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Thinned herd

A shortage of money has cut off expansion of the herd of bronze cattle at Pioneer Plaza.
Mark Graham

At first, independent Dallas tour guide Elaine Swartzwelder couldn't see anything wrong with the loping longhorns and the three horsemen that make up the Texas trail-drive sculpture in Pioneer Plaza, and she's seen it plenty. In fact, she says, it's one of the most popular spots on her route, second only to Dealey Plaza for the tourists she shepherds around downtown Dallas.

"Of course, I love Pioneer Plaza, and the people we bring through love it too," she says, "but I'm not an artist."

Swartzwelder didn't realize there was anything wrong, or that there was anything missing, until she talked to the sculptor himself. Until Swartzwelder met Robert Summers during a tour operator's orientation of the sculpture park, she thought the artwork was wonderful. Until she heard the whole story from the artist, who has labored for nearly six years on his vision for the ambitious, controversial, historically accurate monument to a part of Dallas' past, she thought Pioneer Plaza was finished.

"It's not finished," Summers says from his Glen Rose studio. "But the funding's fizzled, and the thing has really slowed down." Summers won the commission for 70 longhorn steers and three horses and riders in 1993, taking on what was supposed to be a three-year project. Dallas developer Trammell Crow initiated Pioneer Plaza and backed it with $4.5 million of his own money and other private donations. The city of Dallas provided a $4.9 million piece of land at Young and Griffin Streets, adjacent to the convention center.

Crow's project was born in controversy. The land that the city provided was considered a prime location for a new hotel, and critics accused Crow of building the sculpture park to stave off competition with his Anatole hotel. Some city council members opposed the annual costs of maintaining the sculptures -- $144,817 in this year's city budget.

A few artists on the Dallas Public Art Committee were so angry that Western realism -- i.e., cows -- would represent high art in Dallas that they sued in a failed effort to slaughter Pioneer Plaza on the hoof, so to speak. And Summers himself, who has fought all along for historical accuracy and artistic integrity, now says that the remaining 30 steers of the planned herd are being scrapped because the money's all gone -- and because nobody cares. "That's the long and the short of it," he says.

Today, looking finished to nearly everyone but Summers, smack in the middle of downtown, is Crow's anachronistic project, an artistic representation of an 1860s cattle drive in the shadow of skyscrapers and only four blocks from Neiman Marcus. Summers' work in Pioneer Plaza includes one Anglo, one Hispanic, and one African-American cowboy riding herd over 40 head of longhorn cattle. "That's not a statement for political correctness," Summers says. "If it were, I would have balked. But it's completely historically accurate." The steers meander down a brushy hill overlooking a stream and a century-old cemetery where many of Dallas' founders were laid to rest.

When critics first suggested that the 19th-century cattle drive was neither real art nor real Dallas history, local historian A.C. Greene's help was enlisted. Greene found that Dallas in fact straddled the old Shawnee Trail, and herds of cattle indeed once crossed the Trinity River where Reunion Arena and the Hyatt Hotel now stand. Summers recalls a meeting in Crow's office where the real estate mogul had created a rough model with toy cows in a pile of sand on a conference table -- his vision of Pioneer Plaza. "I took some sand and designed a different contour and showed them how it should look," Summers says. "They accepted my proposal to have 70 steers created out of 10 original designs. The parts could be interchangeable to give a different look and save a lot of money."

Summers, who's been crafting the creatures diligently since 1993, just sent the plans for 14 more castings to the Wyoming foundry that turns his wax molds into bronze art. "The last thing I was told was, when these next 14 come in, they'll probably consider it a completed project, unless somebody comes up with the cash to finish the rest of it," Summers says.

As impressive as tourists and laypeople believe the artwork is, Summers isn't satisfied. For one thing, he doesn't expect to be paid for the entire project, since it looks like there's no more funding and no real drive to raise any more money. Summers agreed to accept prorated payments for his work, as he delivered various elements of the diorama that's larger than a football field, and he's been paid for the work he's completed. (He won't say how much.) But more important, he says, is that after all this time, and after all the finagling, criticism, and controversy, his project won't have the impact it's supposed to have.

"I have lost a little sleep over it," Summers says. "It's not going to have the visual impact that everyone intended." It won't be the way it was planned; it won't reflect his vision and attention to detail and historical accuracy; it won't look right; and it won't be right. "I guess they thought enough of my work and recognized that I knew what I was doing at first," he says. "But my vision won't be fulfilled if they don't get all 70 of them in. "

While Summers makes the difference between 54 cows and 70 seem almost as grievous as a budget-restricted painting of the "Last Supper" with Jesus and only six disciples, no one else seems to believe an art travesty has been committed. Effectively semi-retired and in increasingly poor health, Trammell Crow isn't talking much these days; but Jack Beckman, who worked beside him on Pioneer Plaza and who is about to pull the plug on the project and call it a done deal, is talking. "It'll be done when I say it's done," Beckman says. Done, in this case, may mean even fewer cows than the 54 Summers is planning. "We're going to cast 10 more steer, for a total of 50, and fill in the front of the space," Beckman says. "It's so big now that it wouldn't look right with 70 longhorns. We've been adjusting all along, so this is just another adjustment. I don't want to slam any doors on potential donors who might want to pay for another steer. But right now, at 50, I'm going to ask the foundation board to declare it complete." Beckman reports to the Dallas Trees and Parks Foundation, established by Crow and others interested in beautification of the central business district, on the Pioneer Plaza project. The foundation, with Crow's encouragement, agreed to design, finance, and construct an 1860s-era gateway to the expanded Dallas Convention Center, and its current executive director, Mike Bradshaw, took up the project in 1994.

"I missed all the fun," he quips, referring to the criticism and posturing that went on among arts groups and city council from 1992 until the end of 1993. "As far as being finished, the number of steer is only part of the equation," Bradshaw says. "What we still have left to do are the donor-recognition components around the reflecting pond, a granite map showing the cattle trails in Texas, and a history text on two boulders on the site," he says.

That, at least, will make Summers happier. "There is supposed to be signage with the historical significance," he says. "And when you're driving by, you notice they're not maintaining the foliage like I think they should. The sagebrush is supposed to be 18 inches tall, and some of it is over 5 feet." Bradshaw reports that the foundation did some pruning three weeks ago. "It's looking great now," he says.

So, even as some of Summers' concerns are met, and even as he says he doesn't want his complaints to sound like "sour grapes," the sculptor is still disappointed in a project that's taken twice as long as he expected and paid a lot less. The number of steers, he says, is critical. "It's like leaving the head off the Statue of Liberty," he says. "They told me they wanted to have visual impact, excitement, and, above all, they wanted it to be awesome."

Beckman and Bradshaw say they've heard nothing but positive comments, and even Swartzwelder, who sympathizes with Summers, still thinks Pioneer Plaza is remarkable. "It's really the difference between art and commissioned art," Beckman says. "If it's the artist's vision, it's art. If it's an artist creating our vision, it's commissioned art. Pioneer Plaza is commissioned art."


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