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Should White Rock Water Theater … Close Its Doors?
by Jerome Weeks 25 Mar 2014

The poles in the water near the Bath House — the ones all the birds like — are not just some abandoned dock. But they look like that, which is why some groups are pushing for their removal. Or renovation.

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water theater 3editNear the Bath House Cultural Center on White Rock Lake, there’s a large semi-circle of poles standing in the water. They’re part of an environmental installation designed as rest stops for birds. It sounds peaceful enough, but artists, lake activists and neighborhood groups are sharply at odds over the bird roosts. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports what’s really triggered the dispute is the city’s lack of maintenance of the artwork.

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It’s called the White Rock Lake Water Theater. Forty-three metal poles and 20 light poles arc across the water near the shore. There are also stone pillars on land with metal plaques detailing the kinds of turtles, cormorants and gulls attracted to the little amphitheater.

But the light poles haven’t worked for years. Neither have the solar panels and batteries that were supposed to power them at night. Floating lily pads, designed for turtles to use, were lost early on. Currently, many poles are rusted, some are leaning over, and some plaques are badly scratched.

These days, people often think the Water Theater is just the remains of an old, collapsed dock. In fact, its solar panel is built on a diving platform that’s a leftover from when the Bath House was really used for swimming.

Rich Enthoven is president of the volunteer group, For the Love of the Lake: “Having dilapidated material, art that’s past its lifespan, something that looks like it’s decaying – we don’t think that’s good for White Rock Lake.”

His board passed a resolution asking the city to either renovate the Water Theater or remove it. Tearing it out would cost an estimated $11,000 to $22,000, according to three bids the city’s received that do not include disposal of the materials. Enthoven says his group would have no trouble raising that money. He spoke at a public meeting Saturday at the Bath House, called by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs to discuss the artwork’s future. Another meeting was held Monday.

Artwork abandoned — by the city?

Several speakers on Saturday said they were stunned when they learned it was an art work. They thought it was abandoned.

Arts advocates say it has been abandoned – by the city of Dallas. In 2009, budget cuts eliminated the $250,000 used to maintain all of Dallas’ public artworks. Artists Frances Bagley and Tom Orr created the Water Theater in 2001 with an estimated 10-year lifespan. But the last time anyone inspected the work, it was the artists themselves — six years ago.

Francis 1editBagley (left) says the group, Friends of the Bath House, contacted her last year. They’d received complaints about the Water Theater but found they didn’t have the money to renovate it. So they turned the problem over to the city, which could “de-accession” it — sell it off or dispose of it.

And that’s when Bagley started hearing from fellow artists. “When people came forward with their opposition to the de-accessioning of this artwork,” she says, “it really encouraged us and we realized we really do have something to stand up for.”

Arts advocates say de-accessioning would set a bad precedent. Dallas bought a public artwork and then, through its own policies, neglected it – until it had to destroy it. Not a good impression for a city that has been basking in the glamor of its Arts District. Currently, the city stipulates it will only accept public artworks that need little or no maintenance. But all artworks will need maintenance eventually.

Many unknowns

City Council member Philip Kingston attended Saturday’s meeting and spoke briefly, saying that what he’d been hearing was people repeatedly saying they couldn’t believe the city would buy artworks and then not spend the money to maintain them. “Well, believe it,” he said. “Believe it.”

The neglect, he said, was symptomatic of a city-wide pattern of “purposely delayed maintenance,” a problem that’s affected everything from artworks to city streets.

Kay 2editBut if de-accessioning the Water Theater would set a bad precedent, could it be repaired and what would that entail? Kay Kallos (left) is the manager of the city’s public art program. She says, “If you’re looking at total replacement of all the component parts, it’s going to be very similar to what it cost to put it in in the first place. So somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 is my best guess.”

But Kallos readily admits there are large unknowns here. If the Water Theater were improved — stainless steel for the poles, new LEDs for the lights — the cost would obviously increase. But Kallos says she can’t estimate even what just the annual maintenance costs might be.

When Dallas cut funding for maintenance, it also cut the staff and funding even to assess the artworks. Any new assessment would require a dive team to inspect the underwater foundations. And dive teams, Kallos says, cost $2,000 a day.

