Recap: Discussing the State of Contemporary Art in Dallas

Thursday’s KERA/Dallas Museum of Art panel discussion on the state of contemporary art in Dallas opened with a slide show highlighting recent and upcoming efforts of the distinguished panelists: Mark Bradford and Mark Manders at the DMA, Shepard Fairey, Rob Pruitt and Aaron Parazette at the Dallas Contemporary, shots of the studio art department in SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, and Elliott Hundley at the Nasher Sculpture Center. With five casual chairs arranged in a semicircle around a coffee table on a tan patterned carpet, the setting was business-casual (among the panel, there were two neckties, out of five possible). The following are a few notes on the discussion.

Moderator Jeff Whittington, senior producer of Think and host of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know on KERA, opened by asking the panelists, who all arrived in Dallas within the past few years, what has changed in town recently. Jeffrey Grove, senior curator of contemporary art at the DMA, observed that people from all over the world have come here. Jeremy Strick, director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, said that Dallas reminded him“of the L.A. I grew up in:  the look, the sense of possibility.” He said that impression was spurred by series of articles written by Christina Rees for Glasstire“That intense discussion doesn’t necessarily take place in every city.” Michael Corris, chair of studio art at SMU’s Meadows School, said that Dallasites’ “enthusiasm, openness, optimism, and generosity” encouraged him to move here after twenty years in the United Kingdom.

Whittington: Do you have a civic responsibility to the art-making community? Strick: Artists are the essential, most informed, passionate audience for a museum. Peter Doroshenko, executive director of the Dallas Contemporary: We place local artists in a national and international context. Corris: We have the Free Museum of Dallas, which is my office. Our next exhibition will be a group of illustrated pamphlets on racial prejudice, made by Ad Reinhardt, Howard Sparber and others.

Whittington: Jeffrey, what is your curatorial approach? Grove: To expand the parameters, scale, and scope; to recontextualize little-seen works in the permanent collection; to balance this with the big retrospectives; to invite artists like Matt Connors and Fergus Feehily to work with the permanent collection.

Whittington:  Jeremy, you should take credit for the Nasher’s new move into contemporary art. Strick: It’s actually quite selfish: We show things that I want to see, in one of the most beautiful spaces in the world. We don’t have to work hard on selling artists on doing a show there.  Elliott Hundley was just on the phone to his New York dealer, Andrea Rosen, telling her she’d better up her game and get travertine walls.

Whittington: Peter, tell us about the outreach, communication, the new approach at the Dallas Contemporary.  Doroshenko: We’re 100% focused on artist ideas.  It’s about leaving the building, getting outside the building; not everybody will come in our door.

Whittington: You’ve all arrived on the scene in past few years. What are your impressions of where we could see improvement? What is not necessarily working? What could be done?

Corris: Artists here sometime say, “If only there were more of a market…” but I don’t think that’s the issue. We need more interlocutors for [non-market-based] relational, dialogical forms of art, that don’t need a lot of financial resources. We have Bernardo Diaz in residence at the West Dallas Community Center. LaReunion is another example. The Reading Room. Think outside the market.

Strick: There are three pillars of cultural capital: presentation (museums), consumption (collectors), and production (artists). Dallas is doing better with first two than with the third, at nurturing a community of artists. What can we do to make it easier for artists to work here? Art schools are central. Look at what John Baldessari did in L.A., or Michael Craig-Martin did in London. We need more Michel Corrises; we need to attract faculty of an international level. This costs a lot less than some other ideas.

Doroshenko: I agree. It’s about ingenuity and ideas, like the Free Museum. An art career is life-long. It’s sexier to be in the Whitney Biennial at 60 than at 26.

Grove: I agree. Educational institutions are key. There’s more attentiveness & self-criticality here than elsewhere.

Corris: It takes a while to build. Baldessari wasn’t alone at Cal Arts. The city and donors need to understand that small seed gifts are as important as high-profile big-ticket items.

