Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes

Robert Boyd

(Continued from Dallas is a Jewel)

One of my favorite bloggers is a Patrick Kennedy, whose Walkable Dallas-Fort Worth is full of ideas about (re)creating walkable spaces in car-centric cities. And when it comes to the Dallas Arts District, home of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center and other arts venues,  he can be pretty critical. The weird thing about this area of downtown Dallas is how contrived it is. It's not an art district because artists live there. It's an arts district because an oligopoly of planners, developers and wealthy benefactors decreed it.
The DAD [Dallas Arts District] is an entirely new animal as far as Arts Districts go. My guess is that most people conceptualize arts districts they are thinking of funky areas where artists agglomerate and transform into hip areas. That is not an incorrect assumption. In fact, that is pretty much how all arts districts have been formed, informally. Only later have some become formalized, with an official organization forming to brand, market, and program events. This stabilizes arts districts and allows them to fend off gentrification (typically).
The other form of an arts district is the more ephemeral. The one that rejects institutionalization, whether consciously or unconsciously. Like the previous version, artists cluster in areas ONLY because of where it is cheap, but facilitates clustering, i.e. the suburbs are cheap, but not in the least bit interesting. Too underscore this point, there is a vibrant art scene out in historic West Texas towns [whose] cheap, historic, fabric facilitates clustering. I believe artists intuitively search for soul in where they locate.
I discuss all of that so that I can point out that the Dallas Arts District was created more by a stroke of a pen than from the grassroots. It has been completely top down and as long as we recognize that, and the inherent strengths and weaknesses from the process, it is ok. ["The Arts District, Post Script and Prologue," Patrick Kennedy, Walkable Dallas-Fort Worth, November 5, 2010]
Kennedy is being nice here. And while he's viewing this from the point of view of walkable urbanism (and the DAD gets a big "fail" in that regard), it says something about Dallas that this is the way they do it. There is something grandiose about it.

Kennedy points to an article in the Chicago Tribune by Blair Kamin, "A work in progress: The Dallas Arts District gathers trophy buildings, but still searches for urban vitality."
The Dallas Arts District gathers this city’s major arts museums and performance halls in a 19-block area to the northeast of the shimmering downtown skyline. The district is billed as the nation’s largest contiguous urban arts district, and that’s not its only distinction. It may be the only place on earth where buildings by four Pritzker Architecture Prize winners (in this case, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas) sit within blocks of each other.
Is it a good idea to organize arts buildings in such a clear and concentrated fashion? Or does the more mixed-up Chicago way make better sense? I ask because, despite its impressive architectural firepower, the Dallas Arts District can be an exceedingly dull place. There are no bookstores, few restaurants outside those in the museums, and not a lot of street life, at least when there are no performances going on. Even some of the architects who’ve designed buildings here privately refer to the district as an architectural petting zoo — long on imported brand-name bling and short on homegrown-urban vitality.
This might be OK if there were a lot of street level artistic vitality elsewhere in Dallas, but as Christina Rees and Douglas D. Martin indicated in her Glasstire article and his response, that vitality may be lacking. In any case, it seems that Dallas ultimately recognized that its billion dollar jewel was flawed. It is currently engaging in the Big Dig-like project of covering up the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, which separates the DAD from the more lively Uptown neighborhood.
The park over the Woodall Rodgers freeway could go a long way toward rectifying the district’s lack of urbanity. Indeed, it could be a model for other cities, among them Chicago and St. Louis, that have looked into “capping” or “decking” sunken highways.
Backed by city, state and federal stimulus funds as well as private donations, the narrow, three-block-long park was designed by Houston landscape architect James Burnett, who shaped the attractive contemporary park in Chicago’s Lakeshore East development [and the Brochstein Pavilion at Rice--RB]. In contrast to Millennium Park, its focus will be on outdoor spaces that thread Dallas’ fragmented urban fabric, not spectacular objects. [ "A work in progress: The Dallas Arts District gathers trophy buildings, but still searches for urban vitality," Blair Kamin, The Chicago Tribune, March 19, 2011]
Kamin was doubtful, though. He saw the lack of housing as a major problem for the area. An arts district needs to have a population. Unfortunately, Kamin got his wish in the form of Museum Tower, a 42-story condominium tower built across the street from the Nasher Sculpture Center.

 
"Power up the death ray, captain!"

 
Museum Tower targets my bald head

Museum Tower was built specifically for the purpose of attracting people who wanted to live in DAD. Its website brags, "Museum Tower is perfectly situated among 26 of the city's most acclaimed artistic institutions. Ascending from the heart of what will become the world's largest Urban Arts District, Museum Tower will be the undisputed residential cultural centerpiece of Dallas. Here, residents will indulge in a celebration of entertainment and truly refined living." But it turns out that the curved and mirrored face of Museum Towers reflects sunlight right into the Nasher Sculpture Center and its beautiful sculpture garden. And let me tell you--that reflected sunlight is powerful.


Museum Tower as seen through the Piano sun baffles

The center was designed by Renzo Piano, and as he did with the Menil Museum, he created a means of filtering natural light into the museum through multiple baffles (concrete in the Menil, aluminum at the Nasher). He designed his baffles to work with the trajectory of the sun over the building, but Museum Tower manages at certain times of day to reflect the sunlight directly through the baffles, so instead of getting nice soft diffuse light, you get direct sunlight through the screen. And the garden, full of grass and live oaks, is likely to turn into a desert with this second sun shining down on it. Not only that, a James Turrell piece was basically ruined by Museum Tower.

 
James Turrell is peeved

Worst of all, The New York Times noticed. Dallas hates to be embarrassed in front of out-of-towners. Since the problem was first noticed, no compromise solution has been reached, despite incentives for both sides of the issue to resolve it.
Since the building that overlooks the sculpture center and its garden is using the Nasher as a selling point — prices stretch into the millions — those involved say its owners should want to keep the Nasher healthy.
 “By doing this, they kill what they use to sell it,” Mr. Piano said. ["Dallas Museum Simmers in a Neighbor’s Glare,"Robin Pogrebin, The New York Times, May 1, 2012]
I hope they can solve this problem, because the Nasher is a really nice museum. It was built around the personal collection of Raymond Nasher (1921-2007) and Patsy Nasher (1929-1988). Raymond Nasher was a property developer and banker who made a fortune in Dallas, ended up working in government for the Johnson administration, and founded another museum bearing his name at Duke University. Like so many great collectors, Raymond and Patsy were a team. They started collecting Pre-Columbian art in the 50s before expanding out to paintings then sculptures. The museum houses a part of their collection as well as hosting temporary sculpture exhibits.

 
Ernesto Neto, Kink, aluminum, crocheted polyester and polypropylene rope, polypropylene balls, air, wood, felt, rubber, 14'3" x 66'8" x 13'8"

When I visited, this large piece, Kink, by Ernesto Neto was up. Neto is currently building a lot of these structures out of rope and plastic balls. They almost have the feel of children's playground equipment. Like his earlier work they are interactive.


Ernesto Neto, Kink, aluminum, crocheted polyester and polypropylene rope, polypropylene balls, air, wood, felt, rubber, 14'3" x 66'8" x 13'8"

You enter the piece through this vagina-esque entrance. It turns out that walking on this walkway is pretty difficult! Your feet sink into the balls and you have to hold onto the sides to keep your balance. It's fun, but I prefer his earlier pieces made from transparent lycra that often included spices, giving the work an olfactory dimension beyond the visual and tactile dimensions.

 
Erick Swenson, Schwärmerei, 2012, acrylic and oil on urethane resin, silicone, and MDF

Another temporary show on display was part of Sightings, the Nasher's small exhibit series. Erick Swenson, a Dallas artist, had three creepily ultra-real sculptures on display. The work was interesting, but what is really notable was that Swenson is a Dallas artist. The thing I've noticed is that at a certain high level, Dallas doesn't seem to pay much attention to its local artists. This is a pretty universal complaint, though. The CAMH, for example, hasn't had a show devoted to art by local artists since 2011. But if collectors aren't buying local art, as Douglas D. Martin implied, lack of representation of those artists in local museums may be one reason why. Museums provide validation.

 
Erick Swenson, Ne Plus Ultra, 2010, acrylic urethane resin

The garden is a beautiful, walled setting. It gets used for events like weddings, which would be perfect here. When I was there, they were setting up for some kind of musical event, and consequently had put up distracting string barriers around all the sculptures.


Joan Miró, Moonbird, 1944-46 (enlarged 1966), bronze

I noticed that the grass was dead around this delightful Miró Moonbird. I wonder if that is because of the reflection from Museum Tower or just lack or rain?


Richard Deacon, Like a Bird II, 1984, steel and laminated wood


Joel Shapiro, Untitled, 1996-99, bronze


Richard Serra, My Curves Are Not Mad, 1987, Cor-ten steel

The thing about the Nasher family is that their fortune came from retail businesses. Banks, houses, shopping malls--these are places that the general public come in contact with. Contrast this to other museum founders and funders--the Menils, the Cullens, Alfred Glassel. Their money came from the oil industry. The point is that the Nashers knew something that might not be second nature to those other wealthy patrons--marketing.

NorthPark Center is a fancy high-end mall in Dallas, built by Raymond Nasher and now owned by daughter Nancy Nasher and her husband David Haemisegger. In addition to a vast variety of luxury retailers, NorthPark Mall has something I have never seen in any other shopping mall--a large, substantial art collection.


