The DMA's Leigh Arnold, the Indiana Jones of Dallas Art
Things are getting pretty crazy in Dallas' art scene. Museums are handing keys over to inspired and innovative artists; houses are converting into galleries; one-off group and solo exhibitions are popping up in vacant Deep Ellum properties; and artists are adopting multiple roles as curators, musicians and publishers. We want to find out more about the minds behind these wonderful movements, so we're interviewing artists, curators, gallery owners and anyone else who's expanding the reach of -- and conversation around -- regional emerging art.
Today we chat with Leigh Arnold, research project coordinator at the Dallas Museum of Art and the researcher behind DallasSITES, the most recent exhibit at the DMA, which celebrated the history of North Texas' modern art scene since 1963. Arnold worked for more than three years on the project, researching, interviewing and diving into our city's artistic past. The result was a single place -- in the real world and online -- that brought art lovers up on 50 years of art history and happenings without having to spend a single night doing homework. Thank God, Arnold had Luz, her pugtastic pug to keep her sane.
I feel research can be an art, but what draws you to this practice? Is it because words are so damn sexy? Words have the potential to be damn sexy, but it really depends on the writer. I'd say what really turns me on to deep-level research is the rush experienced when solving a problem or finding the answer to a question. I have this innate compulsion to know all of the answers once my curiosity is piqued. Probably because knowledge is power and power is sexy, amiright?
I also just love knowing arcane details about our city's history and being that smug asshole at the cocktail party who "enlightens" party-goers with my encyclopedic knowledge of Dallas. Who doesn't love that? (Does sarcasm translate in print?)
Was delving into history something you have always been interested in? Did you tell your teachers growing up you wanted to spend three years researching a city's art scene? Popular films like The Goonies and Raiders of the Last Ark left a pretty big impression on me as kid growing up in Nebraska. I was constantly digging around the yard or looking for secret passageways in our old home. It's no wonder I thought I would grow up to be a female Indiana Jones. But I had no idea I'd be digging so deep into a city's history (and I certainly hadn't a clue that I'd end up in Dallas). In a way, the research conducted for DallasSITES is similar to urban archaeology or anthropology, so I suppose I'm not too far off from my youthful dreams of sporting khaki shorts and a safari hat on the daily.
There had to be moments where you thought you were going to lose it. How did you cope? Yes, definitely. Lots of crying and wringing of my hands...but seriously: coffee, tequila, and snuggles from Luz (more about her later).
What were some of your favorite materials, books or dossiers to blow the dust off and crack open? There was one piece of correspondence I found in the Henry Hopkins director's files in Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's archive regarding the Northwood Institute and Bill Komodore, who was a visiting artist for a time. The full text can be found in the DallasSITES e-publication ... but the gist is that Komodore was basically a hell raiser. In those moments when I thought I was going to lose it or just needed a laugh or pick-me-up, I'd read that letter and feel reassured that though Dallas may have a conservative history, artists have always been there to stir the pot.
As for reading for pleasure, I am knee deep in preparing for my doctoral exams, so I really don't have time to brush off any favorites. I'm too busy power reading. If I need to take a break from that, however, I'll usually turn to Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings or nymag.com.
I loved some of the tidbits you uncovered, the modern art Red Scare, rich neighborhood histories and reminding me of how awesome Toxic Shock was. Happy you enjoyed it! Finding out about these particular moments in our city's history was encouraging and really gave me pride of place. Learning about Toxic Shock was a revelation -- to know that an all-female, subversive artists collaborative existed in Dallas in the early 1980s gave me hope (and also made me realize that strong women still have a lot of work to do in this state).
You worked on this project for three years, exactly how much time was spent each week? We could think of the years leading up to the project as unofficial research, I suppose. Time spent each week? Did you get this question from my boss? Is this a trick? In all honesty, in the months leading up to the opening of the exhibition, I was spending every waking moment on the project, between writing for the catalog, finalizing exhibition text, last-minute interviews, and tweaking the layout of the show. I was living and breathing Dallas art history.
I see on your Facebook page that you have a unhealthy obsession with pugs, as do I. Aren't they just the greatest? They really are. I could go on, but I'm sure your editor has a word limit.
Even though I know you conducted plenty of face-to-face interviews, I still like to imagine you in this Hogwarts style library, with goblets of espresso and a owl on your shoulder. True? Not too far off, actually. Especially when I was editing interview transcripts.
When chronicling through the last 50 years, have you seen any mistakes that the Dallas art scene keeps on making? Not just those artists in the scene, but on all levels. The only thing that comes to mind is the dispute of whether it's the Oak Cliff Four or the Oak Cliff Five (OC4 would be George Green, Jack Mims, Jim Roche and Robert "Daddy-O" Wade; OC5 is the addition of Mac Whitney). Over the years this debate has gone back and forth, but I did an interview with four of the supposed five (Green, Mims, "Daddy-O" and Whitney) and they all agreed that it is, and always has been, the Oak Cliff Four. You can listen to the interview in the oral history section of the e-publication. (No, I am not getting paid to plug this book. I just think it's really that great).
There's a rash of new and young micro-publications chronicling the local art scene, going against the mantra that "print is dead." What are your thoughts on these new curating opportunities and why there seems to be a resurgence? As someone who authored an e-publication, I could go on about the benefits of online digital publishing, but where's the fun in that? I think the resurgence of the physical, in-your-hands publication is revealing of the universal feeling of nostalgia or longing for our past (or, really, isn't it just hipsterism?). It is also an allusion to a sense of permanence. Yes, I get it. Once something goes up online, it's there forever. But really, is it? A physical magazine, like semigloss or back issues of DallasArtsRevue, feels more permanent to me than a webpage. This became especially apparent when I was looking for "artifacts" of the more recent history of the Dallas art scene, and spaces like And/Or or OFG had little representation because they focused primarily on online marketing/PR.
I currently live in Oak Cliff. Where do you see that neighborhood's art identity, now that there's very little progressive arts in Bishop Arts? In a few words, I'd say that Oak Cliff has a very community-oriented identity, with spaces like Oil and Cotton, Mighty Fine Arts, and Robert Hamilton and Cynthia Mulcahy's recent Seventeen Hundred Seeds project. It's arguably the most diverse neighborhood in Dallas, yet it is also the most welcoming.
I have to bring it back to pugs. How many do you own and are you about that "pug lyfe?" I have one lady pug named Luz. Props to anyone who can identify the source for her name (hint: it's from an excellent Texas Western epic). I am all about that "pug lyfe" -- as my Facebook profile suggests.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.