For the past couple of years, Dallas’ fire marshal’s office has been inordinately active in shutting down art spaces that it deems not up to code and/or not in possession of a proper Certificate of Occupancy (CO). Some of the spaces affected were shut down during their public receptions and events, while others were shuttered before they could officially open their doors for events. Unlike other spaces that have received fines or citations and decided to right their statuses with the city, Ash Studios, a multi-use venue, artist collective, and live-work space located in Fair Park, has contested the fire marshal’s fine, citing that their space is a social sculpture and therefore does not fit into any existing CO requirements.
The plaintiff in Ash Studios’ court case, Fred Villanueva, co-founded the space with artist Darryl Ratcliff in 2012. According to the Dallas Observer, Villanueva’s legal representation, Paul Saputo of the Saputo Law Firm, claims that Ash Studios “should have a separate CO designation than the ‘indoor commercial amusement’ CO recommended by fire inspector Keith Wilson,” as the studio is not intended to act as a commercial space. Saputo goes on:
“If the city has the power to tell him that he cannot bring these people together and create the social sculpture — of which the necessary component is the building where it all happens — then that work will no longer exist. It’s akin to ripping up an artist’s canvas and setting it on fire. He has the right under federal law to prevent the destruction of his work as long as it’s of recognized stature. Ash Studios is of recognized stature — it’s well known in the arts community; it’s vital to the city.”
In rebuttal, the city’s attorney has argued that since Ash Studios has four walls and a roof, it is a building, and therefore is required to have a CO to assure the safety of the building’s occupants.
Darryl Ratcliff also spoke out in a written statement about why Ash Studios brought its case to court, reading in part:
“Our motivation for contesting the citation has a lot to do with the greater environment of the Fire Marshal’s systematic targeting of cultural spaces and the unintended policy effects this has had. Dallas has lost at least 12 existing cultural spaces due to this policy, and there are probably dozens more that do not exist because of this policy. Dallas has lost some of its best cultural talent because of this policy… . Although we appreciate the efforts of city staff who have been working on this issue, the reality is that Dallas is substantially less interesting and culturally vital than it was before this policy was implemented.”
The judge denied Villanueva’s request to dismiss the citation, which means the case will continue to a jury trial on January 3, 2018.