Mark di Suvero, Ad Astra, 2005, painted steel, 48' x 25.5' x 25.5'


Jonathan Borofsky, Five Hammering Men, 1982, painted wood with steel, aluminum, foam, bondo, and electric motors, each 175" x 72" x 6"


Jim Dine, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1987-1988, bronze, 77" x 28" x 29"


Joel Shapiro, 20 Elements, 2004-05, wood with casein, 122" x 132" x 85"

These are just a few of the works on display at the mall. Most are from the collection of Nasher and Haemisegger, but they have encouraged retailers to get in the act. Louis Vuitton has an Anish Kapoor sculpture in front of it, for example, that it owns.

 
Louis Vuitton and its Anish Kapoor in the NorthPark Center courtyard

There is so much to think about here. Art is taken out of the consecrated realm of the museum and put into the commercial realm of a shopping mall. How does the art's meaning change when the institutional setting changes so drastically? And this is a high-end mall--does the art signal sophistication and wealth to the shoppers? Does the presence of art make them feel more sophisticated? Do shopper gain cultural capital by shopping here as opposed to a mall without art? Do shoppers who see art in a mall develop a greater appreciation for art? Do they subsequently seek it out in museums? Does the Nasher Sculpture benefit from having what is effectively a satellite exhibit in NorthPark Center? But these questions keep getting obliterated by my feeling that there is something fundamentally freaky about this wedding of art and commerce. Dallas always wants to show itself to the world as a sophisticated, beautiful place. But underlying it all is money. These two tendencies are married at NorthPark Center.


Nancy Nasher by Andy Warhol on the cover of Patron

Nancy Nasher is on the cover this magazine, which is a free society magazine like Paper City. I picked it up in a gallery in the Design District. It intrigued me that it was called Patron and that it centered around wealthy people who were involved in the arts. It's better to be a patron than an artist, it seems. The former get their own magazine.

Across the street from the Nasher Sculpture Center is the Dallas Museum of Art. The DMA has been around in one form or another since 1903, but it only came to its current location in 1984. Travel and wine writer Stephen Brook wrote at the time
Dallas, it seemed, went through the motions of acting as if it were a lively cultural center, only its heart wasn't in it. The city was fundamentally stuffy, at root philistine. The Dallas writer A.C. Greene didn't disagree. "In many ways Dallas is culturally unexciting. It prefers to rent culture rather than produce its own. It doesn't trust its own judgment and that makes it fairly unadventurous."
Jack [a local journalist] agreed that Dallas was philistine, strait-laced. [...] "It's curious: they're building a new art museum, as you know, and there's been a tremendous amount of discussion about the new building, but not a word has been said about what they're going to put inside it. They're just assuming that a lot of folks in North Dallas will have a bunch of extra art around that they'll just hand over. And most likely, they will." [Stephen Brook, Honky Tonk Gelato, 1985, Hamish Hamilton Ltd., London]
As if to illustrate Greene's point, the exhibit Flower of the Prairie: George Grosz in Dallas was up at the DMA while I was there. This was a collection of paintings of Dallas by George Grosz, of all people. Grosz, fleeing the Nazis, ended up in America where he attempted to keep a low profile. He taught, he stayed out of politics, he raised his family. In 1952, he was contacted by Leon Harris, Jr., who owned a department store in Dallas called A. Harris & Co. Harris commissioned Grosz to paint a series of paintings of Dallas for $15,000, a sum that would allow Grosz to buy a modest house for his family. (Grosz never exactly prospered in the U.S.) Harris was, as A.C. Greene put it, "renting" a little culture for Dallas. Grosz, on the other hand, knew he was selling out--he called it "disgusting work because I 'sold' myself (this time out of a pure need for money)."

But the ironic thing was that Grosz's paintings were really good. Sure, he'd lost his dadaist edge and the savagery with which he had skewered the war mongers, Weimar burghers and Nazis was long gone, but he had a good eye for telling detail and was a masterful watercolorist.


George Grosz, Cowboy in Town, 1952, watercolor, 19 3/4" x 15 1/2"


George Grosz, Dallas Broadway, 1952, watercolor, 19 1/2" x 15 1/2"


George Grosz, A Dallas Night, 1952, watercolor, 21" x 13 3/4"


George Grosz, In Front of the Hotel, 1952, watercolor, 19 3/4" x 15 1/2"


George Grosz, Flower of the Prairie, 1952, watercolor, 19 7/8" x 26 5/8"


George Grosz, A Glimpse into the Negro Section of Dallas, 1952, watercolor, 26 1/4" x 19"


George Grosz, Refreshments on the Way, 1952, watercolor, 26 1/4" x 19"

This long-established practice of looking beyond Dallas for culture finds its fullest flower in Dallas Cowboys Stadium, the apotheosis of art in Dallas. And that is the subject of my final post (for now!) about Dallas and its art.


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