At Saturday’s meeting, people were already talking about a possible solution, a typically Dallas one involving private funding and public cooperation. Officially, the question will now be taken up by the city’s cultural affairs  commission in a meeting on April 17th. But how any of that might resolve the larger issue of citywide, neglected maintenance wasn’t addressed. A further complication: Enthoven notes that the 2008 White Rock Lake master plan bans creating “animal attractants” — specifically, lights at night.

And then there’s the in-between option: letting the Water Theater deteriorate in a “controlled decay.” Many artworks these days are designed with this in mind. But they generally involve ongoing monitoring, so the degrading artwork doesn’t produce any hazards while the site is eventually returned to its original (“pre-artwork”) state. OK, so who’ll pay for the monitoring?

A place for the birds to perch

Outside the Bath House, Latifa Amdur plays on the grass with her granddaughter and her puppy, who happily chews on a squeak toy. Amdur says the Water Theater performs an important function for picnickers and joggers. By providing perches for birds — allowing people onshore to watch flocks of them dive and feed and fly — all those poles keep the birds perched on the water, away from the land.

“When there’s no place for the birds to perch,” Amdur says, “they’re all over here. And then you’re walking around with your grandkids or your puppies, and it’s full of bird poop. And that’s not really pleasant,” she says with a laugh.

Well, there’s one practical reason both art lovers and lake visitors might want to keep the Water Theater around.

water theater 1edit

 

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  • Thank you Jerome for this piece. I’m glad you saw the importance of the issue.

    As I mentioned last night, it is disappointing that the vast majority of the Public Art Committee that reportedly recommended the removal and the Cultural Arts Commission that makes a decision based on the recommendation were not in attendance. My request to obtain the list of Public Art Committee members as well as their votes has yet to be provided from Ms. Kallos and really should be publicly shared without a formal Open Records Request. Assuming there is about a dozen on the Committee and 17 on the Commission, less than 5 of these people total showed up at the meetings as evident when Ms. Kallos asked them to acknowledge their presence.

    Residents concerned that it’s “an eyesore” should be reminded again, at its installed location behind the BathHouse Cultural Center, there are NO RESIDENCES WITH A DIRECT LINE-OF-SIGHT OF THE INSTALLATION which is lower in elevation from the neighborhood outside the park and then further obstructed by trees. (Click here http://bit.ly/OVMhbV and see the views on Google Earth) The closest residence is over 750 feet away, well out of vision range. The only way to actually see the installation (and disrepair) is from the BathHouse where guests are already interested in the view by sheer evidence of their presence.

    It’s really ashame that the Friends of the Lake didn’t even know the installation was in fact art and that the wildlife numbers and condition of the lake was improved by the installation of the piece. The Enthoven’s (whose lake house is over 860′ away–they have another house on Deloache) researched the removal and claim to have the resources to fund it, but, like ALL of the others in opposition of saving it, failed to do any research into SAVING it. Rich Enthoven’s wife, Tucker, pointed out that she is on the Board with BigThought and therefore is an “arts advocate” didn’t see the importance in contacting experts in the arts community.

    As evident by the attendance of many scholarly art experts at both meetings, the matter of how to maintain a collection as important as that owned by the City is unequivocal. The conservators that assessed the current condition and recommended replacing parts of the installation were from the Dallas Museum of Art, whose director, Max Anderson, also contacted the Office of Cultural Affairs to denounce removal and the direction of the decision process. Jed Morse, Chief Curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center, spoke last night as an expert in outdoor sculpture and reiterated the importance of the work, and the disappointment in the rhetoric of the uninformed who erroneously claim the installation is “no longer art” when, in fact, the piece is wildy (pun intended) successful and one of the most important works in the Public Art Collection.

    One of those in opposition of saving the Water Theater and who spoke at both meetings, Jake Steiner, claimed, since the restoral of the installation involved removal anyway, why not give some other artist a chance now. When local artist/advocate, Julie Cohn, chastised his stereotypical reaction Dallas historically has of removing-the-old-and-replacing-with-new, I wanted to point out to her that at Saturday’s meeting, Mr. Steiner mentioned he had a construction company that would be interested in making a bid for its removal, but she made her point very well without knowing this.

