Jeff Whittington, Michael Corris, Jeremy Strick, Peter Doroshenko and Jeffrey Grove (l to r)
… which should probably lead to a punchline about performance art. Insert shaky, hand-held video here.
State of the Arts, the series of talks presented by the Dallas Museum of Art and Art & Seek, hosted four of Dallas’ leading visual arts directors — in particular, the ones who specialize in contemporary art: Michael Corris, art department chair at SMU; Peter Doroshenko, executive director of the Dallas Contemporary; Jeffrey Grove (below), contemporary art curator at the DMA; and Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center.
Over on Glasstire, Lucia Simek has already used the term ‘brotherhood’ to describe this group, although judging from the Abstract Study in Blacks and Greys above, I couldn’t help thinking of the darkly-lit, council-of-spies scenes from Tinker Tailor Soldier Curator.
As several of Thursday’s panelists noted, the evening roundtable at the DMA was actually noteworthy for what it said about the level of self-awareness of the local arts scene and its growing maturity. Possible translation: The scene is actually gelling enough that we might talk about it intelligibly. At the same time, we are still far enough away from being London-in-the’90s-fabulous that we could certainly use the time for some reflection about what we need and can hope for. And we’re still not so frantically busy cashing-in that no one had time for it.
Simply put, this kind of panel hadn’t been done before and is actually not often done in other cities. Good sign, bad sign? An occasion for boosterism or self-flagellation? Discuss. Bonus points awarded for use of the phrases “audience engagement” and “actually, I gained some insights.”
KERA’s Jeff Whittington asked the questions in front of — a good sign, here — what was basically a standing-room-only crowd in the DMA’s Horchow Auditorium. Art & Seek will be putting up some rivetingly conventional, non-conceptual videos of the entire session soon. Stay tuned.
But for now, a summary of / response to the cordial but stimulating exchange.
Jeff’s questions progressed from the personal (all of these monochrome characters came to Dallas within the past 2-3 years: What did they think then? What have they learned since? When do they sport a little color?) to the institutional (how does your group fit in this city?). From there, Jeff directed the discussion into the Dallas art scene in general (what is your responsibility to the city, what is the city’s responsibility to artists?) and to the blue sky-future (what do we lack, what do you wish for?)
Jeremy Strick (left) got the first big laugh of the evening when he confessed that a chief organizing principle of the Nasher’s exhibitions is selfish: “We show things I want to see.” So we’ll start the highlight reel with him: In what may be a first for arts journalism in Dallas, Strick gave a shout-out to Christina Rees‘ provocative essays on the visual arts site Glasstire, demonstrating that some people in authority actually read this stuff. Rees’ angry young polemics appeared soon after Strick’s arrival in town and made him think, perhaps misleadingly, that the area was eager for some serious, extended reconsiderations of contemporary art, its place and functions — something he clearly wished for and mostly hasn’t gotten.
In a room full of artists, Strick delivered an easy applause line when he talked about the need to invest in programs and people and not buildings (a sentiment that was echoed later by Corris and other panelists). But it’s worth repeating and underscoring the context of his remark. With Cowboys Stadium having gone to Arlington, and with the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s opening, Strick pointed out that, whether the city was fully aware of it or not, it had clearly placed a very large bet on arts and culture as a key to the future of downtown.
The problem, he went on, is that the city has not really owned up to the consequences of that. He didn’t say this, but I will: It’s been a major pattern in Dallas’ history to go whole-hog on a big gamble, top it off with many hearty back slaps and then trundle off to the casino buffet — only to be disappointed (or worse, not care) when, unsupported and neglected, our pile of chips proved insufficient. The Kessler City Plan, Fair Park, Farmers Market, CityPlace, various implanted doohickeys like Thanksgiving Square and Exposition Circle: Downtown is dotted with such investments, which people are still trying to link up and make work, for better or worse, and we’re not even talking about the completely misbegotten, off-on-their-own, large-scale ventures like Victory Park. The thing is, the Arts District still isn’t finished, neither is Woodall Rogers Park, and the city is running out of options for Resurrecting Downtown as a living, urban place. The Arts District has to work for that to succeed, and for that, the district needs follow-through on programs.
Perhaps Strick’s most thought-provoking remark had to do with arts education and how a single, galvanizing figure like John Baldessari in southern California can be instrumental in planting the seeds for a vibrant arts scene by attracting and influencing young art students who then establish galleries and collectives and even careers.
This, naturally, swung the interrogation spotlight on to Michael Corris — as Jeff quickly noted — but to SMU’s (and Corris’s) credit, it has made major strides in recent years to open up and get off the campus, to get students engaged with the city and the city engaged with the university. Admittedly, this is made more difficult by SMU’s location in what Corris called a ‘vacuole or organelle.’ That’s perhaps the first time the Park Cities have been referred to as a cellular structure, although ‘vaccum’ was neatly suggested without being embraced. Perhaps Corris was simply avoiding the derisive cliche, ‘the Bubble.’
