How to Raise the Bar on Dallas’ Scene?

Thomas Demand's curated show, La Carte D'Après Nature, at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York -- the show that spurred many a rheotorical question here in Dallas.

Last week, a Facebook friend of mine — an artist living in Dallas whom I’ve never actually met — caught my attention when he posted this on Facebook after his recent visit to NY:

Walking through the galleries in Chelsea… the work that we saw felt different than art here in Dallas. Part of the difference was presentation. The Thomas Demand curated show at Matthew Marks was very expensive to pull off. There was a massive photo mural by Demand, angled walls built with angled tinted windows, Magritte paintings, all of the work focusing on “domesticated nature.” Even in the smaller galleries… something seemed different. What it was is slippery, and I can’t quantify exactly what felt so different about those galleries as I look back. Thoughts?

I immediately commented: “Daring curatorial vision?” To which my Facebook friend replied: “Yes. Not only were there big ideas, but they were executed with precision. How do we raise the bar here?”

I haven’t responded to that question via Facebook yet, so consider this post my answer, Facebook friend.

I realized, FB friend, that you had pinned exactly the itchy-thing bothering me lately about art shown here — that  lack of vision executed with precision, and also a lack of daring. Although a fresh new round of gallery shows just kicked off the Fall season, I’m not particularly pumped about any of it — all of them, save the Todora/Zilm FWCA show and a few others, are shows with work by local-ish artists who make good work that’s not very exciting. While wacky installations wouldn’t suit the spirit of any of the work of these artists, I certainly can’t help but wonder what sort of challenging, unconventional or imaginative shows could have been mounted in their stead if the culture and culture-markets of Dallas were a little more hospitable to such things. Too often Dallas’ galleries focus too much on the commercial aspect of the work they represent, at the cost of any real ideas, when in reality gallerists have this tremendous space to surprise us and guide us into seeing better– to ask us to think, build up new vocabularies by culling from old ones, and point us in new intellectual and aesthetic directions.

Granted, commercial galleries aren’t museums — being curatorially adventurous isn’t their aim; presenting and moving the work of their artists, so that careers move forward and mouths are fed, is. Christina Rees at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts is able to put up progressive, stick-it-to-the-man work by local and internationally known artists in part because, as a university-run gallery, she’s not selling any of the work, so she has the freedom to execute curatorial ideas that elucidate a particular theme, make a particular accusation, or herald some big idea without worries about making money or paying anyone.  Some of the area community colleges are taking advantage of that same liberty; Ryder Richards at Richland College and Joshua Goode at Tarrant County College have brought some innovative work to those campuses, as well. Then, of course, there is the always ambitious, though hit-or-miss, space at Centraltrak, which is only ever as good as its director and the artists in residence there (and there are currently have some interesting ones).

All that being said, aside from the sometimes-spotty successes of our non-profit spaces,  FB friend, you are right to notice, and be flummoxed by, the great disparity between the quality and innovation of commercial gallery exhibitions elsewhere and the ones we put up here. Apart from the logistical assumptions that the NY art scene has more money and more access, I guess, to institutions or collectors that would help facilitate a show like the one at Matthew Marks in NY, I’m not entirely sure why something of the caliber of Thomas Demand’s curation of this show could not happen here — gathering contemporary work by a handful of emerging and established artists under the umbrella of a theme, in relation to older works of art or some other object(s), also on view.

To be fair, there have been a handful of group shows in Dallas that have succinctly explored a theme, most notably the drawing show INK, Inc. at Holly Johnson Gallery last year, which exhibited sophisticated works on paper from a wide-array of artists and was beautifullly installed; and this past summer, Conduit Gallery also put up Wunderkammer, curated by Philip March Jones of Institute 183 in Lexington, KY, that was an ambitious exploration of the theme of contemporary cabinets of curiosities. But shows like this are rare, and while they are important, they are not entirely of the kind we’re after in this particular discussion, either.

What makes a show like Thomas Demand’s at Matthew Marks so compelling is its excellence on every level. From the collection of vigorous work in various media by a disparate set of artists, to the challenging, ambitious and thoughtful nature of the installation itself , to the corollaries it anchors itself in historically (via writings by Rene Magritte), to the clear, intelligent  press release — the entire “package” of the show is complete and of the highest standard.