Whittington [to audience]: Every dollar counts, folks. [laughter]

Whittington: What’s on your wish list? Corris: Four or five artists’ residency programs. Strick: For patrons to be as focused on programs as on buildings [applause]. Grove: A profusion of alternative spaces. Doroshenko: Better marketing.

Whittington: What’s the city’s responsibility? [Initial silenceCorris: A vibrant cultural office, concerned with something other than bricks & mortar, other than with a culture of prestige. Doroshenko: How about a cultural tax on hotel bills? A nickel changes everything [applause].

Whittington: Could Dallas become art city like New York, L.A., or London?  Grove: Is that what we want? Everyone there complains. Doroshenko: By the standards of the back-page listings in Artforum, Dallas is happening.

Audience: Why not re-institute the museum school that the DMA used to run? Grove: I’m not familiar with that history. Audience: Go to dallasarthistory.com to find out.

Audience: I went to college in Austin; the scene that you want to happen here exists there.  Corris: I’ve been to Austin and I’m not sure what you mean. There’s nothing there that we can’t do here.

Audience: What are the real icons of this city? Grove: Pollock’s Cathedral; Church’s Icebergs, the Indonesian collections.Audience: “The Stake Hitch!” [Note: Willard Spiegelman wrote about this one in May 2010.]

Audience: As cultural administrators, what’s your greatest problem? Whittington: Let’s change that to “greatest challenge.” Doroshenko: To maintain excellence on a day-in day-out basis. Corris: How to be a research institution while not being distracted by fads and while maintaining enrollment.  Strick: Transforming our public perception from that of a single-donor institution to a public resource.

***

I’d like to add a couple of brief editorial comments here.

First, none of the following institutions were mentioned by name: The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Cowboys Stadium Art Program, the Rachofsky House, the Power Station, any commercial gallery, or any specific piece of public art in Dallas. Is this indicative of something?

Second, here’s my personal vision of “success” in upcoming years: Thomas Hirschhorn at the Nasher, Ryan Trecartin at the Dallas Contemporary, an e-flux symposium at the DMA, and robust local dialogue with all of the above. Challenging, uncompromising, ambitious work has a catalytic effect, encouraging everyone who sees it to a productive response.

9 comments on “Recap: Discussing the State of Contemporary Art in Dallas

  1. Ben – Enjoyed your recap and your thoughts. I think the omission of the projects/spaces you mention is indicative of something. It might merely be indicative of the way the panel was moderated, with questions that were generally less than pointed, but perhaps it is also something else, something I can’t quite put my finger on.

    Another omission I thought particularly glaring, and not just because this is the world we are in, was discussion of criticism. That’s “criticism,” not just “arts writing,” for which we have a handful of outlets, and a even smaller group that do write reviews of museum shows. But, seriously, our daily paper doesn’t have an art critic. How are we talking about our art scene when there isn’t even a critic at the daily newspaper. I know these are crazy times in the media business, and everything is evolving, but every major city (unless I’m missing some glaring exception) has an arts critic at its newspaper. The lack of a critic at the DMN is not a reflection of economic hardship, it is a indication of priorities, plain and simple.

    We, at D Mag, try to do what we can, as does Glasstire, as do various other outlets and blogs. But what was forgotten in last night’s conversation is that there are few conduits between the artist toiling in the studio and the well-dined curators in their various institutions. Those conduits are most often critics and gallerists, both of whom weren’t given time of day at the forum. Very curious.

    That said, I will second Michael Corris’ remarks that artists shouldn’t rely on commercial galleries and they should show their work. It also helps to be a bit of a showman, to know how to show your work AND get people – especially the “right” people — to the show (I recognize “right” is a contentious word, but I am assuming that the artists we are ultimately speaking about are those who understand their work as baring some relation to the broader conversation of contemporary art and art history in general, therefor making “right” refer to the people who are engaged in that conversation).

