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For Art's Sake: Spending a Day at the Dallas City Arts Festival

Spencer Campbell
From the 5th Annual Dallas City Arts Festival -- swear
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When I turn off Flora Street and head north on Pearl Street, the crowd begins to thin out -- well, the already thin crowd becomes almost non-existent. It’s Father’s Day, and I’m at the 5th Annual Dallas City Arts Festival. Just south of Woodall Rogers, the city has blocked off Pearl, Flora and Harwood Streets and barely lets a trickle pass through Olive. Instead, the streets belong to artists flaunting their treasures and the cultured ones who want to buy them.

It’s hard to put a finger on just what constitutes art, and the festival isn’t helping sharpen my definition. Already I’ve seen bands, photography, paintings, dancing, watches, Italian ice, Jack FM, Time Warner Cable, fake flowers and Starbucks booths. In the garden at the Nasher Sculpture Center I even saw some spandex-clad women doing yoga. I manage to snag a few photos before the instructor gave me that what-are-you-some-sort-of-pervert? look. I quickly avert my gaze to some pile of metal that was supposed to be art too.

Flora Street is obviously the most popular place for vendors. And while the crowd is thick, I see very little in the way of commerce happening. Nevertheless, Juan Barreneche -- who constructs and sells “artistic” watches made from coconut and bamboo -- assures me that the weekend-long festival has been profitable. Barreneche bought the booth for $500. He tells me that he’s sold 50 watches during the three-day event, which began Friday, at a rate of $75 to $90 a pop. Even if he’s fudging a bit, he’s still sure to see a tidy profit.

But here, north of Flora on Pearl, the weekend hasn’t been all it was hoped. I reach a couple of booths that appear to be right out of I Am Legend. The art and the merchandise are still there, untouched, but no human presence is found anywhere. Not even shopkeepers. It’s here I begin to notice just how hot the sun bouncing off the pavement is. As I begin to worry about the thin puddles of ass sweat creeping their way through my khakis, I locate some missing vendors, Cindy Norris and Rich Cimino, taking refuge under a nearby tree. When I ask Cindy if the weekend has been good to her, Cimino quickly cuts in.


Norris smiles politely before trying to explain. “We’re not on the main drag. But today’s going to be a great day, we’ve decided.”

Norris and Cimino are cheerful and hopeful despite the lull in foot traffic. Other merchants aren’t so pleasant. I entered the festival -- which was free -- via the Harwood Street entrance and made my way north. Right there, at the intersection of Harwood and Ross, was the Cultural Affairs Stage (that name inspires some excitement), where some band was playing to a, um, less than full capacity crowd. Just past the stage, I start snapping photos of the artists’ booths -- as an untrained, untalented photojournalist, I always revisit my old high school philosophy: quantity over quality. Suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“You really need to ask permission before you take pictures of artists’ work,” some guy suddenly tells me. “There’s a huge fear of their work being mass produced.”

I look over at the guy’s black-and-white landscape photos. “Sure, no problem,” and I move on. Black-and-white photos. Mass-produced. I got the same flack at the Nasher, where I was told not to take any photos until some media agent could confirm me. In the meanwhile, every person stepping through the doors had a flash that could burn through lead and was snapping like a damn Playboy photographer.

But while these artsy types may spur you a bit from time to time, it was hard not to enjoy the festival. At Flora and Pearl there was a row of “art cars.” One was titled “The Cow Goddess.” It was paneled with logos, and really, the only semblance it had to a cow was horns on the hood (but that’s a bull, now, isn’t it?) and a tail hanging off the trunk. There was also the “Brick Mobile,” a 1968 Ford Country Sedan made completely out of bricks, and “Women That Rock” van, with the likenesses of both Ellen Degeneres and Suzanne Somers on the side (there were others, but, frankly, I couldn’t tell who they were supposed to be).

I again passed the Cultural Affairs Stage on my way out, just in time to see Michael William Harrison take the stage. Sadly, the crowd had thinned out since the last performance, and there had been only four people then. Still, Harrison took little offense, thanked the smattering of applause he received, and started doling out some Irish tune about getting drunk. I guess the crowd isn’t really important. It’s the art. --Spencer Campbell

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