Break it down

It's a new year. Time to stop asking the question: "How does the Dallas art scene compare to other cities?"

Replacement query: How is the Dallas art scene doing, period?
I won't pretend that I'm intimate with every dent and cranny of the local artistic community. For various reasons, from political to personal, I skip plenty; the handful of galleries I didn't set foot in this year is a heavy one, I'm sure. As a relative rookie, I've covered the visual arts in this town for less than two years--beginning at The Met in early 1997 and moving over to the Dallas Observer last February.

So by one standard, I'm still getting my feet wet, or rather, by this time, my knees. By another, I'm not so tangled in local political red tape and in-club schmoozing that I can't see the big picture for the haze. What I do see: a damn fine art scene that's constantly threatening to drown under Dallas' shallow, shiny priorities.

Dallas-Fort Worth is one of the fastest-growing centers in this country; corporate ladder-climbers from all over the map are migrating to this area's suburbs in droves that would put God's plague of Old-Testament locusts to shame. The DFW combo is usually ranked as the eighth largest metropolitan area in the United States.

So great. Dallas is growing, and surely its culture will expand and deepen to reflect that, right? What seems true, rather, is that the bulk of these new Dallasites (or rather, Planoites) don't care much about art. They're perfectly content to keep north of LBJ Freeway and west of Loop 12, gorge themselves on Outback Steakhouse, the Gap, and Barnes & Noble--their version of culture. After all, they didn't move here to hang out at the DMA, they moved here because they got a job at EDS. Why brave the gauntlet (Central Expressway) to see...what, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra? You mean Dallas has a symphony? And a museum? And dozens of galleries and theaters and rock bands and so on that suburban sprawlers--our own burgeoning population--won't even touch, much less support? Seems to me that the majority of those attending art openings week in, week out are the same urban dwellers that have been going for years, plus trickling handfuls of incoming young artists from area universities.

Face it: Some cities are more culturally responsive and encouraging than others. Once a strong art seed is planted in an area, people flock there because it's artistically established. And not just the obvious hubs of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago--add to that, smaller but no less culturally motivated towns: Austin, Santa Fe, Seattle, Atlanta, even Houston. If an art-loving yuppie were transferred to a new job in one of those places, he likely wouldn't scream "Egad! Where will I get my art injection? That place is bereft!" No doubt that's what plenty of people have yelled upon receiving orders from the top to relocate to Dallas. Built upon foundations of real estate, oil money, and more recently corporate headquarters and technology, this city's profile has never been particularly artsy. Even after a decade of promises from city leaders to develop an arts district downtown, we're still waiting. In a bid to become a "world-class city" (as late mayor Annette Strauss so often labeled it), we've spent far more cash on the cosmetic rather than the interior culture. Why else would city leaders gladly earmark more than $100 million for another sports arena? Instead of diversifying, Dallas is running on the momentum it's already got: Come to Big D to shop in our stores, to do business, and while you're here, catch one of our four pro teams! People head to New York to see the Metropolitan Opera. Few people travel here just to see the Dallas Opera. That little fact ain't changing anytime soon. Dallas has never been equated with great art. The Nasher Sculpture Garden could help change that, but I have yet to see anyone break ground on Olive Street.

Case in point: That preposterous "painting is dead" posit--a basic 1980s art-hound topic hotly debated and then rightfully lampooned in most other cities--never even applied here. Oh, perhaps deep in the graduate-level classrooms of the University of North Texas, an artist-professor named Vernon Fisher might have brought it up, but painting (and its painters) have hardly taken up residence long enough in Dallas even to inspire such dialogue among civilians, and more crucially, art hasn't enjoyed the kind of massive splintering and variety in these parts to raise that kind of question. To most Dallasites, about the only kind of visual art there is is painting. "Painting is dead? What else is there? Oh, yeah. Sculpture." And try video, film, conceptual, printmaking, photography, folk, low-brow, illustration, and so forth.

So let's put the "how do we compare to other cities' art scenes?" thing to rest. Until the world--and we--start to think of Dallas in art-culture terms, the point is moot.

But how can I write about Dallas and not touch on Forth Worth? Boiled down to its basics, the Dallas-Forth Worth relationship plays out like this: Fort Worth has the museums but not the galleries; it has the artist support (in spirit, anyway) but few showcases for those artists. Dallas has the galleries but not the museums, and little incentive for artists to stick around. So choose your lesser evil.

Despite this somewhat dreary portrait, we have one serious trump card. Buried beneath the city's glitz and score-keeping and misguided political moves is a core group of people who make up the art scene. They know what they're doing, they do it well, and newcomers would benefit seeking them out. Dallas has no less than a dozen proactive powerhouse galleries, a slew of excellent forward-thinking artists who remain here for various personal reasons, a respectable group of thoughtful collectors, and a quiet legion of very real art supporters. Plus the rent is cheap. Once you scrape the surface of this world, you find a generous plate of fascinating, challenging art. Rather than ugly competition, you find encouragement; rather than complacency, you find a collective rage against the machine. In a place like Dallas, these bastard stepchildren know how to both stick together and stick it to a city that tries to ignore them--that's what it takes to survive, and it makes for some grand moments. Dallas may not be an "arts" city, but there's some really fine art in this town. If you looked for it, as I did last year, here's what you might have found:

Top 10 visual art events of 1998
1. Erick Swenson at the Angstrom
2. The opening of the Conduit Annex
3. The permanent Bill Viola installation at the DMA
4. The 20th anniversary of 500X
5. The Modernism show at the Kimbell

6. Tie: Patrick Faulhaber and Linda Ridgway in the Quadrant Galleries at the DMA

7. The continuing growth of the Arlington Museum of Art and Dallas Visual Art Center

8. Tie: Roger Winter at Edith Baker Gallery, David Bates' Gulf Coast paintings at the MAC

9. Tony Scherman at Turner and Runyon Gallery
10. The continuing effort on the part of a determined few to get the Nasher Garden underway

Honorable mention: The opening of several new galleries, including Stone X Stone, Sock Monkey, and gallery: untitled

Emerging local artists to watch: Scott Barber, Johnny Robertson, Ted Kincaid, Steven Hopwood Lewis, and Kate Budd

Bottom three visual art events
1. That no less than three fine galleries (gallery: untitled, Space Gallery, and Craighead-Green Gallery) have boycotted the press (or at least, me) for not giving them completely positive (or constant) coverage. Certainly, this isn't the best way to serve your artists and gallery owners.

2. That the Kimbell's new director, Dr. Timothy Potts, won't do interviews--or the Kimbell won't allow it.

3. Kudos to the Florence Art Gallery for being Novelty Central and pretending to be legit. In a single year it has showcased: Lisa-the-Blind-Artist and Alexandra-the-Child-Artist. Such fluff was sure to get a laugh, once we were all finished throwing up.

All right, then. Let's buck up, campers, and get on with 1999. Should be interesting.


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