Again, I’ll grant that it’s not the primary role of commercial galleries to exhibit work in the curated museum format. They shouldn’t, in fact, do it that often, as it would detract from the good, singular attention that needs to be given to their roster of artists. But my point is this, FB friend: certainly, Dallas galleries, and, perhaps especially, independent curators and artists themselves, need to do more about making shows like the one at Matthew Marks happen in order to raise the bar on quality and innovation in our own art scene.   We need to see more visual compendiums that challenge and engage outside the museum setting, but that are executed with all the clarity of vision and installation precision that we expect from those institutions. Like so many things in Dallas, FB friend, raising the bar may be an instance of cultural fill-in-the-blanks — make it happen. If we want an expanded vision, we need visionaries.

also by Lucia Simek

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18 responses to “How to Raise the Bar on Dallas’ Scene?”

  1. push, expand, melt, take risks, and touch.

  2. General wisdom is that you have to tell someone a new idea 7 times before they get it. We need to say more, more often, from different spaces. Brand 10 art space is the newest addition to the independent alternative spaces here in DFW, along with 500x. There needs to be more of these type spaces – there is a huge diverse population here but it’s fragmented. The art world here reflects that fragmentation. As in Houston and places like New Orleans, art can be a unifier, but it starts with the curators, writers, artists and alternative spaces coming together. Not to make the same type of work, but to create the environment to produce, promote, and sell yes sell good ideas.

  3. Not making excuses for DFW, but the Matthew Marks installation may have been an exception to the rule of its overall exhibition program. Also, that such cohesive, thematic exhibitions likely do cost extra money is not to be sneezed at. That community colleges are able to pull off anything of the sort is impressive. On the other hand, TCU not only doesn’t need to sell art, it has a hefty budget, as does Brand 10. It’s easy to spend money badly, though, so budget isn’t the only consideration. I guess what I’m trying to say is that lack of ambition and imagination may be part of the problem, but don’t rule out other factors.

  4. Janet,

    While TCU is a wealthy school, FWCA is a poor gallery. We don’t even have an official operating budget. Things are tight and getting tighter.

    Also, to anyone interested:

    I ran Road Agent, my commercial space, much like I run FWCA (risk-wise, that is). And that’s one reason it died. But if I had sold a couple of secondary market Picassos on any given year, the way Matthew Marks can, I too would still be running that show, and rarely bothering to pander to primary market sales or to the LCD. I suspect that my fellow founding CADDers would take more and bigger risks as well, given the financial freedom to do so. Dallas ain’t there yet, because the bulk of the buying audience/ruling class isn’t.

    If someone doesn’t like that, then keep writing, commenting, and supporting local galleries and non-profits so it can change.

    Respectfully,

    CR

  5. Commercial galleries “curate” shows just like museums, though the goal is different.

    Commercial gallery = sale of real property

    Museum = admission to experience ephemeral experience of similar real property

    That said, commercial galleries looking to remain fresh, seeking to draw different demographics rather than the same throngs who gawk and the handful who buy, might consider seeking out and inviting younger folks (scholars, museum staffers, artists, independent curators, etc.) who are tapped into–or unsullied (not yet jaded) by–the notoriously incestuous art scene to jury and/or organize shows.

    One commercial gallery owner
    = one perspective on the world
    = one demographic

    One commercial gallery owner
    + multiple ‘types’ of curators
    = multiple perspectives on the world
    = multiple demographics

  6. It seems that if there were more alternative/artist run spaces where commerce is less of a consideration, there could be more fertile ground for experimentation. Not just non-profit spaces or one time pop ups, but perhaps something resembling the alternative and appartment spaces that pop up in waves in cities like Chicago. Maybe Dallas doesn’t have the geography for such a thing, but it seems that someone could take stock of te existing infrastructure, find somewhere cheep and start curating shows and events in that space. So long as the work was challenging and people took these spaces seriously, something like this model could work here.

  7. There is Artspace, a nonprofit that developed live-work spaces for artists, as well ass commercial art spaces. For more, see: http://www.artspace.org.

    In Texas, there are TWO Artspace properties:

    1. Elder Street Artist Lofts (Houston, TX)
    http://www.artspace.org/properties/elderstreet/

    2. National Hotel Artist Lofts (Galeston, TX)
    http://www.artspace.org/properties/nationalhotel/

    Anyone know anything about them?