    It has been widely agreed amongst the art community that decisions such as this need to involve experts. Not only do our arts experts know how to repair and preserve art, we also know how to raise money. The Dallas Museum of Art raised record number of donations after making admission free. They have two full time employees whose sole job is to dust off the works in its collection. There should be no reason why the City of Dallas cannot find a way to maintain its Public Art Collection too, especially with more help from the arts community.

    We need to be more proactive not reactive.

    • John Arbuckle

      First, it isn’t necessary to have a direct line of sight from your house for something to be an eyesore. I think this is a silly argument that does nothing to support a case I’m inclined to be sympathetic toward. It smacks of petty neighborhood group put downs more than an actually convincing argument.

      Second, can you describe why this is an important piece worthy of saving? My understanding is that while it was intended to be a piece of art now it’s basically just the bones of something previously intended. Its original purpose doesn’t make it art now. I’m happy to have it restored, but that seems incumbent on those who want to kept to show that doing so is feasible, not those who want it removed.

      • Opponents at Saturday’s meeting claimed to see it from their houses and claimed guests complained about it, so it is important argument given that it doesn’t directly affect the value or the aesthetics of their own property as they alluded in their reason for bringing it up now.

        Here’s more information on it for you http://www.watermelon-kid.com/places/wrl/tour/water_theater.htm As mentioned in both meetings, it was not built as art for art’s sake but instead as an environmental installation on the scientific advice of ornithologists and other environmental experts. As both the artists and several experts mentioned, it does not matter to you or anyone that it does not “look like art” now, the birds and wildlife still like it. It is still functioning as expected.

  • Thank you Jerome for this piece. I’m glad you saw the importance of the issue.

    As I mentioned last night, it is disappointing that the vast majority of the Public Art Committee that reportedly recommended the removal and the Cultural Arts Commission that makes a decision based on the recommendation were not in attendance. My request to obtain the list of Public Art Committee members as well as their votes has yet to be provided from Ms. Kallos and really should be publicly shared without a formal Open Records Request. Assuming there is about a dozen on the Committee and 17 on the Commission, less than 5 of these people total showed up at the meetings as evident when Ms. Kallos asked them to acknowledge their presence.

    Residents concerned that it’s “an eyesore” should be reminded again, at its installed location behind the BathHouse Cultural Center, there are NO RESIDENCES WITH A DIRECT LINE-OF-SIGHT OF THE INSTALLATION which is lower in elevation from the neighborhood outside the park and then further obstructed by trees. (Click here http://bit.ly/OVMhbV and see the views on Google Earth) The closest residence is over 750 feet away, well out of vision range. The only way to actually see the installation (and disrepair) is from the BathHouse where guests are already interested in the view by sheer evidence of their presence.

    It’s really ashame that the Friends of the Lake didn’t even know the installation was in fact art and that the wildlife numbers and condition of the lake was improved by the installation of the piece. The Enthoven’s (whose lake house is over 860′ away–they have another house on Deloache) researched the removal and claim to have the resources to fund it, but, like ALL of the others in opposition of saving it, failed to do any research into SAVING it. Rich Enthoven’s wife, Tucker, pointed out that she is on the Board with BigThought and therefore is an “arts advocate” didn’t see the importance in contacting experts in the arts community.

    As evident by the attendance of many scholarly art experts at both meetings, the matter of how to maintain a collection as important as that owned by the City is unequivocal. The conservators that assessed the current condition and recommended replacing parts of the installation were from the Dallas Museum of Art, whose director, Max Anderson, also contacted the Office of Cultural Affairs to denounce removal and the direction of the decision process. Jed Morse, Chief Curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center, spoke last night as an expert in outdoor sculpture and reiterated the importance of the work, and the disappointment in the rhetoric of the uninformed who erroneously claim the installation is “no longer art” when, in fact, the piece is wildy (pun intended) successful and one of the most important works in the Public Art Collection.

    One of those in opposition of saving the Water Theater and who spoke at both meetings, Jake Steiner, claimed, since the restoral of the installation involved removal anyway, why not give some other artist a chance now. When local artist/advocate, Julie Cohn, chastised his stereotypical reaction Dallas historically has of removing-the-old-and-replacing-with-new, I wanted to point out to her that at Saturday’s meeting, Mr. Steiner mentioned he had a construction company that would be interested in making a bid for its removal, but she made her point very well without knowing this.

