Visual Art

To Thrive, Dallas Arts Need to be Less Elitist. The Populist ArtPrize Might Help.

It's near the end of Thursday night's Dallas Art Fair gala and I'm wandering through the polished halls of the Fashion International Gallery when my companion asks a loaded question, "How many black people have you seen here tonight?" I thought for a second, and local artist and writer Darryl Ratcliff aside I could remember only one gallerist. I went on to count three or four, which is by no means scientific data. And it's also not a new point. The art world is exclusive, especially the visual art world, and especially when the main function of the event is an act of commerce.

But this idea still bothered me. It's not scientific, and it's less about race than about the way these events are advertised, and who they are meant to attract. And all of that is part of an equation. Because if you're looking at #DallasArtsWeek, the city-condoned pat-an-artist-on-the-back week, you see that one of the foundational building blocks upon which the staff at City Hall chose to rest this all-inclusive promotional week is a preexisting calendar of big, hoity-toity parties. In the past few days, there was Art Ball, MTV:REDEFINE, the Art Fair Gala and the Eye Ball. I was at two of those four events, and they are clear reminders of the way Dallas works.

After this weekend, I feel like I more fully understand the things that D Magazine's Peter Simek has pointed out this week. First, the ideas that Dallas is, and always has been, at a "tipping point" and that we're building "cultural capital" are pretty much bullshit. I see that tied closely to a point Simek made this weekend -- we have a mayor who earns his social capital by playing dress up with the cultural elite, and that his idea of supporting the arts is to hashtag a calendar on Art & Seek (which has extensive arts listings year round) and then issue a proper declaration.

I've learned a lot about Rawlings from the decisions he makes when it comes to the arts. But I've learned even more about the landscape that allows his decisions to make sense. It says more of Dallas than of him that his idea of promoting the arts take form in a panel discussion and the allowance for a few community college artists to display works in City Hall. I tend to believe that Rawlings has pure intentions with initiatives like #DallasArtsWeek and when it comes to the arts in general. Because what I'm learning about Dallas residents is that we, as a city, have an unfortunate and often overwhelming lack of interest in participating in the arts and this week of "support" is his solution to that. But the fact that he hopes to generate inclusion by scheduling his week to to fall in line with the hoity toity events seems misguided. Yet, as someone who participates in these events as the outlier, the media leech, I can't help but wish that everyone got to participate in the same level of energy that happens at Dallas Art Fair and the events surrounding it.

Then, it hit me: ArtPrize Dallas. Am I happy that we've franchised an event instead of creating our own? No. Do I particularly like the populist structure it operates within? No. But do I trust Dallas to create our own prize (a rumor that traveled up the vine to me)? Absolutely not. We've given ourselves numerous opportunities to create something beautiful, and the only thing we created that actually allows all people to gather and participate in a shared space is Klyde Warren Park, which as an employee during grand opening I watched internally adapt from the anticipated society/events space into the shared space that we all know and love today.

If you don't know what ArtPrize is, let me explain. It's a contemporary art competition that was the brainchild of web entrepreneur Rick DeVos. It takes over Grand Rapids, Michigan, annually, filling every coffee shop, restaurant or gallery space with art. Each venue works with one artist to display work, and there are two cash prizes that can run upwards of $200,000 each. One is awarded on public vote; one is awarded by a jury. Anyone from anywhere in the world can enter, and the competition lasts for a number of weeks. The first ArtPrize Dallas is scheduled to take place in April 2016.

I was pretty skeptical when I first heard it was coming here. Most days, I still am. The original whispers about it brought with it reports that there was an original request of $1 million from the city (didn't happen); I'd heard we were being strong-armed into it because Fort Worth had already said yes; and the major venues were meant to be the arts district venue, which seems to stack the competition (who can beat the artist in the Dallas Museum of Art?). All of that, plus a friend of mine who works for the Grand Rapids Symphony said that during the weeks of ArtPrize, everything else in the city is basically ignored. That point still bothers me. But I'm coming around because I'm starting to get annoyed with the way Dallas currently treats the arts.

