LAB WORK: Curator Anne Lawrence says the CADD Art Lab is downtown partly because the developers wanted "something with substance."
photography by Trevor Paulhus
Some years ago, I left Dallas for Midwestern cornfields and snowdrifts. Those were the days when the DMA and Meadows were still free—all ora without labora. But, as Uptown began to look like a landscape of stalagmites on my returns home, other aspects of the city also rocketed. The bombast of “Live Large. Think Big” might have its gouty aftermath later, but its heady effects are what we feel now. So many cultural institutions vie for sponsorship that Dallas museums have to contend with for funding. When THE Magazine—a free monthly arts publication “of and for the arts,” with outposts in Los Angeles and Santa Fe—debuted here in October, it signaled that DFW’s contemporary arts have also become a heavyweight in their own right. Something’s brewing here.

My culture shock still hadn’t worn off when I asked Steve Buck, THE’s publisher, why the magazine had come here. Dallas is a contemporary arts mecca? “The work that the museums in Dallas and Fort Worth are doing and their architectural quality rival anything in LA or New York,” Buck says. “You have 80 to 100 different organizations in North Texas from everything from music to theater to contemporary art.” From his perspective “there’s enough going on in DFW each month that THE can write 10 or 15 previews of work, and 20 to 25 different substantial reviews of performing arts, music at the symphony, something going on at a gallery, or something DIY. It’s a great market that’s not being talked about, that a lot of people just don’t know about.” Buck adds that people still think of Dallas for its shopping, dining, and sports. Not Jessica Simpson, Chuck Norris, and J.R. Ewing?

With the city’s newfound awareness of what it offers, especially in the contemporary arts, Dallas is beginning to reassess itself. Joyce Goss, executive director of the Goss-Michael Foundation, tells me the old perception of Dallas is changing. “Shortly after the Rachofskys, the Roses, and the Hoffmans announced their gigantic gift to the DMA, it really helped Dallas become an international player in the arts,” Goss says. “Now, when I go to London or Basel, a lot of people talk about Dallas as an art community.” The Young British Artists group that the Goss-Michael Foundation features are “excited and thrilled” to show here—Dallas is becoming one of their big markets.

CADD Art Lab’s launch in September, and its exhibit “Indexing the Moment,” curated by Anne Lawrence, articulates what’s going on here. Formed in 2006, CADD comprises 14 like-minded contemporary art galleries in Dallas. They have banded together at a time when contemporary art buying in Dallas is on the rise. “If you look at the transformation of the Design District,” Lawrence says, “now you can’t turn around without seeing another gallery.” Lawrence acts as an emissary between the galleries that participate with Art Lab, getting to “curate the work thematically,” and visiting each gallery to “choose between two and five works” to showcase in the CADD Art Lab downtown. It’s a space where she can allow the galleries’ pieces a chance to strike up confluences outside the “cluster” effect of the Design District and elsewhere.

One of the pieces Lawrence chose for “Indexing the Moment” came from And/Or Gallery. A work by Kristin Sue Lucas called Refresh (2007), it contains a series of court drawings and transcripts narrating Lucas’ court appeal to change her name from, and back to, Kristin Sue Lucas. She wanted to do “a refresh … a renewal of self.” Lucas tells the judge, “I am here to be born again as myself, or at the very least, the most current version of myself.” Lucas isn’t abstracting herself so much as reiterating herself. Her piece obliquely draws on a moment particular to Dallas right now. The city is standing in a courtroom of popular opinion, waiting for the verdict: are we the same old Dallas with the same old associations, or can we christen the city with new attributes? As the materials in the Art Lab attest—canvas, photography, metal, paper, wood, and ink—more than soft furs and sleek Ferraris make up the city. The Art Lab’s location next to Neiman’s and the Joule hotel was strategically planned. Lawrence says the developers “didn’t want another diamond dealer or another luxury retailer, but something with substance. Because we’re an association of galleries, the art is very high quality.”

