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?