Artists in Residences

A Dallas real estate developer reinvents the art of the deal

Jack Matthews was the only one who saw it, the only one who looked at the deserted buildings on a forgotten street off downtown and pictured a community. But, hey, that's his job. He's a real estate developer, a guy who is supposed to see something where everyone else sees nothing, see homes and hotels instead of abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

By turning the decaying former Sears Catalog Merchandise Center building into South Side on Lamar, a thriving 457-unit loft complex, he was merely doing his job. It's what the Canadian-born Matthews has done for almost his entire life. The way he did it, however, proves that he is more than just a real estate developer. He's a great one.

Because any developer can buy a historic building and reconfigure it into lofts. The downtown area is full of them. A few have even succeeded. But it takes someone with a vision to make that kind of project work. For Matthews and South Side, it came down to a simple idea: art.

There wasn't much of that when Matthews came around. There wasn't much of anything. Seven years ago, when Matthews bought six buildings and 17 acres on Lamar Street, the area seemed like a lost cause. "There was mainly just through traffic," Matthews says. "It wasn't dangerous, just neglected."

But Matthews thought he was onto something, so he bought another 16 acres, a stretch of land running all the way down Lamar, almost to the Dallas Convention Center. It committed him to the area and the idea of making something happen. He set about transforming the Sears building, originally thinking he should start slowly, a four-phase rollout that initially would include only 150 lofts.

He knew, though, if South Side was going to work, he needed to get as many people into the building as possible. The four-phase plan was whittled down to one. But living in a historic building wasn't enough to attract the critical mass of people Matthews needed. And it wouldn't satisfy the low-income housing obligation of the HUD loan he had obtained to get the project off the ground. That's when Matthews got creative. Literally.

Before one lease was signed, Matthews set aside the building's former loading area as an artist's colony, 14 lofts that would include living areas and studio space. To attract artists to fill the space, he offered an enormous break on rent. The lease agreements varied, but generally, the artists would receive 1,000 square feet in exchange for $250 a month and one work of art.

It was the textbook definition of a win-win situation: Matthews had an eclectic mix of residents that he believed would transform South Side into the kind of community he envisioned, and the artists had the time, money and space to fully dedicate themselves to their work. It could change everyone's lives.

Both Matthews and Charlie Robbins-Steele, South Side's creative director, point to Jennifer Morgan as proof of that. Morgan laughs when she hears of this later; it's not the first time they've called her "a living, walking example" of what can happen at South Side.

"There are worse things to be a poster child for," Morgan says. "I'd rather be a success story than not."

When she was accepted into the program, Morgan was working full time as a graphic artist. She painted when she could and had reached a small level of success--selling a painting or so a month--but Morgan hadn't really been able to commit herself to being a working artist. After she moved into South Side in September 2001, she could.

"The program, really, the first year it just gave me the opportunity to save up a bunch of money and get my Web site going and all the stuff I needed," Morgan says. "And then in May when I quit my job and I started focusing all my energy on my painting, it was just a couple of months after that when it really started picking up."

Soon enough, she was showing and selling her work all over town. Plus, by living and working with other artists, she made important connections, not only in the local art scene but with her own work. Her paintings began to change, to deepen.

After two years, she moved upstairs into a bigger loft. But she misses the old days.

"It was like a dorm. You could just go knock on people's doors and hang out with them in their studio and see what they were working on."

That's where she met C.J. Davis, a fellow member of the artist-residency program. He had found out about the setup at South Side through his friend and artist Kyle Wadsworth; they both showed their work at 500X Gallery. Davis admits that, in the beginning, the caliber of artists in the program left something to be desired.

"They were not doing anything original, not really exploring any medium. They were simply painting on crappy, pre-stretched canvases with staples on the side. They weren't doing anything really of academic worthiness. Jennifer was the odd one out because she was so fucking cool."

Later Davis brought in more of the 500X crowd: Robert Boland, Otis Jones, Scott Barber, Ryan Franklin. As more artists moved in, a community began to take shape, and the level of art began to improve. Not that it mattered much to them, in the end. Davis probably would have lived there if they were surrounded by carnival caricature artists.

"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."

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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