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Is The Dallas Fire Marshal Trying To Kill The Local Art Scene?

Beefhaus, one of Dallas' best art spaces, recently acquired a new Certificate of Occupancy after a visit from the fire marshal's office. (photo: Lee Escobedo)

Beefhaus, one of Dallas’ best art spaces, recently acquired a new Certificate of Occupancy after a visit from the fire marshal’s office. (Photo: Lee Escobedo)

 

For months now in Dallas, there’s been a boil of agitation and despair, resentment and conspiracy theorizing amongst the younger or less-monied artists and arts organizers. The cause is the city’s fire marshal inspectors, who have been visiting art spaces and art-related events with increasing regularity since the beginning of the year. Many of these spaces would be considered DIY or pop-up, though some are galleries—and they’ve received citations, fines, or even shut downs and threats of being shut down. The charge often hangs on questions around any given space’s Certificate of Occupancy, or whether the space is up to safety code, or whether the immediate neighborhood is zoned for public events that draw a crowd.

Visual art events aren’t the only ones drawing the attention of the fire marshal’s office. Late night semi-public dance parties and performance groups are getting heat as well, as well as some other entertainment-based businesses. But one thing the fire marshal’s office might not have bargained for is the tendency of a grassroots art community to band together in protest and organize. Government bureaucrats in cities across the country rarely have a solid idea of how frustrated, determined, and communicative artists can be. And Dallas’ City Hall seems to have underestimated the local press’ sympathy for this less polished aspect of Dallas’ art scene. In other words, there’s been some notable pushback. The city has taken a few measures in recent weeks to address complaints, mainly in the form of appointing a few liaisons to help artists and event organizers negotiate the tangle of opaque processes for securing the appropriate CO or event permits. So far that’s it. It’s a start. But only that.

If, at this point in the conversation, one wants to point out that artists who want to do things publicly are as accountable as any small business for having their administrative act together, get in line. Artists who complain or who believe they deserve special treatment don’t do the image of artists (especially in this conservative city) any favors by acting like entitled space cadets. But that’s really not the case here. First of all, Dallas’ red tape, by accounts I’ve heard from some savvy people, seems particularly confusing: right hands are almost never in conversation with left hands, and transparency is almost non-existent. Passive aggression is common.

There’s also a larger issue that the non-art, by-the-book people never quite grasp about the cultivation of an art scene, or for that matter how crucial an art scene is to a city’s overall mental and economic vitality.

Dallas is a very young city reckoning with (and stumbling over) a kind of cultural growth it’s never experienced before. This is an age-old story of a city’s growing pains in the face of standard gentrification, but here with a novel, contemporary twist: information and access—mostly in the form of social media—are threatening to short-circuit the very growth they naturally facilitate. Make no mistake: Dallas’ PR side has for the last few years attempted to and partly succeeded in using the city’s visual-arts growth as a boast and a calling card. Dallas is meant to be cooler now than it’s ever been. Artists and art-world people visit Dallas more than ever before, especially in October and April, and many go away with a whole new, improved idea of what Dallas is or might grow up to be.

And one reason artists are drawn to Dallas or might stay in Dallas—which is the city’s reputation for unregulated, un-nannified openness to experimentation and innovation (a disinterest by the powers-that-be being one reason for this freedom)—has been dismantled by the city’s recent actions.

I don’t believe that the artists and art supporters who’ve been targeted by the fire marshal’s inspectors had any illusions about being allowed to operate under the radar indefinitely. I think the cycle of gentrification by which artists take up space in disused and overlooked neighborhoods and buildings is practically written on the bones of artists. It’s also in the bones of developers and landlords. The symbiotic and fraught relationship between anarchic creatives and cold-blooded capitalists has, historically, underpinned every interesting and worthwhile neighborhood in the United States. Artists move in, make a neighborhood worth visiting or living in, and then get priced out by the money men and their yuppie clients. Ad infinitum.

But what’s happened here recently, as Dallas has enjoyed this long, wealth-driven growth spurt, is that no sooner have the seeds of (this cycle’s) art scene begun to sprout than they get yanked back up. That months-to-years-long window of ‘making things happen’ (with immunity) has been short-circuited. The artists in this sphere of Dallas’ art infrastructure (and yes, the grassroots and DIY part of any art-scene infrastructure is crucial to its credibility) aren’t even getting a chance to hold an event. An opening. A show. It’s not the developers or landlords blowing the whistle on the art before it sees the light of day. They wouldn’t do that, because they need the artists—at least for a while. The authority shutting down the art is the city itself. The city that (still) longs to be seen as “world class.”