    There is plenty else that could have been discussed: the prevalent “business friendly,” conservative political make up of the region; poor urban design that tends to dilute cohesiveness and robs Dallas of any space that we can point to as a identifying locale or a location for recreational interaction outside of programmed environments; the fact that “just putting your work out there” requires a certain amount of entrepreneurial ambition, and yet those who possess such ambition are just the kind of individuals who are most likely to try their luck in places like New York, Los Angeles, or Berlin; or even, despite the mention of “patrons,” that collectors have historically shown a contemptuous disregard for local artists outside of a few individuals or the rarest of circumstances.

    But then, it was a public conversation, and much can’t be said in such forum. I, frankly, am growing weary of such chatter, and figure it is time to stop the public blah blah, and just hunker down and do stuff.

  2. I was aware of the event and equivocated on attending. At the last minute, I decided not to go because it all came down to a disagreement with the framing of the event. It is more worthwhile to spend time with artists/writers discussing current social and political issues and planning possible exhibitions/happenings than sit in an auditorium listening to a moderated panel, yet again, discuss the Dallas art scene in the context of world-class as compared to other places. Michael Corris raised a very provocative question in the past on FrontRow: who are the cultural arbiters? An addition question may be: what exactly is world-class and who makes those distinctions of classification?

    Whatever this “world-class” is, there seems to be the expectation that it will emanate from within institutions. It is fact that institutions and those who run them , spend a great amount of time raising money because museums and large spaces are very hard to maintain on many levels. So we get mega-events or discreet gatherings designed for donors. It pushes a set of social politics and stratification in a way that leaves out the middle: those who are working in the arts that have neither a great amount of money to contribute nor a lot of patience listening to the ideas of others without an equal opportunity for exchange. I’m not convinced there’s really a meaningful place in these institutions for those considered “local artists”—other than passive observers at carefully curated events that occur on rugs with glass tables.

    To be clear, this is not “griping.” It’s analysis; and analysis can free up paradigms and framing that we too readily accept as the way we should go about things.

    As far as critical review, it may be more worthwhile for artists to write about their shows—if they are seeking an elucidation of what they do—than wait for the one or two critics in town to decide to make that investment. Very few published critiques these days include discussions/interviews with the few “local artists” that do receive reviews, so there’s much to be gained from this approach. (The web has transformed modes of distribution, there are no insurmountable obstacles to getting information out there.) As far as the “local” label, it may be more worthwhile to explore opportunities outside of Dallas than wait for something to open up locally. (It also makes easier to slough off the label of “local artist” and regain some dignity.)

    I’m positive the planners and participants of the event had the best intentions in mind, but how we socialize and interact could use vast improvement. I guess it all comes down to world-class v. world citizen.

  3. There is more discussion around Thursday evening’s panel and Q&A by Lucia Simek on Glasstire. There is always more to say about the media and about getting up and getting to work. On the media, it might now only be of symbolic value to have an art critic at the Dallas Morning News . . . again, the models are not there on the shelf, readymade and ready to copy. Dallas seems to be doing a good job of covering art without a DMN critic devoted to the scene. But maybe that’s not what people crave? I also know there is movement on other fronts and people have been in motion for some time creating communities of interest in art and developing sustainable projects of work. Clearly, given the audience’s response during the Q & A, many feel that despite all this activity, at every level, they are still disenfranchised.

