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Looks Like the AT&T PAC Made It Under the Wire …


by Jerome Weeks 14 Dec 2009

… before the bubble burst on new culture palaces. According to the NYTimes, arts organizations, just like everyone else in real estate and construction, got giddy with dreams of fame and fortune (a.k.a., the “Bilbao Effect,” the Guggenheim-like launch into stardom thanks to a major chunk of architecture). Now the economic downturn has reined in […]

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… before the bubble burst on new culture palaces. According to the NYTimes, arts organizations, just like everyone else in real estate and construction, got giddy with dreams of fame and fortune (a.k.a., the “Bilbao Effect,” the Guggenheim-like launch into stardom thanks to a major chunk of architecture).

Now the economic downturn has reined in a lot of these big dreams and has also led to questions about whether ambitious building projects from Buffalo to Berkeley ever made sense to begin with. Some are arguing that arts administrators and their patrons succumbed to an irrational exuberance that rivaled the stock market’s in the boom years.

Organizations were “blinded by the excitement of what it would be like to have this great new facility,” said D. Carroll Joynes, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center.

The recession, he said he believed, is not solely to blame for a recent wave of projects that have been delayed (like additions to the St. Louis Art Museum, the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Columbus Museum of Art); scaled back (like the new building of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y.); put into question (the new Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center and the renovation of the New York Public Librarys main Fifth Avenue branch); or abandoned altogether (the expansion of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo).

In Mr. Joynes’s view, “The recession is exposing the weakness of a lot of institutions that were seriously overstretched” before it began.

“It’s exposing poor management and poor planning,” said Mr. Joynes, who is collaborating on a study of 50 cultural building projects completed from 1994 to 2008 and their planning processes. These were situations, he added, in which “nobody actually asked: ‘Is there a need here? If they build it, will they come?’ ”

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  • Maybe our palaces made it under the wire in the sense that they were completed before that bubble burst. But I think the real point is, if Joynes included 2009 in his study, would ours be among those he would say were built without having asked the right questions?

    I couldn’t know whether the right questions were asked or not. On the one hand I’m not optimistic, since when it comes to understanding the arts, culture and the contribution they make to authentic urban vitality, this city seems to me to be clueless.

    If Dallas was a person, it would be one of those people who has no sense of his own identity, like a twenty-something who won’t learn anything from the world except what he’s seen on ET, and whose self-worth is based on driving the right car, wearing the right clothes and being seen in the right restaurants. Looking around to discover it’s considered “grown up” to be versed in the arts, he builds a great media room and then Googles what’s sophisticated so he can order it from Amazon.

    Can we learn something by looking around? New York, Chicago, and L.A., even Santa Fe, didn’t just erect architecture or backfill their cultural identity like Dallas seems to me to be doing. What they have now started more organically, as a natural outgrowth of their own development. Today, it may all look the same on the surface, but dig deep and you’ll find something authentic, rooted in their DNA and not the result of an economic development campaign by the chamber of commerce.

    In those cities, the arts and culture were nurtured by and for people who already wanted to live there, because they knew it would make their lives fuller, not for the sake of those they were simply luring to relocate. Instead, here in Dallas, we remind me of the climactic scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where scientists scramble to make an acceptable landing pad for alien beings they don’t understand. Hey, flash more of those lights and play more of those strange tones they seem to respond to. Maybe we can get them to land here instead of passing us by for Phoenix.

    Then, on the other hand, I am weirdly optimistic. In doing research for my public art installation at the upcoming DART light rail station in downtown Carrollton, I learned that this area was settled, and Dallas and Fort Worth are here today, partly because of land grants. In effect, people had to be paid to move here, as there were none of the prominent geological features or natural points of convergence usually present to germinate a city. And look what happened. Apparently, we’ve never done things the normal way. So even if we always put the cart before the horse, I guess we end up putting a motor on the cart and the horse comes along. I don’t know.