    It has been widely agreed amongst the art community that decisions such as this need to involve experts. Not only do our arts experts know how to repair and preserve art, we also know how to raise money. The Dallas Museum of Art raised record number of donations after making admission free. They have two full time employees whose sole job is to dust off the works in its collection. There should be no reason why the City of Dallas cannot find a way to maintain its Public Art Collection too, especially with more help from the arts community.

    We need to be more proactive not reactive.

    • John Arbuckle

      First, it isn’t necessary to have a direct line of sight from your house for something to be an eyesore. I think this is a silly argument that does nothing to support a case I’m inclined to be sympathetic toward. It smacks of petty neighborhood group put downs more than an actually convincing argument.

      Second, can you describe why this is an important piece worthy of saving? My understanding is that while it was intended to be a piece of art now it’s basically just the bones of something previously intended. Its original purpose doesn’t make it art now. I’m happy to have it restored, but that seems incumbent on those who want to kept to show that doing so is feasible, not those who want it removed.

  • Max Davis

    Another recent photo of the Water Theater.

    • JeromeWeeks

      And here’s what it looked like early on, when it was maintained and the light poles functioned. The semi-circular path of the poles from the shoreline out to the water and back to the shore was intended to suggest an ‘amphitheater’ (hence, the name ‘Water Theater’). It provided onlookers a chance to see the wildlife ‘perform.’ Fish are attracted to the poles, the birds are attracted to perch there and hunt for the fish. And at night, as the photo indicates, it echoed the city skyline in the distance, while also suggesting shooting stars and fireflies.

  • Max Davis

    Another recent photo of the Water Theater.

    • JeromeWeeks

      And here’s what it looked like early on, when it was maintained and the light poles functioned.

  • Dennis

    I have walked by that section of the lake many times and didn’t give the poles a second thought. I had no idea it was art work. I would love to see some pictures of what it looked like and maybe an explanation of what it did or was supposed to represent.

  • Dennis

    I have walked by that section of the lake many times and didn’t give the poles a second thought. I had no idea it was art work. I would love to see some pictures of what it looked like and maybe an explanation of what it did or was supposed to represent.

  • Pingback: City Moves to Save It’s Public Art | FrontBurner | D Magazine()

  • David

    You will never find an artist or an art expert or curator who is ever in favor of removing or destroying anything that has ever been designated as “art”. Is this good art? Is it aesthetically pleasing to the average person? Is it environmentally sound or environmentally intrusive? The evidence that this was an ill conceived artwork lies in it’s complete failure to hold up to the artist’s estimated 10 year lifespan. Major elements such as the lighting and the Lilly pads didn’t even hold up to one of our regular rain storms. Further evidence lies in the fact that since its construction few citizens ever saw it in working condition or had any idea what it was. In essence it became, in a very short time just a bunch of poles for the birds to sit on. While this is certainly pleasing to the practice of bird watching, the same effect could be had for much less than $100,000 and an endless maintenance budget. The old swimming platform could be fitted with some poles and a couple of underwater lights and you would have the same environmental habitat effects claimed by this work of art. Petulant and condescending dismissals of critics by art experts doesn’t change the fact that this particular work of public art fails on nearly every level. It is at best a curiosity and a dim flame to the imagination as you stand on the shore wondering “what the hell is it” and mentally trying to fit its remains into some structure from the past. Complaints about Dallas’ penchant for tearing down the old to make way for the new does not apply here. This “art” is not old, it didn’t even operate as designed long enough to gather any appreciation of it, it was as unnecessary and intrusive environmentally as a new restaurant or new boathouse. Public art is a wonderful thing as is the impulse of artistic expression but unless it is well conceived and constructed to either survive the elements or to degrade while remaining artistically impactful then it needs to be temporary. The bird theater had its day but no longer provides the impact intended. Tear it out.

    • The 10 year lifespan was based on the assumption that the City would uphold Section 8 of the Artist Services Contract regarding Maintenance/Conservation, approved under Resolution No. 98-3126, which specifies, after the termination of the Contract, repairs, restoration, and conservation shall be the responsibility of the City.

