Frustrations with the recent closings of art spaces by the fire marshal reached a boiling point on Tuesday as nearly 100 artists, gallerists and others close to the matter assembled in the auditorium at the Central Public Library. The discussion got heated as some artists lashed out at city officials including the fire marshal and workers from building inspection office. Artists’ livelihoods are at stake as their spaces have been closed or threatened with tickets and closings, while they try to navigate the murky waters of the city offices and wait on getting the paperwork necessary to operate legally.
What raised eyebrows in May with the shut down of Acoustic Nerves, a three-day pop-up art installation and performance event at the Ice House in Oak Cliff, has ramped up in intensity as the shutdowns have become more frequent. Acoustic Nerves was both funded and shut down by the city, as was last week's Art Conspiracy event at Kirk Hopper Fine Art, which was shut down even though it had already been approved by the fire marshal.
Giovanni Valderas, assistant director of Kirk Hopper, says the event was shut down by an official in the fire marshal’s office. Valderas had talked with Jennifer Scripps, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, and Tommy Ludwig of the city manager's office prior to the event and they had given him the go-ahead after clearing it with the fire marshal.
Is it a case of the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, or something more sinister? The entire situation has become massively convoluted. One artist at the meeting called the crackdown a “witch hunt” and others such as Patrick Romeo of Beefhaus, an art gallery in Exposition Park, have espoused conspiracy theories.
One such theory is that the arts community has been targeted by the police and fire departments due to bad blood springing from the Museum Tower debacle. (The police and fire pension fund owns Museum Tower, a high-rise luxury condominium building in the Arts District that’s suffered bad press stemming from its conflict with the Nasher. The Nasher says reflected sunlight from the tower is damaging its grounds.)
It’s not clear that the arts community has been specifically targeted as part of a vendetta, although it is clear that arts spaces are being visited with increased regularity. Officials have mentioned the fire marshal's office uses social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and local news outlets to stay up to date on which arts events are happening in the city and then cross references those spaces with city information to see if the spaces are current with their certificates of occupancy.
After busting several of these spaces that either didn’t have a certificate at all, had an outdated one or had the wrong kind of certificate. for their space, the fire department is aware that these deficiencies are wide-spread. Certificates of occupancy are obtained after a space has gone through an inspection by the city and the city inspectors have signed off on things like plumbing, electrical and fire safety (like having the proper number of exits, fire extinguishers and fire alarms).
Think of a C.O. like a driver's license. You may have gone through driving school, passed your driving test, and know how to operate a car safely, but without a piece of paper verifying all of that, you can still be ticketed — or if you’re hosting an event, and the fire marshal visits you to check that it’s in compliance with your C.O., if you don’t have it, you risk getting shut down.
Aside from operating without C.O.s at all, one of the major problems is that many arts spaces fall through the cracks in terms of what C.O.s allow for. “We're going to be working very hard to create a path with building inspection and fire inspection so people can say, ‘Here's what I've got. What are my parameters?’ And building inspection can say, ‘Here's what you can do and here are the parameters you need to stay in,’” says Martinez.
It’s that mentality of parameters that makes it difficult for art spaces to operate as they need and want to within the system. Flexibility is key to having the vibrant, collaborative arts community that Dallas is striving to support. Many arts spaces, whether a gallery or studio, host a variety of events. During the day, they might be standard art galleries that see a handful of clients trickle in and out, but during the weekend, they might host gallery openings, plays, performance art or music performances with 100 or more guests.
The C.O.s, as they’re set up now, don’t reflect that need for flexibility, which is leading to confusion about what type of C.O.s gallery spaces need to obtain to be legal and hold the activities they want to hold. City officials were short on answers during the meeting when artists like Frank Campagna of the Kettle Gallery in Deep Ellum asked about the legality of the activities he’s hosting in his space. Campagna obtained a C.O. years ago, he said, yet he also holds events like a recent spoken word poetry gathering with live music that had about 100 guests.
Most of the C.O.s that have been issued to art galleries are for “general business” purposes that allow for less than 50 people in the room at a given time. If the galleries are planning to host large gatherings then the C.O. goes from general business use to “assembly” use, which is a different type of C.O. altogether.