  4. I wish I had made it to this discussion! I admire what I’ve read here an on glasstire about alternative spaces, which seem so essential to me. An attitude I feel I’ve encountered here (I may be making more of it than what is actually the case) is that DIY alternative spaces are not “legitimate”spaces to exhibit. I feel like this could be part of the problem with artists not feeling there are enough venues. To have spaces like this and have them taken seriously is essential. Certainly, that assumes the spaces are curated well and propose challenging ways of encountering art outside of a market context, like Michael mentioned. Also, what could help these spaces is to have them somehow feed into the more established institutions in some way. What ifa local museum had a series ofsmall exhibitions of local emerging artists that was curated from shows at spaces like these? The MCA in Chicago had a program like this until recently and many people would use this as a launching pad. There may be better ways to approach this, but it’simportant that artists are able to start their own spaces and have them receivedas “legitimate”. Or if not, do it anyway. There seems to be plenty of “fuck you” in Dallas, but then it has to turn into something productive. That’s the responsibility of the artist.

  5. I agree with Simek and Corris on the subject of artists needing to move away from the market track. I had the same issue with students in Baltimore that would constantly ask, “how do I get a show?” My answer was simple, You have artwork, you have friends, one of you has a studio or a living room- clean your house put your work up and invite people over. Artists need to take more responsibility for promoting themselves. If an artist can’t get people interested enough to network with their peers, they are in trouble indeed. There’s no rules keeping you from having a house party, and it’s not like anyone is breaking code violations.
    Keep that up and the dealers, critics, curators, what-have-you, will show up. Artists forget that the the market needs them, instead of the other way around.

  6. I always wonder whether the comparisons with New York etc. are meant to be aspirational, or to be direct comparisons. Sure, on a head-to-head basis Dallas isn’t in New York’s league, but neither is virtually every other city in the world. It just seems to me like comparisons to Houston, Phoenix, Chicago, and Atlanta would give a sharper picture of the comparative advantages here.

    Furthermore, to flesh out Jeffrey Grove’s statement about the complaints of the big cities: it’s hard to pay the rent in New York and London; L.A. has issues with automobile-based dispersion and a NY inferiority complex, just like here; Berlin has a very weak economy outside the state sector which means it’s a great place to live and see art, but hard to get a job, and few deep-pocketed collectors to write checks.

    If you want to do all of the following, Dallas is probably a lot better than most other places:

    * pay the rent on a studio (and a place to live) without a lot of independent wealth
    * get a day job if necessary, in a reasonably strong local economy
    * be exposed to a continuing stream of art from around the world, thanks to the institutions onstage and others

    On the other hand, if your ambition is sky-high, it’s probably harder to get noticed here by one of the 200 curators, collectors or dealers who has the power to really push your career forward. Moving to an “art capital” is probably a high-risk, high-reward strategy that increases your chances of becoming a star, but also of going broke or becoming mentally and spiritually exhausted by the stresses.

  7. Something else though, if we think about regions rather than cities. I think so many medium-sized cities in Germany and elsewhere punch above their weight is because it’s so easy to get on a train (a train!) or a $50 flight on EasyJet and go to another city or country to see a new exhibition, have meetings, etc. Here, if you want to make a quick trip outside Texas, it’s more of a commitment to do so.

  8. Laray,

    I find it odd, and even amusing, that you choose to write five paragraphs on an event you didn’t even bother to attend. Ben’s recap was just that: a recap. Much was said during the panel but of course you weren’t there to hear it.

  9. Glad to amuse. Like I mentioned in the first graph, I had issues with the framing of the event. Clearly a personal choice of resistance not to go. Most of it what I wrote was agitprop to get to the issue of world-class v. world citizen.

    The latter of the two relies on the ability to live (perhaps even thrive) beyond concepts of borders and specific affiliations. Very difficult to achieve, all human behaviors are shaped by “confirmation bias” to some extent. Resistance is only a small step removed from doing something we believe will agitate or satisfy our needs. If I had gone, I probably would have acted out like the other audience members. (Though I doubt it could have resulted in anything remotely as interesting as calling out the missing stake hitch or the atmospheric remote-controlled paintings.)

    It’s also my understanding that blog comments are by definition off-topic, generally self-serving and occasionally so odd-ball as to elicit incredulity in the form of tears, laughter or fist on desk. Perhaps the rules have changed, and I’ve clearly been put on notice.