Joan of art

The Arlington Museum of Art's director, Joan Davidow, is too busy to be a saint -- but a martyr, maybe

Bill Barter can't remember exactly when it occurred to him and his fellow Arlington Museum of Art board members that they could lose Joan Davidow. All he can recall is that the board knew losing the museum's founding director would lead to nothing but turmoil. After all, Davidow is closing in on 10 years of leadership for the unlikely mid-metroplex venue that's respected all over North Texas as a relentless showcase for homegrown contemporary art. Her departure, the board feared, would mean nothing short of catastrophe -- like removing the foundation from a house, only to watch the entire structure collapse in seconds.

"I remember talking about it to the board and to Joan herself -- we go way back," Barter says. "It's one of the things we became painfully aware of last year. If Joan took off, it would be a real chaotic situation."

Turnover at the top of metroplex arts organizations reached a ridiculous level in 1998 and '99 -- a fact that didn't escape Barter and the AMA board or Davidow.

In the hose: Kelly Connell's "House Dreams," at the AMA
In the hose: Kelly Connell's "House Dreams," at the AMA

Details

February 5

Live and silent auctions

Tickets are $45
($40 for AMA members)

Price ncludes food, beverages, and music

(817) 275-4600

Exhibition opens January 14
6 - 8 p.m.,
with a preview party and artists' talk

Arlington Museum of Art
206 West Main Street,
Arlington

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Consider: Fort Worth Dallas Ballet's artistic director Paul Mejia started it, leaving his post in January 1998 after a decade; Mejia was replaced by Benjamin Houk in July 1998. John Giordano announced his retirement as musical director of the Fort Worth Symphony, effective at the end of the 1999-'00 season. The still-leaderless Fort Worth Opera lost, replaced, and again lost general directors in rapid succession. Kimbell Art Museum director Edmund (Ted) Pillsbury retired in June 1998 after 17 years at the helm; Australian Timothy F. Potts succeeded him and marked his first year in charge at the Kimbell this November. Likewise, the Dallas Museum of Art convinced Jack Lane to leave San Francisco and replace Jay Gates as DMA director after Gates resigned to take a position as head of The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

So many musical chairs; so many empty ones. Davidow's exit, then, seemed inevitable -- one more talented local arts leader swept up in the mighty tides of change. Until, that is, she realized that hers was the best job...and that, well, maybe she was the best person for it.

"I've thought about going someplace else, and then I thought, 'Why?'" Davidow says. "The challenges and opportunities I have here are very, very exciting."

Davidow was the AMA's first director when the energetic Arlington Art Association bought a building and decided to create a museum at the beginning of the decade. And, for all the troubles and travails, she can look back on a decade of service with a unique pride of authorship few arts professionals ever have.

"I have this theory about founding directors or directors who stay a long time in a place," she says. "They have the opportunity to really build a profile for an institution and make an impact. Directors who move every few years on the stepladder to success don't have that."

Barter says the AMA board has begun in earnest to shore up, improve, and develop itself in order to support the museum's expanding programming; to prepare for a serious capital campaign to raise $3 million for renovation of the AMA's 45-year-old building; and, perhaps most important, to mollify Davidow's seemingly one-woman show. "We are developing a structure around Joan that would survive even if Joan left," Barter says. And he's leading the rescue effort, just as he led the search committee when the board hired Davidow on April 1, 1991.

Barter is an art-loving, recently retired aerospace engineer who, in addition to devoting countless volunteer hours to the AMA, dabbles in painting and printmaking. When his colleagues accuse him of the anal-retentive tendencies common to engineers, he quotes Alexander Calder, who was a mechanical engineer before taking up art. "Calder said, 'To an engineer, good enough means perfect. With an artist, there's no such thing as perfect,'" Barter says, laughing.

Barter has long been one of Davidow's -- and, of course, the museum's -- biggest supporters, insisting that "the board, sometimes comatose and sometimes not over the years, has basically said, 'Go ahead, Joan, you're doing great.' She tries to get us to do more, be more involved. And now it's beyond what she as a single individual can do."

To that end, Barter is looking for a few good trustees -- art-lovers, check-writers, and hard workers -- to round out the current AMA board. It's his mission "to develop a board and programs that can support a much bigger operation," as he sees it. Of course, he envisions only greater things ahead for the AMA, and he hopes Davidow will "stay the course." But his life experience has taught him to be prepared, just in case.

You see, Davidow doesn't sound restless, but she does sound tired. The end of the year is her busiest time as she prepares for the museum's annual fund-raising gala and companion exhibition in January and February. Proceeds from the event and the live auction and silent auction of artwork account for an average of $75,000 -- or about 25 percent of the AMA's annual operating revenue. And it's all done in a single night. It's a big deal -- a make-or-break deal -- and for the 2000 gala, Davidow's got some new tricks up her sweat-encrusted sleeves.

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