      Under the General Policies of the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs adopted Cultural Policy and Program, the City has the responsibility for conserving its public art collection. The Cultural Policy specifically says that maintenance of public artworks is the responsibility of the City, not the artist, and that the City is committed to keeping the artworks in well-maintained condition. This responsibility is not waived due to budgetary constraints. However, the city–against City Policy and contractual requirements–removed maintenance in its 2008 budget and as a result the piece deteriorated.

      The purpose of having a Public Art Committee and an Office of Cultural Affairs is to allow access to expert art advice so that it does not have to rely on citizens who lack the necessary experience. There were several public meetings on this commission prior to the selection. These meetings were the ONLY times where aesthetics should be a deciding factor even though, in the future, residents may later wonder “what the hell is it”. That’s how Public Art Programs work (when they do).

      Neither the Public Art Ordinance nor the Cultural Policy authorizes or encourages the deaccession or destruction of public artworks that either become aesthetically displeasing according to current public opinion or that cannot be repaired because of the lack of maintenance funds. To do so now sets bad precedent. This is the reason for the importance of this issue and why the piece ended up on a national foundation list of endangered public art installations worth saving. http://tclf.org/sites/default/files/microsites/art-landscape/white-rock-lake.html

  • David

    You will never find an artist or an art expert or curator who is ever in favor of removing or destroying anything that has ever been designated as “art”. Is this good art? Is it aesthetically pleasing to the average person? Is it environmentally sound or environmentally intrusive? The evidence that this was an ill conceived artwork lies in it’s complete failure to hold up to the artist’s estimated 10 year lifespan. Major elements such as the lighting and the Lilly pads didn’t even hold up to one of our regular rain storms. Further evidence lies in the fact that since its construction few citizens ever saw it in working condition or had any idea what it was. In essence it became, in a very short time just a bunch of poles for the birds to sit on. While this is certainly pleasing to the practice of bird watching, the same effect could be had for much less than $100,000 and an endless maintenance budget. The old swimming platform could be fitted with some poles and a couple of underwater lights and you would have the same environmental habitat effects claimed by this work of art. Petulant and condescending dismissals of critics by art experts doesn’t change the fact that this particular work of public art fails on nearly every level. It is at best a curiosity and a dim flame to the imagination as you stand on the shore wondering “what the hell is it” and mentally trying to fit its remains into some structure from the past. Complaints about Dallas’ penchant for tearing down the old to make way for the new does not apply here. This “art” is not old, it didn’t even operate as designed long enough to gather any appreciation of it, it was as unnecessary and intrusive environmentally as a new restaurant or new boathouse. Public art is a wonderful thing as is the impulse of artistic expression but unless it is well conceived and constructed to either survive the elements or to degrade while remaining artistically impactful then it needs to be temporary. The bird theater had its day but no longer provides the impact intended. Tear it out.

    • The 10 year lifespan was based on the assumption that the City would uphold Section 8 of the Artist Services Contract regarding Maintenance/Conservation, approved under Resolution No. 98-3126, which specifies, after the termination of the Contract, repairs, restoration, and conservation shall be the responsibility of the City.

      Under the General Policies of the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs adopted Cultural Policy and Program, the City has the responsibility for conserving its public art collection. The Cultural Policy specifically says that maintenance of public artworks is the responsibility of the City, not the artist, and that the City is committed to keeping the artworks in well-maintained condition. This responsibility is not waived due to budgetary constraints. However, the city–against City Policy and contractual requirements–removed maintenance in its 2008 budget and as a result the piece deteriorated.

      The purpose of having a Public Art Committee and an Office of Cultural Affairs is to allow access to expert art advice so that it does not have to rely on citizens who lack the necessary experience. There were several public meetings on this commission prior to the selection. These meetings were the ONLY times where aesthetics should be a deciding factor even though, in the future, residents may later wonder “what the hell is it”. That’s how Public Art Programs work (when they do).

      Neither the Public Art Ordinance nor the Cultural Policy authorizes or encourages the deaccession or destruction of public artworks that either become aesthetically displeasing according to current public opinion or that cannot be repaired because of the lack of maintenance funds. To do so now sets bad precedent. This is the reason for the importance of this issue and why the piece ended up on a national foundation list of endangered public art installations worth saving. http://tclf.org/sites/default/files/microsites/art-landscape/white-rock-lake.html