  8. Great piece – thanks for writing it. I think “Modern Ruin” was a real high point in this regard.

  9. There’s no way to make Dallas better. Just burn it to the ground and move.

  10. “La Carte D’Après Nature” at Matthew Marks was an unusual gallery experience. There was elegance in the way the curator and photographer Thomas Demand put the show together. A great deal of money was spent on the Matthew Marks show, but that aside there was an idea at the heart of the show that I felt our community could benefit from. I was hoping that the Facebook post about that idea would start some conversations and spark some inspiration. I’m so grateful for Lucia’s wonderful article that took the idea and made something more of it, and for the people who have written passionate comments who obviously care a great deal about art in Dallas.

    I’ve been told that if I want to show in a commercial gallery in Dallas I need to make things that collectors can hang on a wall instead of the research project-based work that I’ve been making. That’s why I’ve shown at Ryder Richard’s Brazos Gallery and have a show opening at SMU’s Hawn Gallery, because they aren’t bound by the same constraints as a commercial gallery. From personal experience I know that I can’t sustain myself by making work for a specific audience. I have to make art that pushes me.

    I have always challenged myself to work at a level equal to the best art being made anywhere. Whether I succeed or not, that has always been my goal. In Chelsea I learned that there were aspects of presentation and concept that had not even occurred to me. I feel a personal charge to push myself further and think bigger. I hope that other people in our community accept that charge as well. There have been some exciting artistic moments in DFW like the aforementioned Modern Ruin, Road Agent, and some shows in other galleries. Having seen new potential for what an exhibition can be, I believe that we can raise the bar further.

  11. Oliver Francis Gallery is one of the best spaces I’ve seen in a long time. Kevin has taken advantage of extremely inexpensive rent in a rough part of East Dallas and is open to anything, it seems. His current installation of work by Jesse Morgan Barnett is smart and feels right. I think these qualities have a lot to do with the fact that Kevin lets the artists call the shots. He trusts them.
    I look forward to seeing more from OFG and hope more go-getters like Kevin rise to the surface.

  12. First of all, Hi Erin!! I volunteered with you almost 2 years ago with Kaela Hoskings and Jeff Nisbet at the Art Camp! I’m living in Austin now, working at the Blanton and I miss you, Christine, and the Roxy Paine Trees terribly.

    Secondly, I had this same conversation with a friend of mine. I said the same thing about Dallas Galleries being commercial and focusing on what sells versus real idea. However on the flip side, here in Austin it seems that there are many many alternative spaces that are pushing ideas but the artists cannot manipulate material effectively in my opinion. We do have hard hitters such as Women in their work, CoLab, Gray Duck, and Lora Reynolds Galleries that value concept and material.I think Texas is just a little behind as far as the arts are concerned. But we’re catching up…slowly but surely.

  13. Have been listening to this, “raising-the-bar” routine across the country, including NYC, if you read their critics, since the sermon on the mount (re: Dave Hickey with a Clean Well Lighted Place). New whoop-dee-dues don’t mean quality, nor even innovation. Thread the needle how many times, by how many generations?

  14. How to raise the bar of what an exhibition can be is probably a question that every city must or should ask itself from time to time. Where have we been, and where do we want to go? It isn’t a matter of comparing Dallas galleries to New York galleries, the point is to get inspired to push beyond what is common place.

    I’m surprised that no one, myself included, mentioned The Reading Room in the context of this article. Karen Weiner has exhibited a consistently high quality of work, and events that expand the notion of what a gallery can include. It has been exciting to watch her gallery space evolve.

  15. Sounds like Matthew Marks Gallery was taking a cue from Sean Kelly. By my experience, that is a gallery that puts it out there, honoring the idea above all else. Peter Blum quietly does the same thing for the most part. These kind of galleries seem to be the ones with all the great books up front when you walk in. We have some of those types here too. But it can’t hurt to put us on the lookout for such things and a little on guard. Wanting to be better for the right reasons is what we all should be after – always.

  16. Interesting article but flawed. I can think of only one or two major Dallas Galleries that are consistantly commerical or depend on decorators for their sales. Dallas has about three Galleries that could hold their own in any city. Conduit, Marty Walker, Dunn/Brown are all superior. The problem lies in regards to the local collectors that do not support the local galleries.

    Typical of Dallasits, they would rather buy their art in NYC or London even thought they could get the same piece from a local gallery.

    Was at the Houston Art Fair recently and more than one nyc gallery noted to me that Houston collectors are great but the the collectors at the Dallas Art Fair are more interested in having their picture made for PaperCity than looking at the Art! I did notice on the Dallas Art Fair’s opening night the area downstairs was packed around the entry and bar but NO ONE was upstairs where the galleries were. Plastic was a word used by one NYC Gallery when comparing Dallas Fair to Houston. Just saying.

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