In October, Claude Albritton III, co-founder of the MAC, the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Uptown, announced the MAC would be moving. The arts venue with its galleries, cafe and theaters would become something like an arts village in the Cedars area south of downtown. Albritton recently gave KERA’s Jerome Weeks a tour inside the South Ervay street location.
A cold morning wind blows dead leaves around the busted-up tarmac and concrete driveway inside an old-fashioned iron gate that surrounds a more than two acre compound. The cluster of old metal warehouses and two-story, red-brick buildings began in 1914 as a Franklin Automobile showroom and repair shop.
Claude Albritton heads straight past the warehouses to the first brick building on the right. “This one’s pretty neat. It’s got 5000 square feet and such a terrific upstairs.”
Albritton punches in the code for the giant old garage door. “Open sesame!” he shouts as it roars and clatters open.
Eventually, the whole complex — facing on South Ervay back when the area still had harness shops and tanneries nearby — became a Ford dealership, after Franklin went out of business. The Ford dealership sold cars and tractors right up through the early ’60s. The back room that Albritton has opened feels both empty and cluttered. It’s got multiple garage doors and odd angles. It’s scattered with tools, shelves and sawhorses. But it’s big and dark, like somebody’s huge wooden basement, more than 3000 square feet.
“This we may carve out for a gallery,” he says, “using these old doors as windows out to the garden area.”
The garden area is that mess of tarmac and scrub bushes that lies between the brick buildings and the metal warehouses. The general idea is to create something of an arts village enclosed by the old iron-spike fence. There’ll be parking, an open garden and the biggest metal warehouse at the back, the one with more than 4000 square feet, that could be a theater with a cafe.
The other feature in the room we’ve entered is a creaky, narrow ramp that runs up to sunlight along one side. “Watch your head here,” Albritton cautions as we clump up the wood planks. “In the old days, the tractors, they’d go up this wonderful ramp, up to this even more wonderful space up here.”
Partly because you climb up into it, the room feels huge and airy with high-ceilinged skylights pouring in sunshine. The sorrow is the space seems impractical for a theater venue. Albritton argues the support poles holding up the roof braces create too many obstructions. Also, like so many of the buildings here, the room has odd angles because of the way the complex is oriented toward Ervay.
But surely, some use can be found for this mini-cathedral. Albritton says he’s open to suggestions.
He’ll be needing suggestions and investment because of the sheer quantity of raw square footage here. In fact, directly on the other side of the wall of that ‘mini-cathedral,’ there’s 7000 square feet of possible office space — Albritton is hoping for environmental firms. He wants to make the entire complex as green as possible. And there’s yet another entire building in front of this one that could hold restaurants, a black-box performance space and Albritton’s real dream: a permanent exhibition area for photography and video.
One of the big advantages of this whole arrangement? Albritton points out it won’t have the crowding and ‘sound pollution’ the MAC currently suffers from — when noises from the theater spaces leak into gallery showings or parties in the lobby can be heard in the theaters. Here, the theater and its cafe can be back in the metal warehouse, the gallerists can visit upfront, stroll outside in the garden or head down the street to the Pastime Tavern (opened in 1937), which is also part of the property.
But why move into this sprawling, rickety, leftover, semi-industrial hodge-podge — at all?
In Uptown, the MAC is the envy of most arts venues in North Texas. It certainly enjoys almost everything the Dallas Arts District lacks. The densely popular area would seem to be a new urbanist’s dream: It’s filled with small shops and bars and is highly walkable. It’s densely populated but it’s also got open-air amenities like the Katy Trail and the nearby Turtle Creek. There’s even a trolley and a Whole Foods Store that’s moving in soon. At night, neighborhood folks can be seen strolling, eating at restaurants, walking dogs.
They can be seen doing almost everything, that is, except coming to the MAC. Art shows, film screenings, stage dramas, literary evenings, doesn’t matter.
Tina Parker is co-artistic director of Kitchen Dog Theater. The MAC has been the company’s home for 20 years. “You would think in a neighborhood filled with apartments,” she says, “that all this would be like shooting fish in a barrel. You’d just have an audience from this neighborhood. But it’s not easy.” And this struggle is faced by one of the most highly valued small companies in North Texas, one with a national reputation for premiering new works.
Albritton agrees — most of the MAC’s audience, he reports, drives in from outside Uptown, fighting the parking nightmares. When the MAC opened in 1994, much of booming Uptown simply didn’t exist, and the MAC was a daring shot at the future — across the street from a cemetery, no less. But the neighborhood did not develop the way he expected, Albritton says. It’s a seriously upscale, high-end, drinking and clubbing, nightlife and ritzy condo tower area — possibly the future for many American downtowns, pricing out the artists and minorities who lived in what was once called the State-Thomas area.
So now with the Uptown property taxes so high, the current MAC facility will be looking for firms to lease it, firms that can pay those taxes. And the new MAC will head south.
In contrast to Uptown, the Cedars remains pretty rough and underdeveloped. It’s not without promise, though, as developers have been swooping in, following the lead of artists who for years have scoured the Cedars for cheap studio spaces and galleries. Does this sound like just another turn on the same urban development cycle? Perhaps it’ll be different this time.
“I think that this neighborhood is going to be far more generous to the arts,” Albritton says. “I think this is going to be a lot more fun as the neighborhood buys into this.”
He points to the new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema going up about 10 blocks away. There’s also Southside on Lamar with its galleries and spaces. And it’s clear that older homes and commercial buildings are getting rehabbed, not torn down so much between the many already-empty lots and closed storefronts.
So why move here? Admittedly, the neighborhood’s not going to win any awards at the moment, but again, the MAC originally moved in near a cemetery. Far more than the Cedars vicinity, it’s the overall scale of the compound that impresses. The new Big MAC is like the old MAC quadrupled. So much space inspires ambitious ideas. Or so much junk.
But the immediate question is whether Kitchen Dog will move here, once its time runs out at the MAC later this year? (Tina Parker reports, officially, their lease runs through the end of June but they’ve been given no definite exit date.) Parker says her board will be addressing the issue in a major meeting in a few weeks.
“We’re gonna have a big sit-down and look at all the possibilities, not only of the Cedars but also some other spaces that we’ve looked at. And see what’s the best fit for Kitchen Dog.” How many seats will they need — to sell the number of tickets they’ll need to meet the rent they’ll have to pay? And so on.
Parker says the Cedars certainly has its attractions. But even if that space is the company’s ultimate choice, Albritton will be developing the MAC complex in phases over several years. It’s almost certainly not going to be ready for the theater’s next season — its 25th. Commitments about plays and rights and directors already have to be made, Parker says. Yet she remains confident things will work out. Kitchen Dog, she notes, has handled this situation before.
“There might be some interim time where we have to get back to our roots,” she says, “and put our season together in different venues.”
So for awhile, at least, it could be old dog — old tricks.