On a recent Friday evening, a small group of artists gathered in the bowels of a hulking industrial building overlooking the Trinity River. Called Southside on Lamar, the nine-story brick building sits at the end of a row of rusting warehouses not far from downtown Dallas. Once a Sears distribution center, a Canadian developer gutted the place in the late '90s, sandblasted the walls and put a swimming pool on the roof. With 457 loft-style apartments and a room for yoga, the building has become one of Dallas' trendiest new addresses.
The group of artists, only five or six strong, stood in the basement just outside the glass-enclosed Janette Kennedy gallery, sipping wine, eating expensive cheese and admiring the offbeat work of Karina Nimmerfall, a German artist staying in the building. For at least one person there, Karen Weiner, the evening was bittersweet.
Weiner had organized more than a dozen shows like this one as manager of the Southside Artist Residency program, a unique collaboration between the University of Texas at Dallas and the owner of the building, Jack Matthews. This night's show was the last by an artist from the program. "Usually it's like a rave in here, it's just jammed with bodies," Weiner said, looking around the near-empty gallery. "I guess the turnout is indicative that this is the end."
For Weiner, the end came abruptly and with little explanation. "I don't know the exact reasons," she said. "We were thriving."
The residency program began with Matthews, who, before one lease was signed, set aside the building's former loading area as an artists colony. For $250 a month and one work of art, artists got about 1,000 square feet. Essentially, Matthews was trying to speed up a process of gentrification that usually takes 10 years--artists move into a rundown part of town, make it hip, rents rise and the SoHo wannabes invade and take over. When overseeing the colony turned into a headache, Matthews handed it over to the arts and humanities program at UTD. Over two years, UTD selected 25 artists to live in the colony for periods ranging from one month to a year.
To the Dallas art community, the program presented exciting possibilities. It was the first of its kind in the city and the only such program in Texas where artists lived and worked together in a completely urban environment. People like Weiner, who had worked at art venues throughout the city, hoped the program would give Dallas' art scene a shot in the arm. The city was great at consuming brand-name art, and its museums were well known, but beyond the local art schools, there were no institutions to nurture raw talent. If Dallas were to truly develop as an international art community and grow its own artists, it needed a residency program similar to those in San Antonio and Houston.
Weiner felt this so passionately she agreed to manage the program as an unpaid volunteer under the direction of UTD art chair Rick Brettell. And while there were hiccups here and there, the program was, in Weiner's mind, a great success. Every time she took someone on a tour of the place, it felt like she was opening a door to another world. There, in one loft, was Robert Pruitt, a Houston artist, sticking globs of Bubblicious to a machine gun. Down the hall, Paul Slocum, the resident Mad Max, was rewiring Atari consoles to play music and gibberish videogames. There were other artists, too, sculptors and painters and photographers, from London and Dallas and Caracas, Venezuela, all of them making unexpected, unusual pieces of art.
"It was unique. It wasn't repeating something else that already existed in the art community," she said. "We brought in curators and nationally known artists from New York to do studio visits. It was good exposure for our artists, but it was also good for Dallas; they went back to New York or wherever and said, 'Hey, there's this really exciting program in Dallas.'"
With time, Weiner believed, the program could develop into one of the best artist residency programs in the country. Then, to her surprise, she learned it was ending. "I'm still not sure what happened, although I expect it had something to do with money."
Southside on Lamar did not return repeated calls; Brettell, the program director, was unavailable. His assistant, Pierrette Lacour, would only say contract negotiations between the two parties broke down. According to UTD art professor Thomas Riccio, Matthews wanted the school to start paying partial rent for the artists' lofts, and the university refused.
"Southside went way out of its way to be supportive. It came down to, 'OK, we gave you a two-year incubation period, now show us some commitment,' and UTD wasn't ready to do that," Riccio said. "They liked the idea of a residency...but when it came time to ante up the big funds, it was like, 'whoa.'"
Riccio said UTD would have had to pay about $100,000 a year to keep artists in Southside lofts, an impossibility after the state Legislature decided at the last minute to give the school less than it promised. He estimated the school was paying around $10,000 a year to fund the program through art department funds. "It's hard to justify spending more when other departments are hurting," he said.
Lacour said the university is re-evaluating its role and that the program could resurface in some form. Riccio said he plans to hold a performance at Southside in May about a woman with multiple personality disorder. The building has also agreed to lend him a loft for the semester to teach a new media class.
"The residency was sort of confining. Professors didn't see Southside as an opportunity beyond the residency program. Now they do," Riccio said. "All the professors are figuring out ways they can use that space."
That may achieve the developer's objectives of keeping some sort of artists colony in his basement, but Weiner and others say Dallas needs a residency program, whether it's at Southside or somewhere else. "There is a real need for a program like this to establish unknown artists; otherwise, they'll go somewhere else." Riccio said. "This is a hot scene. It's ready to pop. It just needs a shove, and a residency program could be that."
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