Ash Studios is contesting a fine from fire marshal.
Ash Studios is contesting a fine from fire marshal.
courtesy Ash Studios

Dallas Art Space to Fire Marshal: You Can't Fine Us — We're a 'Social Sculpture'

After years of fire marshal crackdowns on Dallas arts spaces that effectively limited what artists could do inside their galleries and studios, Ash Studios clapped back by contesting its citation in court.

The artists’ collaborative run by Fred Villanueva and Darryl Ratcliff was fined $700 in March for hosting a stage production at its live-work studio complex in Fair Park for an audience of about 20 people.

The fire marshal cited the group for the gathering and for not having a certificate of occupancy, which designates what each building in the city of Dallas can be used for and how many people can safely gather in the space at a time, among other requirements.

Issues in obtaining COs arose within arts spaces over the last two years because COs typically don’t allow for the flexible and collaborative nature of most of these spaces and efforts. For example, a gallery might have an opening to exhibit a local painter’s work one day but host an interpretive dance performance the next. The arts community argued that there wasn’t a CO that encompasses all of the venues' uses and that many of the requirements to obtain a CO, like installing a second bathroom, were cost-prohibitive.

Ash Studios decided to take the matter to Dallas Municipal Court. A judge heard a pretrial hearing of Fred Villanueva v. the State of Texas last week.

Villanueva’s legal representation, Paul Saputo of the Saputo Law Firm, asked the judge to dismiss the citation, arguing in a landmark move that Ash Studios isn’t a building in the traditional sense that would be subject to existing CO requirements. It is, rather, a “social sculpture.”

Saputo said the venue should have a separate CO designation than the “indoor commercial amusement” CO recommended by fire inspector Keith Wilson, who visited Ash Studios to issue the citation. The lawyer asked the judge to allow the collaborative to resume its activities until the city creates a new CO for spaces like Ash Studios.

Fred Villanueva once received a grant to produce murals for Ash Studios.
Fred Villanueva once received a grant to produce murals for Ash Studios.
courtesy Fred Villanueva

The term social sculpture comes from the field of social practice art that emerged in the 1960s, of which Villanueva and Ratcliff are practitioners.

“According to art historian Alan W. Moore, the term social sculpture named a kind of artwork that takes place in the social realm, an art that requires social engagement, the participation of its audience, for its completion,” Southern Methodist University professor Michael Corris wrote in an expert witness statement on behalf of Ash Studios.

“Social sculpture employs many media and many resources of artistic expression in an effort to create works of art that are participatory, provocative, and community building," the statement continued. "In contradistinction to other, more conventional forms of art, the majority of the artworks of Ash Studios demand engagement from the public and encourage a sustainable audience of members of the immediate community in which Ash Studios is situated."

Saputo argued that the requirements of the current process — obtaining a CO that doesn't fit the studio's needs and applying for a special-use permit 45 days before a collaborative outdoor event — would stamp out the collaborative’s vitality and destroy Villanueva’s social practice artwork.

“If the city has the power to tell him that he cannot bring these people together and create the social sculpture — of which the necessary component is the building where it all happens — then that work will no longer exist. It’s akin to ripping up an artist’s canvas and setting it on fire,” Saputo told the judge. “He has the right under federal law to prevent the destruction of his work as long as it’s of recognized stature. Ash Studios is of recognized stature — it’s well known in the arts community; it’s vital to the city.”

“Does Ash Studios have four walls and a roof?” The prosecuting attorney countered. “Then it satisfies the definition of ‘building’ under the Dallas city fire code. They’re required to have a CO, which is specifically for the safety of the occupants, patrons, customers — whatever term they want to use for the people who are there appreciating art. Whatever they’re doing there, if they’re gathering, there is a CO that’s required to be obtained.

“This art gallery isn’t being singled out. Nothing is being destroyed here,” he continued. “The city of Dallas is simply requesting that it be brought into the proper specifications. … Specifically, this is about safety. That’s what COs are all about.”

Villanueva and Wilson, the fire inspector, were called to testify in court. The fire inspector said that Ash Studios could be in compliance with the indoor commercial amusement CO, and Villanueva countered that the CO doesn’t fit Ash Studio’s purposes because his collaborative isn’t a commercial endeavor.

Ratcliff, who runs the studio with Villanueva, shared his thoughts before the hearing in a written statement:

"Our motivation for contesting the citation has a lot to do with the greater environment of the Fire Marshal systematic targeting of cultural spaces and the unintended policy effects this has had. Dallas has lost at least 12 existing cultural spaces due to this policy, and there are probably dozens more that do not exist because of this policy. Dallas has lost some of its best cultural talent because of this policy (See Samantha McCurdy (That, That) Eli Walker, Kelly Kroener (Homeland Security), and is struggling to recruit new talent. This policy has drained Dallas of its creative energy at a critical time. … Creatives are afraid to invest their energy in a regulatory environment that will ... punish their entrepreneurism and creativity by shutting down their openings and their events and issuing fines. No other major city in America (all of whom have similar problems, all of whom reacted to the fire in Oakland) is operating a punitive cultural policy like Dallas is. …Although we appreciate the efforts of city staff who have been working on this issue, the reality is that Dallas is substantially less interesting and culturally vital than it was before this policy was implemented."

The judge denied the motion to dismiss the citation, so the case will go to a jury trial Jan. 3.


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