The Nasher Sculpture Center
There is an oasis from the musty-smelling air grates and urine-soaked corners of downtown. A place where the grass is always greener, the sunlight is diffused, the honking traffic is muffled and water runs clean and cigarette butt-free. Even ink pens are prohibited; sketch artists beware. Thanks to Raymond D. Nasher, this rectangle of downtown Dallas is neither downtownish nor Dallas-like with its 1.5-acre garden, an "outdoor museum" of contemporary sculpture complemented by foliage, walls, stairs, stones and fountains. The indoor gallery space is an extension of the garden with clear glass walls and cast aluminum sunscreens, allowing outdoor views and natural light to pour in. Even those who don't know Henry Moore from Sherwin-Williams or who think Alexander Calder is one of the guys from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy can take a relaxing stroll through the concrete and metal, meditating on the skyline and forgetting about the 9-to-5 world outside.

Dallas World Aquarium

Humidity curls our hair and dots our brow with sweat. And there are only a few reasons worth enduring it: tiny howler monkeys with tiny hands and tiny ears; sleek, whiskered river otters; three-toed sloths and stoney, ancient-looking manatees. These and hundreds of other creatures inhabit the Orinoco--Secrets of the River rain forest exhibit at the Dallas World Aquarium, which re-creates a section of Venezuela's Orinoco River basin. There's more to this aquarium than fish, which, in our opinion, are nothing in comparison with the seven-level rain forest. Sorry, white-spotted bamboo shark and stingray. There are also penguins, but they're South African penguins, so look for them outside...where it's almost as humid and muggy.

You'd expect a bar or music club to fill this slot, so what's the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game doing here? Our winner already earns techie points with more options and faster loads than Friendster, but MySpace's music section stands out by making local music simple to wade through. Type in a Dallas ZIP code, and more than 300 Dallas-area bands pop up. Each band's page features biographies, gig information and, most important, immediate music playback. No MP3s to fiddle with--within one mouse click, you'll know whether or not a random band like, say, savanteous Q malmsteen is worth your time. What's more, once you find a likable band, check its "social network" for similar acts, and with local faves like Baboon, [DARYL] and The Deathray Davies calling MySpace home, that shouldn't take long at all. Sure, you'll still have to hit bars and clubs for good live local music, but with MySpace leveling the musical playing field, deciding whom to see becomes a lot easier.

Every other Sunday evening (or so), a group of musicians gathers at the Barley House. As night bleeds into morning, they trade off the spotlight for short acoustic sets--nothing fancy, just a guy and a guitar and a stool, perhaps, the kind of earnest-looking scene that sends most beer-drinkers clamoring for the check. Except these are some of the best musicians in Dallas--members of Sorta and Deadman and The Shimmers--and though they're surely happy to see a large crowd gather, they're really playing for each other, trying to impress and entertain and surprise the other musicians. The set list continues to change, too, with special guests and tweaked lineups each week, meaning two shows are never the same. It's a wonderfully relaxing, feel-good way to end a week. Pull up a stool, order a beer and eavesdrop on some of the finest musical conversations around.

Textile artist Sue Benner works in cloth, thread and dyes, but there the resemblance of her creations to the quilts your grandmother made ends. Using small pieces of fabric to create dynamic abstract wall hangings, Benner says her current pieces are about relationships, "color-to-color, shape-to-shape, pattern-to-pattern." Educated in molecular biology and trained as a medical illustrator, Benner says her work relies on the underlying structure and organizing principles found in nature. The effect is always of joyous, riotous color. Shown internationally, Benner's pieces are in many private and corporate collections and are available in Dallas through private dealer Marie Park.

Dallas Museum of Art

Going to the museum is a lot like going to church: It occurs during the daylight hours (usually Sunday), it's good for you (read: boring), there's an endless supply of old people around, and whatever you do, you can't make a peep. That's why the DMA's Late Nights series is such a revelation. Running once a month on Fridays from 6 p.m. to midnight, the series opens up those echoing, hallowed halls to bands, DJs, films, wine tastings, twilight gallery tours and more. It's kind of like the cultural version of a church lock-in. But this isn't mere "edutainment"; this place actually rocks. Participants have included such buzzworthy acts as I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, DJ Spooky and Cat Power. Museums should be a place to celebrate excellence in art and culture and music, not just a place to keep both hands carefully at your side. So raise your voices, and your wine glasses.

The Crow Collection of Asian Art

Huge art mainstays like the DMA and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth do well to veil the money-hungry concrete jungle that is our fair town, but it's the beauty of smaller collections that makes us say, "Are we really in Dallas?" Case in point: the Trammell and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art, whose focus on ancient works of the largest continent actually rivals a similar collection at the Louvre. Yeah, we said it. The jade pieces here are mind-blowingly intricate, as are the dozens of royal decorations scattered through the building. Keep your eyes peeled, as one of Dallas' most amazing pieces is tucked into the very far corner of the collection. Walk through the origami swan hallway, and once you enter the shrine room, turn around and you'll see a door that looks off-limits to the general public. In there, you'll find a single piece of wood that has been carved into dozens of individual warriors, horses and elephants, which stand on top of each other to form a near-solid mass. You may think you're hallucinating when you see it, but even drugs aren't this good.

Granada Theater

For about two months solid, it seemed, the Granada Theater showed nothing but old episodes of Absolutely Fabulous and maybe a football game. The beautiful space, once a movie house and then a live music venue, had tumbled to the point of hosting a few concerts a month and otherwise lying fallow. That changed when CD World owner Mike Schoder bought the place earlier this year and refashioned it as a comfortable, considerate music club for adults, the kind who can't always stay out till 2 a.m. to see their favorite band. The place is smoke-free, serves food and hosts the kind of shows that grown-ups want to see: Wilco, Jack Ingram, Malford Milligan. Will it fly? We certainly hope so. Schoder has proven himself a passionate musical advocate, and the success of CD World indicates a market savvy. Either way, we applaud him for taking the risk.

Talk about stand and deliver. For two years in a row (2002 and 2003), SEM, one of DISD's court-mandated magnet high schools, had more minority students pass the advanced placement calculus exam than any other school in the nation. It's even more remarkable considering how small the student body is. With only 400 students, 113 passed the test in 2003; of those, 60 were Hispanic or African-American. On the AP chemistry exam, minority students at SEM tied for first place in the state; of the 23 SEM students who passed, 10 were minorities. "It always starts with the teacher," says Gregg Fleisher, president of the nonprofit AP Strategies, which works with school districts and businesses to manage AP programs. "And SEM Principal Richard White has recruited some of the best calculus teachers in the state." The program is also supported by the Texas Instruments Foundation and the Advanced Academic Services department in DISD, which provides lead teachers, curriculum and other materials. We know the program works. Now, why can't it work everywhere?

A good director will inspire actors to give their best performances and let the playwrights' words shine without the directing getting in the way. René Moreno, who directed eight productions in Dallas and Fort Worth theaters this year, is one reason so many good actors are staying in the area instead of migrating toward the coasts. They're eager to collaborate with this actor-centric artist who says he just tries to elicit "good, honest work" from his casts. Since his first directing gig at Kitchen Dog Theater in 1996, Moreno, 45, has been in demand here and at Milwaukee Rep (where he'll stage Cabaret soon). Dallas audiences have applauded his work recently for the spitfire bio-musical La Lupe for Martice Enterprises, Edward Albee's cryptic Marriage Play at WingSpan, Arthur Miller's gut-wrenching All My Sons at Classical Acting Company, God's Man in Texas at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre and The Drawer Boy at Plano Rep. Moreno's next job: directing A.R. Gurney's Far East at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas in February.

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