We have plenty of fancy daughters and sons from plenty of fancy families who are willing to help plan a party that places their name somewhere on the invitation, but those same people don't show up to events where the cameras aren't clicking. They are necessary players in the art world game. But the structure as it rests now caters almost entirely to these people. There aren't events for the people who want to wear jeans to the theater, or can't afford to shell out $150 for a ticket to a fundraiser. There aren't middle-aged, middle class intelligent people making and planning annual art-focused festivals. Last week I attended the Fusebox Festival in Austin, which feels grassroots and built for the city, and all the events are free. The closet thing we have to that is the bi-annual Aurora event, where artists create public works with an element of light. Come to think of it, that might be a better festival to be aligned with #DallasArtsWeek. And while I'm not sure ArtPrize is the perfect answer to this problem, it might be a good start.

Like Simek notes, there's this ever prevalent notion that Dallas is at a "tipping point," or the way I've heard people put it: there's a "new energy building." I'm still young enough to believe in the possibility. And to my mind, it's very possible that we will be able to see the creative class stick around Dallas, thanks to the new initiatives blowing through. But we, as a city, will need to start talking about things differently.

Last week, I'm over in The Cedars and I bump into Claude Albritton who is making big plans to move The MAC out of Uptown and head south. I hadn't seen his building since last October when it was filled with bird shit, so he invited me over. He's building a complex for the arts that will be filled with galleries, a theater and more, and like a good businessman he's worried about money and the impending obstacles the city will throw at him. It's a similar struggle that I imagine ArtPrize Dallas is going through. And I began to wonder why it is that we're so quick to throw money and property at the "Dallas Arts District" but the city, both public and private sectors, stands armed in skepticism at the sight of anything innovative storming the castle.

But that's just it. The apt metaphor for Dallas is an armed castle being built up from the inside. When you wake up and realize you're not royalty you flee. It's why I'm guessing so many artists lately have moved to Austin or Houston.

Let me get back to my original peg for these ramblings: #DallasArtsWeek. After the mayor encouraged business leaders to adopt an arts organization, one of the other speakers said something about this week being about the artists and he said to "shake an artist's hand." It was a simple thing to say, but the symbolism of it has stuck with me. He didn't say, "show up to an exhibition and ask an artist about their work." It treated art as novelty, artists not as thinkers and doers, but children who deserve pats on the back.

Next time I saw Rawlings it was at the Dallas Art Fair gala where art is an investment opportunity. We still see art as being a system of patronage, something that decorates life, or demonstrates wealth. And we need to make a shift. We need someone sitting in City Council who sees art as something more integral to everyday life. Someone more interested in supporting artists than in supporting the arts. Someone who sees theater, dance, music and art as a way to expand the city, as voices in how the landscape is built. But this is a two-way street, and one artists are finally starting to walk down. Erica Felicella is expanding Art Con and also rallying the creatives in the city by hosting monthly City Hall meetings; Giovanni Valderas is putting art directly under the city officials noses by helping plan The Seven, an exhibition at City Hall; the Nasher Sculpture Center is taking matters into its own hands offering grants for Dallas-based artists; Darryl Ratcliff is organizing the troops from the too often-ignored parts of the city; Joshua King and Shane Pennington organized Aurora; and Ariel Saldivar is going outside of the city to find a way to fill every space in Dallas with art with ArtPrize Dallas. There is new energy here, but it's learning how to function within the parameters of the city that exists. Now I'm ready to see the city answer with support for these initiatives before the energy fizzles.

The first step? Knock it off with #DallasArtsWeek or step up to the plate and make it mean something. Where it sits on the calendar right now, it's just one more way for people to feel excluded.

The second step? We all need to show up to vote at the end of this month, and then let the newly elected officials know that art matters. Not just art as a backdrop for society photos, but art for everyone.

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Lauren Smart
Contact: Lauren Smart