The Modern Problems of the Dallas Contemporary
As the Contemporary settles into its new digs in the Dallas Design District, the museum struggles to find its place in the local arts scene.
LOOKING AHEAD: Director Joan Davidow (with an installation by James Gilbert) says giving up her curatorial role won’t be easy.photography by Elizabeth Lavin
It wasn’t Dallas Contemporary director Joan Davidow’s fault that January had the coldest lows on record. That part was just bad luck. When we met in the foyer of the nonprofit art space’s new home on Glass Street in the Design District, Davidow was wearing her puffy brown fur coat, hands deep in the pockets, pulling it tightly around her petite, tightly strung person. Next to her stood James Gilbert, a young artist from Los Angeles, with a blue and teal hat pulled down over his ears. Inside the warehouse, it was not much warmer than the 20-something degrees outside. For eight weeks, Gilbert had been working in the unheated space, using a single power source and a lot of extension cords to build the installation that would open the Contemporary’s new venue. It’s a massive orange-and-pink crashed airplane with videos inside that spoof airplane safety instructions. They show Gilbert with inflated rafts—the brightly colored plastic kind that usually float in backyard pools—tied to his body, trying to sit in chairs and climb up ladders. As we made our way through, the installation’s sardonic brilliance gave way to an unintended irony.
Gilbert explained the work is meant to play with our sense of safety and the absurdities of an overprotective society. Only now, no one would be able to see the installation because the Contemporary had not been able to pass its fire inspection. The space was not yet heated (or cooled), and inspectors won’t issue a certificate of occupancy until there is no threat that the water in the sprinkler system will freeze in the pipes. Davidow found out they couldn’t open the day before the (already rushed) opening, and that afternoon she was visibly frazzled.
It had been a struggle for Davidow since the Dallas Contemporary’s 10-year, nonrenewable lease on Swiss Avenue (rent free courtesy of the Meadows Foundation) ended in 2009 after 30 years on the historic block. Despite not yet being able to raise the targeted $6 million to open in the warehouse—and not finding a tenant for the two-thirds of the 37,000-square-foot space they hoped to lease out in order to subsidize the debt service on the property—the Contemporary would have to open regardless. At first Davidow wanted to open in late spring, with the Contemporary’s annual fundraising art auction, but the board pushed back.
“I tried to be sensible. That’s hard for me,” Davidow says. “I said, ‘Let’s open with the auction,’ but the feedback was that’s not what we do. That’s an event; it’s not curated art.”
The disagreement is indicative of the growing pains the Contemporary has felt during Davidow’s tenure as director, which began in 2001. At that time, the institution wasn’t even called the Dallas Contemporary. Over the past 30 years, the nonprofit, which traces its founding back to 1978, has been called D-ART, D’ART, D-Art, Dallas Visual Art Center, and the Dallas Center for Contemporary Art before becoming, simply, the Dallas Contemporary. The names are significant because they trace the evolution of an institution that was initially founded as a local artists’ collective, but is now trying to evolve into a premiere showcase for contemporary art with a national reputation (think Mass MoCA), beginning with the move into a large and ambitious space.
“If this is the potential space that we’re going to do this in, we’re going to align ourselves with spaces that are doing really interesting contemporary things by emerging artists—not just looking at ourselves,” Davidow says.
That attitude has irked both the Dallas artists who wish the space would maintain its Dallas focus and those who want a premiere contemporary art space but doubt that the Dallas Contemporary has the depth of resources and vision to make it happen. The pressure mounts on Davidow, who plays nearly every major role in the institution, from fundraising and curating to overseeing the renovation of the new space. When the Contemporary hired a consultant in 2009 to help create a strategic plan for the institution, the suggestion came back to hire a curatorial advisor who would bring in outside curators to organize exhibitions and relieve Davidow of that focus of her duties. Guest curators will begin sometime this year, but Davidow acknowledges that giving up her curatorial role isn’t easy.
“I do this because of the art, not because I want to raise money,” she says.
The fundraising goal is a daunting one, especially in the current economic climate. But even if the Contemporary raises the targeted $6 million, it isn’t clear if that will be enough to elevate the institution to a new level of prominence. For example, Mass MoCA’s space was renovated with $35 million in state funds and an additional $15 million the institution raised on its own.
Despite the limited budget, the Contemporary has had its recent successes. A 2009 exhibition of cellphone images captured by a collection of artists traveled to the Pompidou Center in France. For now, the focus is on simpler goals: heat the space and get the certificate of occupancy so that James Gilbert’s show can open. (It finally debuted February 6.)
“It’s scary,” Davidow says. “At the moment, it doesn’t work. But certain people in Dallas who love contemporary and who want it in their city because it is an essential element of a mature city—those people will have to dig deeper in their pockets to make it happen.”