How To Improve Public Art in Dallas

In the latest edition of D Magazine, I have an article that discusses current policies and procedures for commissioning publically-funded public art in Dallas and specifically the merit of the Percentage for Art Ordinance, the city’s main funding mechanism. That ordinance dedicates a percentage of funds from every capital project included in a municipal bond program towards public art.

What I didn’t have space to discuss in the piece are some specific changes to city policy and practice that would greatly improve how the city of Dallas goes about commissioning public works. Here are my ideas:

1)      Do not tie works of public art to specific capital improvement projects: This is the foundational principal of the Percentage for Art Ordinance, but it is self-defeating. Rather than forcing aesthetically-appealing, beautifying elements to be included in all of the city’s bond-funded capital improvements, it sets up a situation that inhibits the city’s ability to fund significant works of public art by dissecting available funds into small, one-off commissions. The city and its public would be better served if funds created by the ordinance were able to be lumped together and spent on a handful of significant works of public art rather than a work for every bond project improvement. This seems to be possible. Fort Worth Avenue Development Group president David Lyles told me the city’s public art manager, Kay Kalos, has been able to allocate funds tied to various capital improvements to Lyles’ West Commerce public art project, greatly increasing the available budget. But that approach shouldn’t be a one-off a novelty for public art funding; it should be regular practice.

2)      Increase the involvement of our art institutions in public art commissions, policy making, and strategy: Ladies and gentlemen, the culture wars are over. Art administrators and curators have grown increasingly sensitive to the needs and sensibilities of the general public. Yet the way the procedural structure is set up for the approval of public works, art experts are either a minority or non-existent in the process. More prevalent, rather, are community and art activists. Remember, it is the job of art curators to possess a deep knowledge base of the most interesting artists working the world today. It is also their job to build relationships with these artists. Even if the city could never afford to commission a titan of the art world for a public art commission, our institutions are populated with art professionals who know who the next titans are, how much they cost, and whose art may prove best suited to addressing our city’s spatial and cultural needs. Use that resource.

3)      Don’t be afraid to challenge the public: In researching my article, one thing I heard from people involved in the current processes for commissioning public art was that art administrators need to be sensitive to the needs, taste, and education of those in the community who are going to be experiencing the work of art. And while that is certainly true, that sensitivity is often miss-interpreted as a need to speak down to the public audience by commissioning works that are accessible in a way that renders them benign, or obvious in a way that dilutes the purpose and mission of public art in the first place. There’s no such thing as baby steps in art. Art – real art – excites the public precisely by provoking and challenging. The general public is not as stupid as some of the art installed on Dallas streets assumes it is. Challenge us! Surprise us! Don’t cater to populist fears or trepidation about contemporary art, rather, be ambassadors for the power of art. You’ll be surprised how the community will rise to – and ultimately embrace — the challenge, as other ambitious public art projects in other cities have proven.

4)      Local doesn’t matter: One of the prerogatives of our city’s cultural policy should be to create ways of steering income towards working artists living in our community. But public art commissions should not be one of the means by which we support our local artists. Why? Because fifty years after a work of public art is commissioned, no one will care where the artist lived that created the work. But the people who live near the work in decades’ time will care that it is a piece that deserves its permanence and profile. Choose the best project, not just the local one on principle.

5)      Public Art means that the art is made for the public, not by the public: Most of us aren’t artists, but the committee-driven procedure for commissioning public art is steered by a broad base of invested community members. Neighbors should not determine the scope and mission of projects. Artists are productive members of society precisely because they bring to the table insights and understanding about their craft and our society that we typically don’t have. This means that the language used when commissioning new works must grant as much leeway as absolutely possible to the working artist. It must allow space for an artist to do what he or she does. If it doesn’t, our requests for proposals won’t garner submissions from the best artists, artists who don’t want their talent micro-managed.

6)      Allow for a way to fund artist-initiated projects: At this point, there are two ways for the city of Dallas to commission a work of public art: it needs to be commissioned and funded through the Percent for Art Ordinance, or it can be donated to the city by an outside party. Neither of these approaches creates an opportunity for an artist to bring to the table their own ideas and propose specific public projects. Public art is all about context, but neither of our avenues for creating public art in Dallas allow for artists to suggest the context which they believe is ripe for artistic engagement. For example, when speaking with Linnae Glatt for my story, the artist said she has an idea for a project for the space outside the Museum of Nature and Science in Fair Park. It is a project that would only work in that specific locale, yet under current city policy, there is no way to ever fund such a commission unless the museum undergoes massive renovation as part of a city bond program. That’s a backwards approach.

7)      Fund temporary art installations: In my conversations with the city’s public art manager, Kay Kaylos, she said that temporary public art installations were something she is interested in eventually pursuing and something that other groups, such as Downtown Dallas, Inc., are interested in commissioning independently. But the current funding of the city’s public art program does not allow for temporary installations precisely because that funding is tied to specific capital improvements. The Percent for Art Ordinance needs to be amended to allow for the creation of a fund that could fund rotating public art exhibitions that are curated along the lines of temporary public projects, like New York’s High Line Project or the Public Art Fund. Temporary art commissions allow for the opportunity for more adventurous work, the commissioning of more artists, and often projects can be commissioned for less money. Because they don’t bear the weight of permanence, temporary public art projects are typically be more provocative, sensational, dynamic, and engaging. Public art is important to the city of Dallas precisely because this is a city that doesn’t have a vibrant public sphere. We want public art that will both encourage more public street activity and raise our level of social discourse. We want public art that will attract crowds and create conversations. Temporary art installations will prove more efficacious at fulfilling these goals for public art than the lumbering commissions we currently undertake.

