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Reaction to the Report: Artist James Michael Starr

Just into the first four words of the Creative Time thirteen-item list, “Foundations for Success” I suddenly felt queasy. The room got all wiggly and blurry around the edges like on Letterman, and that phrase they used echoed inside my head.

“A sustainable artist community…community…community…”

I was having a flashback. To April, 2007, when I attended a forum sponsored by the Dallas Art Dealers’ Association. Moderator Thomas Krähenbühl of the Dallas firm TKTR Architects opened by reading a similar phrase from a similar list, from an article named something like Creating Great Cities for Art. Afterwards I tried to get the exact title, but by then I’d already stepped on the toes of panelists and organizers and it was too late, I’d burned my bridge.

(I do remember the name of the event, though. It was “How Important Are We: Dallas Fort Worth: The Next New York City?” Regarding that title, even panelist Charles Dee Mitchell later wrote on Glasstire, “I think all the participants had at one point considered just answering, ‘No,’ and letting everyone go home early.”)

My own faux pas was asking representatives of the Dallas Museum of Art, not in an entirely challenging way, if the institution was making any effort on their own to help foster the aforementioned artists’ community. They huddled briefly like contestants on Family Feud. Their final answer? The DMA’s general-admission, Free Thursday Nights!

ERRRRRNKKKKK. Wrong answer.

I’m an artist myself and so have every reason to want Dallas to develop as a cultural center. Now both the DADA panel and the Creative Time report have flagged as a key factor the need for a thriving community of local artists. Since nobody seems to be acting on that, it seems to me the advice is much more difficult, or less fun, to engineer than what we’re putting our effort into right now. And that’s where I have issue: with those who give lip service to these studies and reports and articles, saying they’re important; and who might even cite Richard Florida’s books on the Creative Class for their own purposes; but who in the end still ignore all that and revert solely to the Daddy Mallbucks throw-money-at-it, build-Pritzker-Prize-winning-architecture approach.

So what answer would I prefer the DMA had given at that DADA forum? It’s right there in the Creative Time report, under Key Factor No. 2 (Cultural institutions with international reach, innovative programs, and historically relevant collections), the second recommendation:

“Involve the local artist community. Include local artists in your exhibition program, hire artists to work at the institution, invite local artists to exhibition previews, and host artist happy hours and professional development workshops.”

What the DMA could do is foster relationship with artists, simply because they are artists, and not view them as just another segment of the Museum’s general audience. They, or any other Dallas arts institution, could accomplish this by acknowledging their common ground. You wouldn’t believe how many artists would value the connection. And you wouldn’t believe the little effort required to make more of them want to stick around Dallas and do their part in making it the “world class” art city Creative Time claims so many of us as want it to be.

It was unfortunate on that day in April of 2007 that the question getting the most attention was why artists in attendance weren’t getting their own exhibitions at the Dallas Museum of Art. Believe me, nobody wants that. And the active ingredient in the Creative Time prescription has nothing to do with exhibitions, sales or in any way anything to do with money. It’s all about the connection.

I agree, and this is not just another artist crying out “Poor little me! Won’t someone help me achieve my dream? DMA? NEA?” Nine years ago, after leaving a lucrative graphic design career to make art, I found myself living and working in a raw warehouse space in Deep Ellum. It had been easy to make the leap, but harder to answer the questions that arose as I decided on a daily basis how much I was willing to commit to this thing boiling inside me. One of the most important questions that confronted me was, will I continue to make art even if it doesn’t make money. I had to answer yes and ever since have grown to understand the full scope of this compulsion, along with the fact that my commitment is not dependent upon exhibitions, sales or outside support of any kind. It’s about living the life, making the art and being engaged with other artists (and even institutions) who are about the same things. It’s about the connection.

But I still have questions. Sincere ones and not snarky ones. Is a “thriving artistic community” something you can build, or does it only happen organically? And even if you can build it, does Dallas really want to be a great city for art or simply have the economic development that comes with such status? And even if the latter is a worthwhile approach because, in addition to culture, it also brings its own rewards, did the Great Art Cities we know really happen that way? Did Picasso find his studio in Paris’ Bateau-Lavoir because of a rack brochure he picked up at the Montmartre Chamber of Commerce? Or did Great Art Cities become so in the same way they also became great greek-restaurant cities or great cities for bicycle riders, because all that cultural richness and texture is what happens naturally when cities grow to become great?

There are so many thoughtful recommendations in the Creative Time report, and as an artist I can only speak to that very first one. But if you ask me, I think we fish or cut bait. Let’s either do what it takes to be big or just keep on doing what makes us feel big.

Image: James Michael Starr, Challenged, But Also Inspired, They Take Wing (2009), rotogravure newspaper images on panel, 9.75 x 28 inches