Last night, the DMA hosted its latest State of the Arts panel, on the topic of contemporary art in Dallas. The panel was made up of a brotherhood of institutional leaders and curators: Jeffrey Grove, the DMA’s Hoffman Family Senior Curator of Contemporary Art; Dr. Michael Corris, Chair of Studio Art at SMU; Peter Doroshenko, Executive Director of the Dallas Contemporary; and Jeremy Strick, Director of the Nasher Sculpture Center. The discussion, steered by KERA producer and host, Jeff Wittington, went more or less as I imagined it would – the gentlemen, all of which have been here for about two or three years, are feeling positive about Dallas cultural and artistic energy. They had between them only a few sticking points when it came to the arts scene here, though certain members of the audience, as evidenced in the awkward and volatile Q & A session that followed the panel discussion, had other axes to grind. I’ll get to that.
Here are the key highlights of the evening.
On their impression of the Dallas art scene upon arriving in town to fulfill their respective positions:
Jeffrey Grove: found the scene “escalating increasingly within the last three years… much more richness than I suspected at first.”
Peter Doroshenko: found it “more complicated, more layered” than on his previous visits to the city in the 80s and 90s.
Jeremy Strick: the scene reminded him of LA in scale and sense of possibility; he found there to be a high level of self-criticism among members of the Dallas arts, as best evidenced by Christina Rees’ now seminal essays published here on Glasstire nearly three years ago; remarked that that sort of self-criticism was very rare in any city, anywhere.
Michael Corris: found the city “enthusiastic, open, and optimistic about the future;” understood that the university (SMU) has a sense of civic responsibility.
On Civic Responsibility
JG: the museum’s role is to create “an exchange that leads to a desire for more” in its visitors.
JS: the Nasher’s looks to artists to determine and discern the quality of what the Nasher is doing.
PD: responsibility to get “people to talk about things.”
MC: since SMU is in the odd “organelle” of the Park Cities, he found his greatest responsibility to be steering students and faculty to take their own initiatives toward showing work and creating discourse, which has a wider, civic effect.
On Their Individual Curatorial Approach
JG: “expanding the scope of programs so it [the DMA] looks like the culture in which we live.”
JS: “The plan is pretty selfish really… We show the work I want to see.” [laughter and clapping ensues]
PD: The contemporary is 100% focused on the artist’s idea and getting “outside the building;” “creating context… access;” the Contemporary wants to highlight contemporary culture, not just art.
On Where Dallas Could Improve
MC: Dallas could use more casual social gatherings that encourage community; needs more interlocutors that work as conduits in helping understand how creativity can develop; and artists need to think outside the conventions of the market, i.e. gallery representation by an early age. Artists need to take and make initiatives.
JS: Dallas is full of a rhetoric of achievement: world-class city, etc., but it loses sight of the three key points he thinks are most essential to vibrant arts culture: presentation of art, which falls on the institutions; consumption of art, which falls on the collectors; and production of art, which falls on the artists. All three categories nurture a thriving community of artists. He suggested that the best way to create this nurturing environment was to open an art school with world-class teachers, which would encourage artists to come to Dallas and then, perhaps, to stay.
PD: explained that an art career is a lifelong pursuit; agreed that art schools would help.
JG: agreed that schools, especially post-graduate programs, hold talent together, but he countered that art schools can create a false sense of talent and expectation. Said that artists coming together to declare space and seek solutions was the best way for a scene to foment.
MC: Dallas is poorly served in terms of education and that there needs to be more cooperation between art schools. City needs to rethink how it approaches development, and realize that only a small package of funds do a tremendous amount of good.
Wish Lists for Improving Dallas Scene
MC: 4-5 artist residency programs
JS: the patron community to be as focused on funding programs as they are on buildings. [again, clapping]
JG: an increase in alternative art spaces
PD: Dallas needs to market itself better
On the City’s Responsibility to the Arts
JS: Needs to focus on talent, not buildings, arts districts, etc.
PD: city needs to implement a cultural tax
JG: city needs to focus on talent and artistic community; promote city by highlighting smaller art cultures
On What a City’s Artistic Success Looks Like
MC: should look something like London I the 1990s, when artists cultivated the scene and collectors like Charles Saatchi helped foster it by buying into it.
JS: if artists start to stay and foster dialogue.
PD: if the scene keeps rising and doesn’t get satisfied with itself.
So, then, when the room opened up to questions, a handful of artists wanted to know how to get their own work in front of guys like them, who run museums and stuff. Er… well. One of the artists said he’d been preaching his art on the streets of Dallas for years, and that his art was going to change the world. His art, which he described while Wittington tried to gently steer the conversation back to topic, had something to do with an answering machine embedded in the body of painting that, when you use your cell phone to call the painting, plays a song that describes the painting. There were chuckles in the audience, but I think mostly because it actually sounded kind of cool. I think I saw Michael Corris’ eyebrow rise, puckishly.
Another audience member took an unsuspecting Jeffrey Grove to task both for the long-dead DMA art school never having been reinstated and for the removal of Claes Oldenburg’s spike from the barrel vault (removed long before Grove came to the DMA). It was a pointless and mean-spirited moment, though Grove was a gentleman about it.
Of course, I was struck by the lack of discussion about the role of the media in the arts. Except for Strick mentioning Rees’ essays, no one suggested that writers and critics play any role in the shape and health of an arts community. (So, naturally, all night long I dreamed that I was standing up in the auditorium asking that question.) I know the men on the panel believe strongly in the role of cultural commentators, and not mentioning it may have been an oversight, and perhaps not as pressing an issue as the others on the bill, but it does seem to me that in order for art cultures to become strong, there have to be writers that champion the artists, curators and other art folks that deserve it, and take to task the things that don’t work. Somebody’s got to be sifting through all this stuff and putting it out there. Disseminating information (and preference) is one of the best ways to build energy.