Thinned herd

Pioneer Plaza's drove of bronze cattle gets culled, and the artist is not happy

At first, independent Dallas tour guide Elaine Swartzwelder couldn't see anything wrong with the loping longhorns and the three horsemen that make up the Texas trail-drive sculpture in Pioneer Plaza, and she's seen it plenty. In fact, she says, it's one of the most popular spots on her route, second only to Dealey Plaza for the tourists she shepherds around downtown Dallas.

"Of course, I love Pioneer Plaza, and the people we bring through love it too," she says, "but I'm not an artist."

Swartzwelder didn't realize there was anything wrong, or that there was anything missing, until she talked to the sculptor himself. Until Swartzwelder met Robert Summers during a tour operator's orientation of the sculpture park, she thought the artwork was wonderful. Until she heard the whole story from the artist, who has labored for nearly six years on his vision for the ambitious, controversial, historically accurate monument to a part of Dallas' past, she thought Pioneer Plaza was finished.

A shortage of money has cut off expansion of the herd of bronze cattle at Pioneer Plaza.
Mark Graham
A shortage of money has cut off expansion of the herd of bronze cattle at Pioneer Plaza.

"It's not finished," Summers says from his Glen Rose studio. "But the funding's fizzled, and the thing has really slowed down." Summers won the commission for 70 longhorn steers and three horses and riders in 1993, taking on what was supposed to be a three-year project. Dallas developer Trammell Crow initiated Pioneer Plaza and backed it with $4.5 million of his own money and other private donations. The city of Dallas provided a $4.9 million piece of land at Young and Griffin Streets, adjacent to the convention center.

Crow's project was born in controversy. The land that the city provided was considered a prime location for a new hotel, and critics accused Crow of building the sculpture park to stave off competition with his Anatole hotel. Some city council members opposed the annual costs of maintaining the sculptures -- $144,817 in this year's city budget.

A few artists on the Dallas Public Art Committee were so angry that Western realism -- i.e., cows -- would represent high art in Dallas that they sued in a failed effort to slaughter Pioneer Plaza on the hoof, so to speak. And Summers himself, who has fought all along for historical accuracy and artistic integrity, now says that the remaining 30 steers of the planned herd are being scrapped because the money's all gone -- and because nobody cares. "That's the long and the short of it," he says.

Today, looking finished to nearly everyone but Summers, smack in the middle of downtown, is Crow's anachronistic project, an artistic representation of an 1860s cattle drive in the shadow of skyscrapers and only four blocks from Neiman Marcus. Summers' work in Pioneer Plaza includes one Anglo, one Hispanic, and one African-American cowboy riding herd over 40 head of longhorn cattle. "That's not a statement for political correctness," Summers says. "If it were, I would have balked. But it's completely historically accurate." The steers meander down a brushy hill overlooking a stream and a century-old cemetery where many of Dallas' founders were laid to rest.

When critics first suggested that the 19th-century cattle drive was neither real art nor real Dallas history, local historian A.C. Greene's help was enlisted. Greene found that Dallas in fact straddled the old Shawnee Trail, and herds of cattle indeed once crossed the Trinity River where Reunion Arena and the Hyatt Hotel now stand. Summers recalls a meeting in Crow's office where the real estate mogul had created a rough model with toy cows in a pile of sand on a conference table -- his vision of Pioneer Plaza. "I took some sand and designed a different contour and showed them how it should look," Summers says. "They accepted my proposal to have 70 steers created out of 10 original designs. The parts could be interchangeable to give a different look and save a lot of money."

Summers, who's been crafting the creatures diligently since 1993, just sent the plans for 14 more castings to the Wyoming foundry that turns his wax molds into bronze art. "The last thing I was told was, when these next 14 come in, they'll probably consider it a completed project, unless somebody comes up with the cash to finish the rest of it," Summers says.

As impressive as tourists and laypeople believe the artwork is, Summers isn't satisfied. For one thing, he doesn't expect to be paid for the entire project, since it looks like there's no more funding and no real drive to raise any more money. Summers agreed to accept prorated payments for his work, as he delivered various elements of the diorama that's larger than a football field, and he's been paid for the work he's completed. (He won't say how much.) But more important, he says, is that after all this time, and after all the finagling, criticism, and controversy, his project won't have the impact it's supposed to have.

"I have lost a little sleep over it," Summers says. "It's not going to have the visual impact that everyone intended." It won't be the way it was planned; it won't reflect his vision and attention to detail and historical accuracy; it won't look right; and it won't be right. "I guess they thought enough of my work and recognized that I knew what I was doing at first," he says. "But my vision won't be fulfilled if they don't get all 70 of them in. "

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Any more details to prove that the installation was to pre-empt hotel construction on the site?