But Corris (left) corrected Strick when he argued that no one person or department was responsible for LA’s arts scene. In fact, Corris said he dearly wishes for other graduate-level arts programs and colleges to move to the neighborhood and for more cooperative efforts among the ones here. To expand on his point: University jobs are often where many artists and curators make their daily bread (see Baldessari, above, or for that matter, Rees) and these can encourage an interconnected ‘ecology’ of departments, arts groups, think tanks, venues, foundations, etc. This flourishes in Dallas in — surprise! — business, medicine and hi-tech fields much more than it does in the entire academic-fine-arts-humanities area. Because, obviously, there’s more money to be made in the former.
Speaking of Corris, he began by noting that having arrived here, most recently, from the UK, home of emotional reticence (see Tinker Tailor, above), he truly enjoyed North Texans’ spirit of optimism and energy. He was heartily echoed in different ways by Grove and Doroshenko. We should be used to it by now: People love us for our cash and our sunny dispositions. Sigh. No one loves us for our brains.
In any event, Corris has advocated a get-out-and-do-it-yourself approach with his students, which suits Meadows dean Jose Bowen’s own vision of the future of the arts lying with ‘entrepreneurial’ go-getters. Visual artists, like stage actors, are often freelancers, at the mercy of whatever established groups or outlets are hiring. (Hence, the understandable but highly familiar tone of grievance in some of the audience questions that followed the chat.)
Corris has shown one way to get around the sense of frustration and stalemate by creating his own Free Museum of Dallas, ie., his chairman’s office at SMU, where he presents micro-exhibitions. It is not an ‘alternative space,’ exactly (“because there is no alternative and there is no space”), but it ingeniously, entertainingly intermingles the thoughtful and whimsical. It’s hard to take an office museum seriously, which he doesn’t, entirely (his website’s archive is labeled “The Storage Problem”), yet he certainly does use it as a platform to showcase artists’ works, much like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, which are also performed and recorded in an office .
In a related vein, Jeff asked Peter Doroshenko about his m.o. at the Dallas Contemporary, which combines a flurry of e-mailed releases, educational lectures, related public events and getting the art and artist physically ‘outside the building.’ Exhibit A: the upcoming show by celebrated LA street artist Shepard Fairey (left), which includes a gallery chat, a book signing, a dance party (which Fairey will DJ) and a city block’s worth of public murals. The Dallas Contemporary’s transformation under Doroshenko has been one of the sizable changes in recent seasons. The DC, Doroshenko said, is now all about “access,” about “getting people to talk about things,” about situating local artists in among national and international artists.
When it came to wish lists, Doroshenko talked about how a hotel-motel bed tax of just a few cents directed toward the arts makes a sizable difference in cities like San Francisco. It’s not so much the size of the budget increase; it’s the fact that such funding is generally outside direct political control. The tax money is designated for this purpose, period, and is not part of the discretionary budget. In short, when a city council is panicked by dire financial forecasts, it can’t automatically rush to slash cultural funding, as they always seem to. This makes the culture-tax money relatively dependable (barring major dips in tourism), which makes planning easier.
Doroshenko’s wish received approving murmurs from the audience; the difficulty is that the opportunity to establish such a culture tax and possible PID (public improvement district) for the arts just came and went. And the Dallas arts scene, typically, wasn’t remotely organized enough to make any real difference. Maybe we’ll get another chance, some day. But you have to convince the Dallas hotel owners that taxing them will actually help their business (more culture, more tourists). As for the group that did get the tax re-directed their way, the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, it made the case that this wasn’t a win-lose choice between them and the arts. After all, part of their job in selling the city involves promoting Dallas arts events. Except that, when asked for areas of improvement in Dallas, Doroshenko promptly said that whoever was marketing the city wasn’t doing a very good job — and he got nods and grim chuckles of assent.
Other wished-for items included more alternative spaces (Grove), better arts education from grade school upwards (Doroshenko), more artist residencies (Corris), an independent bookstore (Corris — which is a whole other conversation, don’t start me) and the need to re-focus patrons on programs not buildings (Strick).
Given such wishes and given the fact that audience questions never really addressed any of them, my wished-for topics for never-asked questions were two: With all of the talk of alternative spaces and the frustrations artists feel toward both the commercial outlets and the non-profit outlets represented here, what do these leaders feel about the established contemporary-art galleries? What relationship, if any, do they have with individual galleries? ( I’m not pro-gallery, just curious. In an aside, Corris said what we didn’t need were more galleries – why?)
And considering Strick’s remark, it’s fairly well known, I think, that Dallas’ biggest patrons don’t really patronize area artists. Their agents and connections are almost entirely with New York, London and LA. So, if they wished to, how would any of the visual arts leaders try to educate / re-focus the patrons’ support?