Assembly C.O.s take into account increased people in a space and make the requirements for everything more stringent, especially fire safety. This could require the gallery to do anything from adding more fire extinguishers to completely retrofitting for sprinkler systems and fire alarms or adding a second bathroom, the expense of which could make or break an arts space.
Another problem is that artists and gallerists who have tried to become compliant have reported getting the runaround from the city departments that are supposed to be guiding them through the process. Valderas reports that a building inspector threatened to ticket Kirk Hopper Fine Art for operating without a C.O. while it’s in the process of obtaining a new one after renovations, yet the gallery has been waiting on that very inspector’s office to move forward with the process. Valderas’ reaction to the inspector’s threat: “You're kidding right? We're waiting on your department to come and inspect the building.”
Romeo was instrumental in getting Beefhaus’ space an updated C.O., a necessary step when a space changes usage, like it did from a bicycle shop into an art gallery. “There were so many follow-up phone calls and we were basically berating these people to do their jobs," he says. "There's absolutely no transparency, no communication. I mean what do you expect? It's the government."
And Beefhaus was able to “fast-track” its C.O. process, says Romeo. It took two-and-a-half months as compared to other galleries that still don’t have a solution, like Daniel Yanez’s Basement Gallery, which has been shut for five months while he works to get a C.O. He’s run into obstacles with inspection, zoning, additional parking requirements and an interior wall that was built without a permit.
Yanez says after all of the dealings with the city, he will most likely not be allowed to reopen as a gallery that hosts shows, but as a studio. “It's been one obstacle after another,” says Yanez. “The Basement will no longer be recognizable as it was before. ... Maybe in the future it will go under some rezoning for a specific use permit.”
Romeo credits the fact that Beefhaus’ building was built in 1914 and a lot of the requirements are grandfathered in, so their space required minor changes as opposed to a newer space like Erin Cluley Gallery, which was recently visited by building inspection. Cluley is battling the requirement to put in a second bathroom in her newly renovated space that was formerly an auto repair shop.
“The city has been encouraging the repurposing of buildings, so that's what we did," she says. "We put a lot of time and effort and money into it, and we thought we were going through the proper channels to get a C.O. only to be told, seemingly nonchalantly, that I needed an additional bathroom. It was devastating because I had just gone through all of this work to install proper exits and exit signs and everything.”
While the repurposing of buildings is a huge initiative in Dallas, Vernon Young, with the building inspectors office, said after the meeting on Tuesday that artists should be instead looking to move into former arts spaces that were already legal rather than trying to retrofit a space that had a different use.
“It’s like a restaurant," says Young. "Somebody would be hard pressed to go from an office use and try to create a restaurant, but if you find an old restaurant, it's easy to jump into there."
“We have some people with bad leases. That's not the city's fault,” says Jennifer Scripps, the newly appointed director of the Office of Cultural Affairs. Her advice: “Educate yourself. Don't sign a lease until you know what the C.O. allows. Don't hire a broker that doesn't understand your needs.”
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There are so many stipulations hinging on the existing use of the building, the age of the building, what the person wants to use the space for now, where that space is operating in the city and what that neighborhood is zoned for that it’s really impossible to have a one-size-fits-all answer to the C.O. problem unless the city creates some new codes into legislation that are specific to art spaces in Dallas, which actually might be the best long-term solution.
It’s worth noting that the building and fire codes that are hassling Dallas artists aren’t unique to Dallas but are nationally recognized. Yet cities do have some leeway to write in amendments and adjust the codes for the city’s specific needs.
“My landlord has worked with a guy who helped to put into effect the type of C.O. that helps microbreweries because that didn't exist before; a microbrewery would have had to get a C.O. for a brewery that's comparable to Budweiser or something. Well it just doesn't work,” says Cluley. “He's trying to figure out if there's a way to do that in this situation. … I don't know how long that's going to take.”
In addition to looking at how peer cities like Houston deal with their C.O. issues, Scripps echoed a similar idea: “It’s like the food truck ordinance changes from a few years ago when Dallas did not allow for food trucks right before Klyde Warren [Park] opened, and we got them updated,” Scripps says. “There's a short-term solution and there's a longer-term solution. Anything people can do to get into compliance today, and I think 90 percent can, is a lot more expeditious than us trying to rewrite city ordinances. If we can figure out where there are gaping holes, where we are not able to meet people’s needs under current code, then we can address how to add a category or a classification.”