Artists in Residences

A Dallas real estate developer reinvents the art of the deal

"Dude, I paid $500 my first year and $250 my next," Davis says. "I had 1,100 square feet--it was like a little palace. It was nice. We had a concierge, for God's sake. There was a pool on the roof. It was ridiculous. And living there so cheap, what I did was stop working for galleries full time and started working part time. I could pay the bills that way and was able to make a lot more art. It was really hard to believe. I mean, we would walk out of our apartments at the same time to go somewhere and look at each other and throw our hands in the air and go, 'I can't believe this shit.'"

Three years later, and still none of them can. The arrangement has paid off for both sides more than anyone could have imagined. The artists may reside in the bowels of the building, but their work and their presence flow throughout, not only in the sculpture in the halls and the paintings on the walls but also in the lively cast of characters milling around the rooftop pool or the gym. It makes South Side into more than just a sterile apartment building. It makes it a place people want to live, and plenty of them do: Almost every unit in the building has been leased, which is more than you can say for many loft projects.

"Here, art is not something they do once in a while, like dressing up a Barbie," Robbins-Steele says. "It becomes part of the day. It's part of your life. The art is still pregnant with the artists. You can smell the paint."

Developer Jack Matthews used cheap rent to lure artists to his loft development.
Mark Graham
Developer Jack Matthews used cheap rent to lure artists to his loft development.

You could also say that the artist-residency program, and the scope of South Side's involvement in the arts, is still gestating. Last September, Dr. Richard Brettell--professor of aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas and senior adjunct curator of the Meadows Museum--was brought in to help convert the project into something more ambitious, a wider-ranging artists-in-residence program along the lines of the ArtPace in San Antonio, the Glassell Core Program in Houston and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa.

With Brettell on board, the idea is to bring in more established international artists for shorter stays, surrounded by a core group of local artists. "That cross-pollination is a tremendous opportunity," Robbins-Steele says.

Matthews is also converting the Sears building's old boiler room into a theater (set to open in the fall), which will house Project X, a new company founded by Raphael Parry, former artistic director of the Undermain Theatre. The space is a fantastic find in a building that has proven full of them, perhaps the best bit of real estate in the entire place. So much so that one of Matthews' partners pleaded with him to let him turn it into a loft for himself. But, as Matthews says, "We couldn't let it disappear into someone's private collection."

While Matthews would admit that the artist-residency program had its origins as a business decision, putting the arts into everyone's lives, not just a select few, is much of the impetus behind the project now. To wit: Everyone involved in the program has to give something back to the southern Dallas community. Davis, for example, taught after-school classes at Daniel "Chappie" James Elementary School in Fair Park, exposing the kids to modern art.

"They all ended up doing a painting at the end of the after-school program," Davis says. "They had never used, you know, real good acrylics and real good brushes. They'd never painted on a canvas before. Then I gave them a big show in the gallery at South Side. Gave the money back to the school, pre-sold everything, had Erykah Badu show up. I felt like I owed it to them for giving me that space."

"It's really rethinking the role a developer plays," Robbins-Steele says.

Now, Matthews sees something else when he looks at that once-forgotten stretch of Lamar Street. Since he gave the city land to build its new office complex for the Dallas Police Department (a donation worth about $1 million), the area is one of the safest in town. He convinced Gilley's to open a Dallas location in one of the buildings he owned, and David Card is moving his longtime Greenville Avenue institution, Poor David's Pub, next door.

Things are happening. Matthews' investment in the area is now more than just a business deal, more than just an apartment building. As the area continues to be revitalized and more artists make their way through the halls at South Side, he can move on to loftier goals.

"We don't want to be the fine arts district," Matthews says. "We're the real arts district."

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