I have no argument with the fire marshal’s office doing its job. I’ve been to some crowded DIY events in the last few years that had me nervously scanning the room for the nearest exit in case of fire or floor collapse. (To any hesitant attendees: this is the nature of DIY events and it always has been. Buck up and deal with it. Don’t miss the interesting stuff just because a room is a potential fire trap.) But the artists are calling this rash of closures and tickets and warnings a “witch hunt,” a “crusade,” a “sting operation,” et al. The truth, however, is both more banal and more sinister: as far as I can make out after talking to a lot of people (and hearing the fire marshal’s office explain it at a recent meeting), City Hall has merely figured out how to use social media and online listings to find would-be offenders. The after-hours inspectors figured out whom to follow, what websites to use, and what events aggregators to check online. In addition, anonymous whistle-blowers and irritated neighbors (if there are any, as officials claim) have figured out how to alert the authorities to any offending event through the (very) short cut of… Twitter. If this is to be believed, then the forces that get people to an art event are the same ones shutting it down.

What this really means is that the digital age is continuing its automaton rampage and leveling of (democratizing of? oh dear) anything interesting, subversive, new, consuming, eccentric. Unimpeded access to information is great until it’s not. City bureaucrats are the last people on earth who should be setting the pace or tone of an art scene. ‘Art’ for them is something scary or weird and should be secured in air quotes before, they hope, it goes away and stops making them feel kind of dumb. (Or maybe just parental. “Are there not any fire extinguishers here?”)

In the face of this, some local artists are scared to organize anything right now. In some cases, months of programming have been aborted. How’s that for art being turned into something like a thought crime? Others are keeping their event information offline and retreating to alternate ways of spreading the news (mainly by word of mouth, snail mail, some email, or actual phone calls). This “slow” method of getting the word out is of course how things used to be done, in the very recent past in fact, and—perhaps in retrospect—it allowed that luxury of time for any creative scene to take hold.

Whether or not creative people will decide that social media is ultimately a liability in Dallas, we have yet to find out. That’s a big subject. Whether Dallas city officials grasp that shutting down its grassroots art scene is a bad idea (and that they might want to fix the internal machinations that make it so hard to figure out how to play by the rules) is something I don’t hold out a lot of hope for. But Dallas is very young—one of the youngest big cities in the U.S. It prides itself on being progressive. The fire marshal’s office comes off like a mostly reasonable entity. The artists here are smart, and open-minded, and natural collaborators. New circumstances call for new behaviors, don’t they?

 

also by Christina Rees
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12 Responses

  1. Dave Cearley

    If you want to lobby for building code modifications for public event spaces, have at it. If you’d like to see better coordination between event organizers and fire inspectors, that’s a good idea too. Claiming that the Fire Marshall is somehow targeting artists and harming growth in the Dallas art scene by expecting for profit art businesses to abide by fire safety codes is more than a little off base.
    “Don’t miss the interesting stuff just because a room is a potential fire trap.” Seriously?
    While it sounds great for indestructible risk embracing young singles, it doesn’t fly with the rest of us.
    And tell me, exactly how much will it help the Dallas art scene when one of those pop up galleries with one exit and no sprinkler goes up in smoke and the images that get embedded in the minds of patrons are of dead bodies and a smoldering ruin?

    1. Maybe it seems like a malicious targeting because they stalk social media and show up to do their good work during an organized event. Why don’t they go during regular business hours? It’s obvious.

    2. Michael A. Morris

      Maybe it’s also worth mentioning that half the time the Fire Marshall isn’t even shutting down events because of a fire hazard but because a space doesn’t have the right C.O. to “hold an assembly”. What the fuck does that have to do with fire? Is that even the fire marshalls job? It’s pretty obvious there’s some other motivation.

  2. Carolyn

    Most of the art venues I’ve heard of that have had problems are not packed with people and are, in my humble opinion, a lot easier to get out of in case of fire than many other supposedly compliant structures (I personally hope never to need to exit in a hurry from the top floor of American Airlines Center).
    I’m glad some City officials have acknowledged that we have a problem and are saying they’ll facilitate; but it also seems to me that a few actual changes/reforms in the regulations and regulatory system may be needed. Most “galleries,” for example, host no more people than most “showrooms,” yet I understand that some galleries have run into trouble w.r.t. their zoning because their openings are deemed “entertainment events” – as if they were comparable to a rock concert. A simple amendment to zoning definitions to classify art galleries as showrooms would seem appropriate and might fix that particular problem; and I suspect other fixes might be made. No one wants people dying in fires; but who benefits from throttling creativity and wasting City resources administering and enforcing overly-byzantine, possibly unnecessary regulations?
    (And f.w.i.w., though I’m not sure it’s relevant, many if not most of the venues I’ve heard of that have had problems are either nonprofit or are “for profit” in name only – they’re a labor of love, not lucre, and the organizers will be thrilled if they make enough to live another day.)

