Everyone from Dallas City Council members to the mayor have gushed over Dallas' arts community in recent years. It has seen a lot of growth, with the establishment of the Nasher Prize for sculpture, micro-grants being offered to up-and-coming artists by the Office of Cultural Affairs and the opening of many art galleries thriving with the support of young people. In recent months, however, the arts community has found itself the subject of a new level of critical scrutiny by city fire marshals, too. They've visited several galleries and theater groups, shutting them down or threatening to.
Earlier this year, Dallas Observer music editor Jeff Gage wrote about a similar issue at DIY music venues and underground dance parties. Fire marshals were showing up after learning about events on Facebook and forcing them to disband for lack of certificates of occupancy. Now small gatherings at art galleries are under the gun.
In May, a fire marshal even shut down an event the city itself helped pay for. Acoustic Nerves, a three-day nonprofit event at the Ice House Warehouse in West Dallas that combined installation and performance art with music, began just a few weeks after Mayor Mike Rawlings proudly kicked off Dallas Arts Week. It was funded by a $5,000 grant as part of the cultural projects program of the Office of Cultural Affairs.
The Ice House had been hosting shows for years without any issues. The organizers even mentioned the venue in their proposal to the cultural affairs office. Fire marshals showed up anyway.
During their visits fire marshals have routinely been asked questions like, “Why us?” and “Why now?” When one of Acoustic Nerve's organizers, Patrick Murphy, asked why they showed up to the Ice House on May 6, a fire marshal said, "No one ever asked us to come out and check on it before,” according to Murphy.
Butch McGregor, owner of the Ice House, declined a request for interview, but Murphy says that in May, McGregor described being surprised by the bust. “He did mention that the Dallas City Council was telling him and other business owners that they wanted things to happen in that area, especially with these abandoned buildings," Murphy said. "They wanted temporary things happening there just to get people out into that area. He felt that the city was encouraging this just a few weeks ago and now they were shutting it down.”
Kirk Hopper Fine Art has been in Deep Ellum since 2011, and fire marshals showed up on June 9. They visited Ro2 Art in The Cedars the next day. “They asked if this was an art gallery,” says Ro2 co-owner and gallery director Jordan Roth. He didn't have a certificate of occupancy in hand, so he went to the Oak Cliff Municipal Center to find if the city had one on file. Employees there couldn't even find evidence Ro2's building existed in the city's computer records, so Roth was invited to sort through microfiche. The next day he found a CO from 1990 that he might be able to use to stave off a permanent shutdown.
Jake Ryan Hull is co-founder of Cinderblock Sessions, a film production company that shoots professional photographs and video of intimate acoustic performances in its studio near Fair Park. Big local names such as Kaela Sinclair and Charley Crockett have played in front of tiny crowds at the warehouse, usually in front of a couple dozen people. The company is now paying a price for its work helping out up-and-coming musicians once a month and hosting the rare art show.
“To the city, if you do one thing that is an outlier to what your business does and what the building is zoned for, you are impeding your zoning and permitting rights,” Hull says. On June 30, Cinderblock was prepping for a session with Jonas Martin. “The city code inspector walked in our front door without even asking,” Hull says, laughing as he adds that the man claimed he'd just happened to be driving by.
The inspector intended to shut down the performance, but let it go with the understanding that they'd take care of the paperwork the following Monday. A police officer arrived a few hours later, just as the show was starting. Hull explained that the inspector had been by earlier and even produced the man’s card. With that, the officer left. After the session ended, another police officer showed up. Hull told him two others had been by, to which the officer responded by threatening to ticket every single car parked on grass near the building and calling the first inspector.
The phone call did not make the officer more agreeable. “He said that if he ever heard of another event at this building he’d call the district attorney, he’d get the fire marshal, and bring the police force here to shut us down,” Hull says. Cinderblock Sessions had a CO for a photography warehouse and now they are in the process of getting a required amusement indoor CO. “It’s the same permit that Main Event has,” Hull says. “Thirty days a month we are doing film production.”
But that wasn’t all. They also had to have space for 30 cars to park near the building. With no such accommodations in the area, they had no choice but to pave an acre of land next to their building. They were able to raise $10,000 during an online fundraiser. Unable to use their building, they moved their next session to the Common Desk in Deep Ellum, which sometimes hosts events. But yet again the fire marshal showed up and told the owners they would be cited if the event took place as planned.
