just when you think all the old geezers who began the feud have finally died out, along come art dealers from Dallas and Fort Worth to perpetuate the rivalry. So what if it's common practice for Fort Worthers to dine and shop in Dallas and for Dallasites to travel west to the museums -- the two art scenes can't even agree on what to call the opening-night gala of their 1999 season. In Dallas, it's "Gallery Walk," and in Fort Worth it's "Gallery Night." Historically, conflicts have also arisen over whether it should be one night or two and about who the hell started the whole idea in the first place. It's yet another example of how two cities that can be so close haven't really come so far.

Truth is, the arts communities in Dallas and Fort Worth do work together, perhaps better than any other segment of commerce the cities share, and that's why it's a shame to make such a showdown of the visual-art season's biggest night of the year. It's quite common for Dallas-based artists to show in the best Fort Worth galleries and vice versa. It's de rigueur for artists in both cities to know one another, brainstorm, and, in general, affect a genial "we're in this together" attitude.

Tom Pribyl's skewed interior landscapes will be up at Edith Baker Gallery.
Tom Pribyl's skewed interior landscapes will be up at Edith Baker Gallery.
Marla Ziegler's organic glazed clay works are on display at Craighead-Green.
Jon Lagow
Marla Ziegler's organic glazed clay works are on display at Craighead-Green.

Gallery owners know another converse corollary: Dallas art sells better in Fort Worth, and Fort Worth art sells better in Dallas. Still, the cities' art dealers -- who used to coordinate better, with Dallas holding its fall season-opener on the first Friday night after Labor Day and Fort Worth taking the first Saturday -- aren't communicating when it comes to their special day. They did agree this year, however, to delay the event for a week out of respect to the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

Just who started Gallery Walk or Night or whatever is as complicated as the rivalry between the two cities.

"Fort Worth started the whole gallery night thing, about the same time as Houston did," says Pam Campbell, co-owner of Fort Worth's William Campbell Contemporary Art Gallery. She and her husband, Bill, take credit for getting Fort Worth galleries to launch the first art party in 1978, and she remembers Dallas copying, er, starting its version sometime in the 1980s.

According to Dallas art legend, in mid-1985, a handful of Dallas art dealers banded together to form a collective voice to battle against the complacency of a corporate population that would rather watch the Cowboys from the end zone on any given Sunday than attend a gallery opening any day of the week. Dubbing themselves the Dallas Art Dealers Association, these original 12 galleries were determined to get the word and art out to the culture-starved masses.

Frank Moss of the now-defunct Nimbus Gallery headed up the action, chairperson Edith Baker (see "The grande dame of Dallas art") made an enthusiastic call to arms, and as all the DADA participants were rah-ther sophisticated, they drew up a stringent list of guidelines for membership (i.e., art spaces selling poster art and frame kits need not apply). DADA's most prominent weapon was its annual gallery tour (falling on Mother's Day in its inaugural year 1985). DADA promoted the hell out of the event and let the great unwashed descend on the various artsy districts for one glorious day of schmoozing and perusing. Surely from all the tumult, DADA types figured, new art fans would be born.

With Gallery Walk as a pivotal calendar date, dealers morphed their traditional role and stepped down from pretentious heights to wine and dine the newcomers, explain the art and the artists' motives, and make everyone feel at home. Wow, thought middle managers at J.C. Penney and EDS, Dallas does have an arts scene, and it's pretty damn good.

With this, DADA thrived. For the first time in Dallas' history, the visual-arts scene had a traceable profile; art hounds knew whom to look to for upper-echelon, cutting-edge contemporary art; and rookies knew they could enjoy an eye-opening day each time Gallery Walk rolled around. By its second year, DADA moved its walking-tour concept into an early fall slot -- something about the public's readiness after a brutal summer to take on an upcoming art season in the promise of cooler weather. In the meantime, DADA opened its doors to nonprofit groups (such as Dallas Visual Art Center and the Meadows Foundation), raised money for the Dallas Museum of Art to buy current regional artwork, and generally cultivated a sense of community among their formerly competitive selves. By the late '80s, there were 20-odd official members.

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