    1. Patrick Romeo

      Thanks Carolyn for the thoughtful remarks. While we probably needed a fire extinguisher on hand for the highly unlikely event of singular minuscule flame erupting from an aging light fixture, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making thoughtful and honest edits to the Rules™ to reflect an evolving cultural atmosphere.

  3. Teresa Megahan

    Howdy ya’ll. The Fire Marshall is on the right track communicating with galleries about what is necessary to bring these spots up to code. It would also hope to publish specific guidelines on what is necessary to bring DIY spaces up to code. Then cost of code compliance figured, and grants (like the National Endowment for the Arts for which deadline was just extended) need to be written. No one is in the wrong here, but if you work together, things can be made more right.

    1. Michael A. Morris

      No offense, but the idea of small independent art spaces getting NEA grants in order to comply with code so they can make space highly experimental and subversive shows is a little ridiculous. Even big institutions with paid staff have a hard time getting that money. The best possible thing the fire marshall can do is leave us alone.

  4. Right after I left Dallas I read that another person was mauled to death by a pack of wild dogs. Teresa and I had been fighting against the stray dog problem since I had moved to Oak Cliff. We painted a mural encouraging people to spay and neuter their pets and I would stop and take stray dogs either to their owners (if I could figure out whose they were) or to the shelter if I could. There was a whole community of people who stepped up and tried to deal with this problem. We would hear about people’s cats and dogs being killed by wild dogs, we would see dead dogs on the side of the road, he had friends with children who were bit by wild dogs and when we left a woman was mauled to death

    The people in Dallas were constantly complaining to the city to step-up efforts and throw them a bone but the cities efforts were minimal and they never truly take the steps necessary to fully deal with the problem. When I was living there, the majority of my interactions with the city government mostly revolved around their extraction of money from my wallet. The streets were full of potholes where I lived and 635 seems to have been permanently under construction since I have known of it’s existence. Something very strange is going on there…

    I think that the ones who really suffer from these things are the poor. A speeding ticket for a poor person is the same as a speeding ticket for a rich person. You are more likely to be attacked by a pack of stray dogs in a poor neighborhood. The potholes were in the poor neighborhoods. I think that the issue with the fire marshal is another one of these issues. He isn’t going to cause nearly as many problems for the wealthy side of the art market. It is going to cause problems for venues that were cheaper to rent and that no one can afford to renovate. Those were some of my favorite spaces in Dallas. The more expensive venues presented art that was more refined but the more innovative and experimental shows seemed to take place at venues that didn’t have the same kind of budget. Yes, the refined work is more likely to be “safe” and appeal to wealthier older folks with money who want to decorate their home with beautiful things but the avant-garde work largely showed up in alternative spaces. I understand that it would be terrible if a building collapsed on people at an exhibition or if it caught on fire and everyone was caught inside and burned to death and I suppose that it might be possible but really if I had to guess I would guess that it’s just another way for the city to fight a problem that isn’t really a big problem but that looks like a problem in order to distract people in Dallas from their inability to fix any real problems.

    Maybe they should put the fire marshal on dog duty?

  5. A wise old man once said, “If you were to try to assassinate a king, the the aura of royalty would cause you to miss. But, a president, I mean, why not shoot a president?”

    The long arm of the ordinance is falling on the once gruff, now fair, city of Dallas.

    Where building code was once more of a personal problem, a wish, a hope, and a prayer — for those whose record of life was stacked in back rooms, fragile ego on display in the front mingling with the half stamped out cigarettes — Others tip toe with official import stamps and appropriate taxes detailed on the tag sewn into the tongue.

    “Please Sir, more gruel!?”

    I don’t recall the City (big C), the CADD, or the DADA greasing down St. Augustine, and it wouldn’t have stuck anyways, we were soaked with God’s given rain!

    Where did Dallas Art abandon train and say, “We should just get off here, this damn thing is moving awfully fast and we have an economy and an image to think about.” ?

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