The process of changing a CO from a warehouse to some sort of amusement center is not a small feat. “We’ve gone to the city office at least a dozen times just to get simple answers,” Hull says. “And the simple answers are not simple.” One person told them that once the parking lot is built they would have to get another expensive permit to use it. Another officer said that step wasn't necessary.
“They were literally across the hall from each other and didn’t know their own rules,” Hull says. “They couldn’t give us a straight answer so we literally had to debate the city, office to office, on what is and isn’t the rules. There are people who try to help and people who don’t. We’ve been in the same offices for almost three months and we are back to square one again just recently.”
Problems with trying to fix the problem are a common theme. The fire marshal could shed light on how to avoid being visited or how to correct any discovered problems, but the gallerists we spoke to reported that their line of communication to the fire marshal is nonexistent, and there was no response to the Observer's request for an interview.
The Basement Gallery in Oak Cliff was shut down in March after operating for more than three years. Fire and rescue showed up and kicked out the five or six people who were there. The owner of the building the gallery is located in didn’t have the right kind of CO, so the art gallery was closed.
“I’ve been going back and forth with the city doing everything they’ve asked for four months,” says Basement Gallery owner Daniel Yanez. “They told me to go find some more parking spaces today. The zoning is very complicated. I am just trying to figure it all out and it’s a bunch of money, too.” He learned he would have to get new site plans and floor plans, pay for a new CO and arrange inspections.
Yanez then found out he can't even get a CO for an art gallery in the area where it was originally located. “It’s like an arts and crafts type CO or something,” Yanez says. “We have to change the whole concept of what we are doing down there.” The difficulties galleries are having with the fire marshal effectively mean that art is being dictated by zoning. “I’ve been in there for so long. I put so much work and so much money into it. It’s home for me. Friends of mine had galleries shut down the week before and after. What caused the fire marshal to get all these art galleries at once?”
Artist Darryl Ratcliff is also co-founder of Ash Studios, which was visited by the fire marshal in January. “These actions by the fire marshal dampen the energy and threaten to roll back accomplishments,” Ratcliff says. “Seven months later we still find ourselves wondering what is happening and why.”
Ratcliff was able to spare Ash Studios from closure by locating a CO from the 1970s and reworking it to bring the place up to code. “It seems like they are inventorying cultural spaces,” he says. “It’s definitely unprecedented. I can’t remember anything like this at all. It’s curious.
“There’s a gap between rhetoric and action. The city government is complex and it takes a little time to get everyone on the same page. I’m optimistic that we can come up with a solution to stop what’s happening right now, which is totally depressing [Dallas'] potential."
Ratcliff has been interacting with the Office of Cultural Affairs in hopes of enlisting their help. “There’s been concern that has escalated as the extent of the problem becomes known, and I am hopeful that the concern will translate into action,” he says. “It’s not something that happens overnight, but it’s urgent. I think that all artists and art supporters who want to see Dallas become the world class art scene that the mayor often talks about should be really concerned about this issue and stay on top of their elected representatives to make sure this gets resolved in an expedient fashion.”
Jennifer Scripps was named the new director of the Office of Cultural Affairs only two months ago, and says she is aware of the issue but has not yet been able to address it. “The city runs and operates the Bath House Cultural Center and the fire marshal came and visited us,” she says. “I am very sympathetic and eager to work with the artists, but I have not had the time to engage with the fire marshal.
“Part of having a vital cultural community is that people want to do lots of different types of things,” Scripps continues. “Navigating the city channels to get the right boxes checked or a temporary certificate of occupancy or an event permit if you are using a venue that is not always used for art activities — I am being educated myself right along with everyone else. There is a real service we need to provide to help people navigate all of this.”
What's surprising is the number of places that were visited by the fire marshal in several months before anyone noticed the extent of the problem. “I think that the OCA had done some preliminary research on three or four of the incidents that had been brought to our attention,” Scripps says. She admits that the much longer list of creative spaces visited by the fire marshal presented to her by Darryl Ratcliff took her by surprise. “I guarantee I will get with the fire marshal.”