Open Secret

Art Conspiracists try to establish a new Utopia

Secrecy is the key to any conspiracy, and Art Conspiracy coordinator Sarah Jane Semrad is keeping her lips sealed about the financial situation of the La Reunion group, this year's Art Conspiracy beneficiary.

That's not to suggest there's anything nefarious about her plans. In the city best known as the setting of the most heated conspiracy/lone-nut debate in this country's history, an artist residency program is the kind of scheme that's quite welcome. She'd just rather not divulge how close La Reunion is to its goal of $500,000 to become fully functional.

The organization is named for the French utopians who first settled in Dallas in 1855. Though Dallas is a far cry from Utopia these days, local musicians and music fans can certainly identify with the men and women who founded the original La Reunion, for they brought essentials to the city still enjoyed 150 years later: music and beer.

"The first piano brought to Dallas was brought here by a La Reunion settler," Semrad says. "The first brewery was by a La Reunion settler. The first botanist was a La Reunion colonist. And we're certainly not trying to be a French utopia, but it's a nice connection."

The idea of the new La Reunion is to put artists of all kinds together and see what happens. Semrad is especially interested in the home facilitating "the dialogue between new and traditional media," she says. That dialogue won't take place for some time, though. The structure hasn't been built yet, for one thing. This early in the process, money raised by events such as the Art Conspiracy will be used for costs associated with planning, such as city-required surveys.

The 2005 Art Conspiracy, the first of its kind, had more than 100 artists donating their talents. Each artist had two-and-a-half hours to create something from a single 18-by-18-inch sheet of plywood and whatever materials he or she brought. Those works were sold for as little as $20 (the minimum bid) to $460 in a raucous live auction that took place between performances by local musicians. The proceeds from the door and auction amounted to more than $10,000 donated to the Paul Simon-founded Children's Health Fund, specifically earmarked for kids displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

The conspiracy was intended to bring attention to the arts scene, especially from those who aren't part of it, and to bring the separate worlds of the local art and music scenes together. The plot went without a hitch, says event coordinator Cari Weinberg, even though the Texas Theater was caked with dust and grime before the show—one of the hazards of the Art Conspiracy's secondary goal, which is to use historic buildings that have fallen out of favor.

"Last year at the Texas Theater, there was a lot more cleanup than this one, and we put a lot of elbow grease into cleaning it and getting it ready," she said. "It was like having a party at your house.

Five of Dallas' indie-rock usual suspects will perform at the Art Conspiracy: the Happy Bullets, Spitfire Tumbleweeds, Peter Schmidt and His Gentlemen Scholars, Fishboy and Salim Nourallah. The opening event, at 6:15 p.m., will be a VIP performance by countertenor John Holiday, whose classically-trained-yet-soulful take on jazz standards and Christmas songs will be a refreshing change of pace from the tried-and-true indie-rockers who tend to dominate local fund-raisers.

Because the beneficiary of Art Conspiracy changes each year, this is La Reunion's single opportunity to use it as a fund-raiser. Art Conspiracy site coordinator Andrea Roberts, who played bass and sang for Happy Bullets with husband Jason Roberts until a recent child-rearing hiatus, said the conspirators contacted a few nationally known acts but ultimately decided to keep the event local. That's not to say they didn't aim high: Semrad even slept with the bassist of one of Dallas' biggest acts of the 1990s, Course of Empire, and tried to cajole a reunion show out of the band. The reunion isn't gonna happen, but that bassist (her husband, Paul Semrad, who now plays with Team Evil) agreed to help out as an auctioneer.

Also different this year is the venue, Dallas' Longhorn Ballroom, a place more suited to electric performances. Roberts diplomatically describes the acoustics of the Texas Theater as "challenging" and sounds relieved that Happy Bullets won't have to throttle back their high-energy performance.

Semrad envisions the La Reunion residence as not only a way to encourage artistic collaborations, but also a model for green living, as "off-grid" as possible, using renewable resources and environmentally friendly power sources. Right now, she tells interested artists to sign up for the mailing list and keep checking the Web site. If she has any idea how long it'll be before the residence is fully functional, she's not giving any hint. Though La Reunion is still thousands of dollars and months or years from realization, artists from all over the country and as far away as Latvia have sent inquiries about applying for a residency at the fledgling organization. La Reunion's board of advisors is in the process of standardizing an application and criteria for awarding a residency—which could be as short as a week or as long as a year. The artists will have community obligations, such as speaking to after-school programs, and hopefully will also interact with each other voluntarily.

"I have a vision of, you know, maybe a painter and a ceramicist, a traditional artistic process, and maybe over here you've got a digital photographer and maybe a coder, and they're all sitting around the dinner table together," she says. "'What are you doing?' 'What are you doing? Can I come take pictures of that?'"

Musicians will be an important part of the community. La Reunion's advisors include Happy Bullets front man Jason Roberts, singer-songwriter and recording studio engineer Salim Nourallah, Summer Break Records owner Robert Jenkins and jazz multi-instrumentalist Neeki Bey. Their input will be important in designing a community room that will be part rehearsal studio, part artists' studio, part living room.

"We want musicians to come and stay at La Reunion," Semrad says. "We want the music-writing process to happen at the house...I want people to hear the rough draft of something, a songwriter's latest song or a monologue from a play that a writer is working on. We welcome artists of all media to apply."

The home will be on 35 acres of donated land in Oak Cliff. In keeping with her conspiratorial tone, Semrad won't divulge the name of the anonymous donor or the terms of the verbal agreement for use of the land. Of course, La Reunion's "secrets" could be spilled with a couple public-information requests—the organization was recently approved as a not-for-profit 501(c)(3)—but why spoil the fun?

Semrad knows the Art Conspiracy won't raise the entire $500,000—or whatever undisclosed sum La Reunion lacks. But it'll be a nice chunk of seed money, and future fund-raisers will help chip away at the amount needed. She, Roberts and Weinberg are open to just about any kind of corporate sponsorship, partnership or naming rights agreement—though Semrad balks when Weinberg jokingly suggests the residency program itself could end up being called "Whole Foods La Reunion." And although none of the three mentioned the idea, a house containing wildly different artists and musicians sounds like it's only a few cameras shy of being a high-brow reality show. PBS, perhaps?

"I might lose my brind if I stop to think about it," Semrad says of planning it all, not stopping to clarify if she meant to say "lose my brain" or "lose my mind." An indication that maybe it's too late, evidence that she has stopped to think about it, that she has already lost her "brind"? Maybe. But if herding nearly 200 artists and six musical acts has driven her nuts, at least she's no lone gunman.

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