Some of that art comes from Conduit Gallery, located in the Design District. Conduit’s owner, Nancy Whitenack, used to run her gallery in Deep Ellum, but “things weren’t moving in the right direction there. I came over and I looked at this space, and loved it.” It wasn’t an easy change, though. “Friends and collectors thought I was crazy,” Whitenack says. “They said, ‘People are going to think you’ve sold out and you’re going to be decorative.’ ” Her defense: “You come here to buy the best Italian furniture that you can find anywhere. Why wouldn’t this be a very copacetic, synergistic kind of relationship?” The developments rising on Oak Lawn as it intersects with Hi Line Drive, and the new Dallas Contemporary going up on Glass Street, are proof that the Design District is seeing that synergy take place. Much of the Design District’s success has been because of the risk-taking by people like Whitenack, who braved the move after 9/11. It reminds me of something Joyce Goss says: “Texans by nature are risk-takers. It’s part of our spirit, the way we grew up.”

These risks also come in the work of a Dallas group making art about as contemporary as you can get. It’s called Art Conspiracy, and it’s so nomadic that its venue tent-pegs across the city only twice a year: a Seed Benefit in June and a primary auction held in December. At Murray Street Coffee in Deep Ellum, I meet Cari Weinberg, Andrea Roberts, and Sarah Jane Semrad, some of Art Conspiracy’s members. They explain their now 4-year-old project: Art Conspiracy asks 100 local artists to make art in an “underutilized” space in the city, a studio environment where artists have three hours to make something on an 18-by-18-inch piece of plywood the day before the auction. The next day, the event kicks off at the same location, which usually has some “historical/wacky” element, too. With bands playing and the auctioneering going, it gets pretty raucous. Each original piece starts at $20—and with such low prices, many bidders buy their first original piece of art ever. Weinberg says that artists “usually complete works alone in their studio, but here they’re getting to work alongside people, and there’s a lot of interaction.” It’s sort of the same thing Art Lab does with its galleries’ pieces, but here it’s the artists converging and creating.

Just what is this auction for? It’s what Semrad calls “street-level philanthropy.” The first Art Conspiracy event, a BYOB affair at the Texas Theatre, helped victims of Hurricane Katrina. This year’s auction, titled “Deconstructed,” will benefit Preservation Link, which Weinberg says “pushes media literacy. South Dallas and Fair Park kids do a photography and videography program and go out and document their neighborhood.” Art Conspiracy hopes to inspire other cities nationwide with the good they do. Weinberg says, “We want to create a template for different people from different cities who say, ‘I want to do an Art Conspiracy in my town.’ ” As far as the spirit of the event, Andrea Roberts says, “I don’t think there’s really a way to describe the feeling of the artists when they show up on installation day, or of anyone that shows up at the event. It’s powerful.”

With all of this good news about the arts, it’s hard to take stock of the realities. Christina Rees, owner of Road Agent and longtime observer of the art scene in Dallas, thinks local contemporary art has a lot of growing up to do. “Dallas just isn’t as old a city,” Rees says. “It doesn’t have the old-school sophistication of some of these more established markets.” Because those cities are bigger and better known, serious collectors willing to spend lots of money are “more likely to go get a trophy in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, or LA” than they are here in Dallas. “We can’t be unrealistic about this,” she says. “We have to keep working at it.” Rees’ tone is grounding, reminding us that Dallas might feel big, but comparatively speaking, it’s small. It can’t let its civic pride run away with its sense.

In late September, Conduit’s project room, curated by Danette Dufilho, played a video installation which seems to rephrase Dallas’ current situation in light of Rees’ comments. Tim Sullivan’s piece Hamburger A/Hamburger B shows two four-minute videos playing side by side on separate iMacs. In one video, Andy Warhol is eating a hamburger in 1981, and in the other, Tim Sullivan chews his hamburger in 2007, fully suited like Warhol and gesturing in tandem with Warhol’s ticks. Sullivan’s actions attempt to play catch-up with those of his fleeting alter ego. As Dallas’ contemporary art collectors, dealers, creators, and critics change our consciousness of where we stand in relation to ourselves, the city starts to feel as updated as the art it shows and sells. But with all of our super-sizing, a gap still exists between the moment we’re trying to capture and the moment in which we’re living.

Art Conspiracy: “Deconstructed,” Dec 6,; Goss-Michael Foundation: “Work from Sarah Lucas,” through Jan 31,; Conduit Gallery: Kenneth Holder’s “Cedar Canyon Paintings,” through Dec 27,; Road Agent: Margaret Meehan, Dec 13–Jan 17,; CADD Art Lab: check website,