Gallery Hopping in Dallas: Can Art be Mandatory?

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Saturday evening, I participated in the activity known in New York City or Los Angeles as "gallery hopping," which is exactly what it sounds like. I just often forget you can do it in Dallas. On nights packed with openings, it can be the perfect pre-dinner or concert activity. Swing by a few galleries from 6-8, see some art, chug some free wine, then show up to your otherwise typical Saturday night cultured and a teensy bit buzzed.

So Saturday evening, I'm standing in Ware:Wolf:Haus just a block from the happy diners in Trinity Groves and I've stationed myself in front of Randy Guthmiller's green and yellow shapes (he has an entire Zine dedicated to shapes. Get this, it's called Shapes). I overhear another gallery visitor talking to her friends, "One time my birthday fell on a night filled with gallery openings so I made it my birthday party."

At first, I didn't think anything of my accidental eavesdropping. I was too busy trying to make out familiar squares or circles in Guthmiller's green and yellow figures. After downing a glass of wine, I felt a renewed fondness for shapes I recognize and a nagging sense that in Guthmiller's discombobulation of rectangles and octagons, he's pointing to a gap in the way we shape the world around us by assigning names and meaning. Is a square any more a shape than his disfigured jigsaw puzzle pieces? Are we too devoted to the familiar?

As I left the gallery, it wasn't just the shapes that replayed in my head. It was the woman and her birthday party. There I was, pinballing across the city from Oliver Francis Gallery in East Dallas, to W.A.A.S. Gallery in The Cedars to Ware:Wolf:Haus. Just me -- no birthday party in tow. I hadn't even invited my friends because about a year ago I decided to stop obligating anyone to art.

That sense of obligation to art is what I can't stop thinking about. I wish I knew how her party turned out. Did anyone show up? Did they complain? Did she find herself rushed through galleries when she wished to linger? People can skip social events, but for a good friend, a birthday party is mandatory. What happens to art when it becomes mandatory?

The next day, the weather was beautiful, so I met my sister and her husband for a mimosa in Klyde Warren Park before wandering over to the Dallas Museum of Art to see the new acquisitions in Never Enough (on view through July 20). We're sitting under the warm March sun and I bring up this idea of an art gallery birthday party, but this time in regard to theater. Thursday, I attended Honky at WaterTower Theatre's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival. It's the mainstage show of the festival, so I felt I should go. I felt obligated. And I'm wondering if that detracted from the experience. I wasn't crazy about the show, which Elaine Liner reviews in this week's issue, but maybe I wasn't enjoying the experience at all.

I figured my sister would have an opinion on this, because a few months ago, she started a group called The Audience Collective, which is basically just a social club for theater. "I think a lot of people go to the symphony, the theater or museums because they feel like they have to," she says. "I think people don't really understand why they show up, they just feel like they should. Half the time I look around and everyone looks miserable."

As we wander the barrel vault gallery, I'm struck by how much I like all the new art the DMA acquired. It's modern; it's fresh. There are a few pieces that complement the work I had seen the night before. Several times I find myself reconsidering Ludwig Schwarz's exhibit at the Oliver Francis Gallery or Guthmiller's shapes. And the work is well-curated, the plaques on the wall not only explain the work on view, but also the influences, many of which are just down the hall. I'm also slightly obsessed with Charles Atlas' video piece, Painting by Numbers, which as my brother-in-law puts it, "would be trippy if you were high."

Plus, the energy is good. The museum is crowded, perhaps because this exhibit is free, or perhaps because a museum is a good place to spend a Sunday. As I'm re-watching the Uri Aran video, Untitled (I Love You), in which he arranges toy whales and assigns hierarchy based on affection, I find myself distracted by the flow of people into the sculpture garden.

The barrel vault gallery isn't technically an entry point into the garden. The glass doors read "emergency exit only," but everyone is ignoring the warning of impending alarm. The beautiful weather, the tranquil courtyard and the stunning sculpture prove irresistible. It wasn't why they were at the museum, but person after person walks through the doors, drawn into the experience. Beautiful weather aside, they were engaging in the experience of art.

I think that's just it. Art is not mandatory, it's experience, it's thought, it's beauty and it's happening all around Dallas. The galleries, museums and theaters are the gateway to art: the introduction, the foundation, the experience. Then, you have to participate for the art to have meaning, with or without the nagging notion that you're obligated. But if it's a birthday party that gets you there, then maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Lauren is the Dallas Observer's arts & culture editor. Have an event she should write about or drop by? Email her: lauren.smart@dallasobserver.com.

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