“The arts in Texas are better than you might expect. Assuming, of course, you weren’t expecting much.” That’s the lede in this Art Newspaper story about the Texas’ “cultural boom,” which accompanies the story with a photo of a rodeo rider and, at least, skirts the “everything is bigger in Texas” cliché with just a reference to “big government” vs. “big business.” The takeaway from the piece that was written by Erica Grieder, a senior editor at Texas Monthly, is that Texas funds its arts through private individuals, and that its robust cultural institutions are a product of a streak of individualism that prompts big donors to support culture out of a sense of pride and its corollary benefits to business. The piece spends nearly half its space recapping Texas history, to root the state’s general distrust of government in its historical independence streak.
This is all true, of course, but the piece only reminds those of us living here that the Texas brand, all rodeo clowns and oil-rich, cigar chewing culture barons, is so big and powerful it overshadows any effort to drop in and scoop up a bite-sized perspective of what is going on here. Take this blog series the Art Newspaper has been running as part of its special Texas coverage. The writers swoop in, go swimming, dish on concrete, make hair and high heels jokes, and visit the usual jaunts: The DMA, Nasher, The Warehouse, etc. And once again, missing from this reflection on our “cultural boom” is any reference to artists who actual make their living here. Are artists not part of this cultural boom, and if not, can it really be called a “cultural boom?” Aren’t what we are really talking about then, is an economic boom manifesting itself in the acquisition and aggrandizement cultural commodities in an effort to purchase civic prestige?
This is not to undercut the real civic value of strong museums, exciting new collections, and increased availability of a diversity of art. But what great cultural city has ever been defined merely by its collections? Certainly not Florence, Paris, or New York. In fact, the only city I can think of that was so singularly defined by its construction of art temples and importation of cultural treasures to stock them is the unrealized Linz, Hilter’s dream of a manufactured cultural metropolis.
We know this isn’t how Dallas – or Austin or Houston or any other Texas town or city for that matter – actually functions, but it gives me pause that it is the dominant perception that is projected across state lines. I’m not sure how that perception changes, but as I’ve written before, I do think it has to involve, at least in part, a more concerted effort on the part of patrons and institutions to engage, elevate, and support artists that live in the region. This is happening, for example, with exhibitions like Stephen Lapthisophon’s show at the DMA, or the Nasher’s inclusion of DFW-based artists in Nasher XChange. But if Texas wants to be written about in a way that precludes leading the story with a picture of a rodeo rider, then it’s efforts to engage and elevate “small culture” have to be as big and brazen as everyone says we are.
Image at top: Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy)