Editor’s note: Richard Patterson is a British painter of some renown who lives in Dallas and is given to sending long emails on any number of topics. Following is one such email received by D Magazine. It concerns the fight between Museum Tower and the Nasher Sculpture Center. He sent it after reading an article written by Jim Schutze, a bearded, laconic gadfly employed by the Dallas Observer. Schutze is one of the few who have taken the side of Museum Tower, whose reflective glass is cooking plants in the Nasher’s garden and defeating its patented roof, which has oculi designed to bathe its indoor galleries in only gentle northern light. To Schutze’s mind, the overwhelming support for the Nasher says bad things about Dallas.
Here is part of what he wrote: “The Nasher dispute demonstrates an old truth about Dallas. When you get the rich people and the culture mob lined up with the usual media sycophants, this big city turns into one little East Texas all-cousin one-horse town.”
Full disclosure: Patterson sits on the Nasher’s Program Advisory Committee (which has no voting control over how the museum is run). Also, he is married to Christina Rees, a writer, art curator, and former D Magazine employee. A lawyer working for Museum Tower’s owners threatened to sue Rees after she “assailed a Museum Tower official on Facebook,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
With that introduction, here is Patterson’s email:
Many people have already said this, but I’ll say it again anyway: all artists, all curators, all museum directors, all architects who design major art spaces know and have known for many centuries that northern light is the ideal light for making and viewing art. Apart from the beauty of the Nasher itself, its front-to-back transparency and user-friendliness, the great achievement of the structure is to give the interior an uncanny, natural, balanced lighting ambience that is unparalleled in Dallas or Texas, to my knowledge. It doesn’t need stating that the building’s exterior and the way it presents to the surrounding streets is as elegant as it is dignified.
The connoisseurship of such beauty may appear to others as the preserve of aesthetes the world over—of which Schutze is clearly not a member. It might be noted, however, that the attention to detail and connoisseurship of such things (the ceiling and overall structure in this case) is what helps now, and in the future, to define great cities and ought to be cherished as a substantial gift to Dallas. I say this not as a sycophant. I have no personal attachment whatsoever to the Nasher family, but I admire greatly what they have done, just as I admire truly great contributions, whether by architects, engineers, artists, and enabling philanthropists alike. This doesn’t mean I have to brownnose in their company. I mostly do the opposite. They mostly don’t like me. But this is not the point.
By way of example, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Paddington railway station, in London, is still intact to greet people as they arrive by train from the airport. It’s truly a marvel, mostly for its ceiling structure. Such feats of engineering mark time and make eras of cultural achievement. Why? Because they create function and beauty where neither existed before. In Brunel’s case, not dissimilarly to Renzo Piano’s case in point here in Dallas, he created pavilions that shield travelers from the elements and create both intimacy and grandeur. No one before Brunel had thought to enclose a station for the length of an entire train. He made the process of public travel accessible and refined. It allowed ordinary folk rapid access to the west of England that was previously impossible and brought with it the idea that communal transport could be a social and pleasurable activity. The station itself underscores these very ideas.
It is not too great a leap to use the idea of a station as a metaphor for a museum. The museum, too, is a place for both meeting and departing, from an anthropological, metaphorical, aesthetic, political—you name it—standpoint. Museums can act as a refuge and jumping-off point. They are vital aspects of our culture. They serve many functions, and their functions can describe, inspire, reflect, and change the times in which we live. Blogs, newspapers, and magazines can only go so far. Everything plays its part, but let us not, with Schutze’s false humility, play down the part of world-class museums like the Nasher.
A second example: London is currently restoring parts of Tate Britain to its former Victorian and Edwardian glory. Such buildings can’t be replicated today; they would be too expensive. However, the fact that they remain and that it is still possible to restore the architecture to the intended designs are triumphs of longevity and endurance.
Dallas, by contrast, has a hideous “throw it up and tear it down” mentality. In many aspects of the Arts District, most notably the museums and the new Klyde Warren Park, Dallas has, for the first time since perhaps the 1930s, built new buildings that should and shall withstand the test of time. The Nasher is such a landmark—not just for now but perhaps centuries. I question that Museum Tower is a building of any particular merit. It is not bad looking per se, but it is not remarkable from an architectural standpoint. It will date fairly quickly and yet does not belong to any particular stylistic vernacular that will make it noteworthy in years to come. Had it not been for the glare issues and, as important, the inappropriateness of the building for the site, I would have described it as vanilla, inoffensive but unremarkable.
Let me be clear on one thing: one of the most important aspects of architecture is understanding what sits well within its surroundings and how well it promotes its surroundings once built. In an instance such as this, where Museum Tower was one of the last pieces of a puzzle to be located within what should have been, from a planning point of view, almost a fait accompli, it flew in the face of what was logically required. It was a huge blunder, even without the reflectivity.
Schutze speaks as if he is the voice of the mythical common man in Dallas. In point of fact, well-thought-out interior spaces, including NorthPark, the Nasher, the DMA, and so on, are valuable resources that are accessible to, and popular with, the public.
Unfortunately for Schutze, when you travel to most advanced cities in the world, “culture mob types” are increasingly common. Other cities are positively crawling with culture mob. They even read and everything. They’re also the people with ideas, who have power, who affect things in meaningful ways, with or without money.
What the Arts District needs is not less culture mob, but even more culture mob—by which I mean culture mob from every stratum. Yes, you can pack the other mob into the Arts District by parking 30 food trucks and busting out the booze. This raises numbers and gives people an event and a sense of occasion. It may be the museums’ primary function these days, and it may also be an important part of secularizing America away from right-wing happy clappers. Whether any of these people return to the museums if you take away the food and booze is anyone’s guess. You can trick people into turning up, but in the end, they either become curious or they don’t. All an arts district can do, in the end, is pursue excellence and trust that the effort will inspire others to do the same.
The same can be said for the quality of light inside the Nasher. It may seem like splitting hairs to anyone bent over a computer who has no vested, or other, interest in culture, but it is above all else the defining feature of the Nasher, just as the Pantheon’s giant oculus is its defining feature and has been for close on 2,000 years. Amazingly, no one in Rome ever thought to mess it up.
There is a point when lack of diligence in planning and building, or care for and about culture, is tantamount to willful ignorance. Schutze is clearly an impassioned and intelligent man who can be sparing in his scope, who on this occasion appears to be taking a position of willful ignorance, apparently motivated by siding against both real and imaginary social groupings that he doesn’t seem to understand or have any experience with. Conversely, he regards them with contempt in a way that one can infer he sees as snobs, elitists, and pretenders. None of these inferences, however, are exclusive to the culture mob. These are universals. Singling out social groups in this instance is both a quasi-fascistic sentiment and entirely unproductive.
Schutze may not have a sense of a bigger picture in all of this. In London, Tate Modern was the No. 2 tourist attraction in the entire country in 2012 and is consistently up there. Tate Modern is free of charge, like the DMA. It is a meeting place and is increasingly popular. Like it or not, the culture of exploring contemporary art and the arts in general, even if it might be for reasons as apparently insignificant as “lifestyle choice,” is a major force to be reckoned with these days. There is no secret club anymore.
There are aspects of the stratification of Dallas society, in particular its fledgling art world, that I might agree with Schutze on. Not because it separates people with no basic interest in art from those with interest, but because it often stratifies people who have similar and sincere interest according to income levels. It is this aspect that handicaps the Dallas mindset and marks it as immature compared to older societies elsewhere.
In this instance, the Schutze position on the relationship of “the culture mob, the rich people, and the media” again is a long-winded way of describing the fundamental value of culture itself. There are other aspects to culture of course: fast food, shotguns, tawdry newspapers, populist design values, right-wing mindsets that are essentially afraid of new ideas that challenge fundamentalism, populist thinking in general. America has shown itself to be a world leader in outputting some of the worst of this stuff. Gratifyingly, aspects of Dallas—quite often, but not always—originating from people not born here seem to be countering lowbrow with efforts of real substance.