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Joan of art

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

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.

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.

 

"I say I can do anything I can dream up as long as I have the energy, find the time, and raise the money," Davidow says, sipping tea at home on a weekday morning before she has to go in to the office. She's philosophical about staying in one place so long and honest when she says she has had offers, only to turn them all down. "There aren't very many places where you have such freedom to explore, grow, and develop a program," she says. "I think these are the joys and pressures of being a founding director. The freedom is great, but you also have the huge responsibility of raising money. Our board is developing and maturing, and they are getting involved in that process, but for a long time it's been my sole responsibility. It's just too much."

Do not mistake her words as those of complaint; Davidow does not whine. But the fact remains: Last year's list of accomplishments and next year's to-do list sound like a recipe for burnout for anyone involved in running the Arlington Museum of Art.

Davidow and the board have kept up consistently powerful contemporary art exhibitions, featuring established and emerging local artists, to critical acclaim. Particularly noteworthy was the museum's collaboration with Denton's Good/Bad Art Collective, True Stories, which featured an ambitious performance-art piece for the exhibition's opening night in May. Davidow's companion brainchildren, A Hot Show and A Cool Show, were rightly lauded as containing some of the very best new abstract art by Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington artists ever mounted. And it was because of Davidow's persistence: She visited area artists' studios in search of a nucleus for a new show.

"When I'm looking for ideas, I think about the work that's being done and how it needs to be seen," she says. "If I think the work is all being developed around the same concept, and if it's a concept that's apparently interesting to many artists, then I believe we need to be looking at it."

Throughout 1999, the AMA beefed up its already serious educational programming, adding Saturday art classes to its existing summer camps and free "Family Day" activities for each opening; she estimates the museum hosted nearly 2,400 children in 1999. And museum staffers visit neighboring schools with the new "Art Around the Corner" program, supported by the Edward and Betty Marcus Foundation. Davidow also mentions the "Cool Kids Gallery," describing a renovated third-floor exhibition space where Arlington students can display artwork they make relating to each AMA exhibit.

Davidow also started "Art Smart" birthday parties this year, giving parents an opportunity to rent the museum for special birthday celebrations. Davidow is acutely aware of the need to tie the museum into schools and the family-oriented Arlington community. It helps her maintain a balance of support in a small, conservative community where the general public often scratches its collective head at edgy contemporary art. Arlingtonians come to see it, Davidow says, but they don't understand it -- and sometimes, they don't like it.

"Contemporary art is probably a new phenomenon for Arlingtonians," she says. "But developing a sense of culture has been a growing need for this city. Since we're between two urban giants, it has been hard for this city to be concerned about its own social and cultural well-being. I see that changing, and Arlington is really establishing itself. It's much bigger, with 300,000 people now."

But, Davidow says, Arlington's still not much of an art-buying town. So she and her staff do yeoman's service each year to find and display the very best of donated Texas art for the annual fund-raiser. On February 5, the AMA will paint the town red with more than 100 works by local and regional artists, including a $2,000-and-up category in honor of the millennium. Davidow solicited and got donations by Brian Fridge and Nic Nicosia this year, just before these two local artists were selected to display their work in the Whitney Museum's prestigious Biennial exhibition slated for March in New York City.

"I didn't even know [they would be selected] when I asked for their work," Davidow admits. "But it's pretty special to be able to have a local venue where these artists can be seen on their way up."

 

Davidow's on her way too. She's got to get to work, she says: Gotta go, very busy. She's meeting some artists who are delivering art for the gala, and she's rushing some additional information to the city of Arlington for a grant application that could help pay for the renovation and expansion of the museum on Main Street.

"It's still just a dream," Davidow says. "We have to raise $3 million or more. I'm giving it five years. It will either happen or it won't by then." The board is working with her to formulate a three-year strategic plan and talking to a fund-raising consultant about how to determine feasibility for raising the money to fund the building project. In the meantime, Davidow, a former artist herself, says she's happy in Arlington. For her, developing the museum has taken the place of making art.

"This is my art now," she says. "This is my canvas. I see myself here for at least five more years," she says. "If I don't burn out." She adds this with a sort of smirk, raising dark eyebrows on a narrow face loaded with Audrey Hepburn-like features. "It's really nice to be able to create something and then see what happens from that."


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