Dallas’ public art problems are not unique to our city. Our policies are similar to many other municipalities throughout the U.S., which is to say many cities are also stuck commissioning weak work. But this is an area in which Dallas could take a leading role by rethinking how cities should approach public art commissions.

Image: Lisa Sigal and Paul Ramírez Jonas’ Specials at the High Line (via)


  • SsS

    I recently moved here from NYC and let me tell you your city’s view of art is PATHETIC. If you want to improve the art scene here first and formost you need to quit catering to braindead suburban parents and their brats. The few trips I have made to the DMA have been a nightmare of screaming toddlers and there were NO interesting installations or shows because it is all “family friendly”. Just face it: Dallas is a wanna-be, d-list city and that is NEVER going to change.

  • Hannibal Lecter

    Or the city could just stop wasting money on what is basically welfare for a politically-correct constituency.

  • dan

    Thank you ‘SsS’ from NYC for being oh-so constructive in what was otherwise a positive article. Dallas does cater to suburban families in the short-term, because close to 80% of the areas residences are suburban. If the demographics change in downtown- as in more people call it home, then the more on the street involvement they would have and that is your art audience. A currently barely existent group of city dwellers. The suggestions in this article create great foundations for discussions of real public art. Much of what is considered art is large (metaphorically) and often provocative, especially in the minds of the local community families. Dallas cannot be afraid to step outside the boundaries of what dfw, and TX is comfortable with, if only temporarily. Work a streamlined public art process into the Dallas 360 plan that is underway, to better Dallas in our eyes and in the country’s eyes. Maybe the naysayers from NYC would give some respect to that.

  • Laray

    When art has to be too many things to too many people, and conform to some type of bureaucratic checklist to receive money, not much creativity can come out of it. And where ever there is a trough of public money, there will be feasters. And committees. And social politics that may involve elbow jabs and knee-capping to keep other feasters away.

    Let’s be honest. Where do you see people congregating around public art in the Metroplex? Moo. Hire a foundry artist in Wyoming or Montana to pour some bronze and it will please the public. It will be a tourist attraction. There will be no complaints of moral outrage. And then there’s the perennial favorite, Big Tex: a massive kitsch sculpture that even talks.

    There is a price for being visionary in the public square, to defy expectations yet superbly delineate an idea that will eventually have impact. Sometimes the price to be paid is that you won’t receive a dime in public funding. Or private money. You may even receive a citation or be taken into custody for a short duration. Artistic freedom is free but there have never been any fast and hard rules about getting paid for exercising it.

  • Diana

    Public Art is a very different animal from museum/gallery/installation work. To suggest that bringing museum curators and gallery owners on board in the Public Art process will create a better process is not entirely accurate.
    Public art developed out of the environmental/earth art movements, landscape sculpture and later, site specific art, which is based upon a creative interplay between art and a physical real world, whether urban or otherwise. Public Art follows in the footsteps of people like Robert Smithson, Christo, Isamu Noguchi, and at its best, carries within it an understanding of the work of William Whyte, of urban design and landscape architecture. It also can address functional as well as aesthetic concerns. When an artist fully engages in the interplay between art and the physical real world, sometimes an art “object” is subjugated. Sometimes site specific permanent work occurs in front of the public, so that the public is engaged in the entire process, and feels a sense of ownership of the final product (although unfortunately this process seems to occur less). In fact, the negative term “plop art” was developed in reference to an art object placed with no regard to its context, which appears suddenly and yet could be interchangeably sited with little affect, having no relationship with its site.
    While some public art is “activist” in nature, including performance works and temporary works, these types of public artworks do not create permanent solutions to urban issues. They may temporarily engage a space or the public and therefore their usage should be for that purpose, such as the recent post economic crisis expansion of temporary art into abandoned storefronts to keep urban blight at bay and keep the neighborhood from deteriorating until redevelopment occurs, which has been proven to be most successful.
    It is important that a commissioning body is educated to understand the broader perspective. The artist selection process, the makeup of the selection panel, and how soon an artist is integrated into the design process are all critical elements of a good public art program. Selection panels should include sensitive design professionals who, rather than picking an “object” that might “enliven” a space, understand that place making involves a greater engagement between the context and the artist’s imagination.
    It is in a relationship between good urban design, landscape architecture, architecture and art that the best things will happen. Otherwise the art may be just a patch on an underlying problem. If people are not “congregating around public art in the Metroplex”, as one poster suggests, this may be because of a combination of broader issues.
    As to the poster who states that “artistic freedom is free but there have never been any fast and hard rules about getting paid for exercising it” I would say that you are further perpetuating the “starving artist” stereotype. If art adds value to the community, engages the community, creates community spaces with foot traffic or tourist traffic, (such as Christo’s Gates Project in NYC which is reputed to have brought in $254 million in economic activity) then it is worth paying for.

  • Laray

    I think it would be fair to say public art began before Smithson or Christo. It has long been the Western tradition to erect oversized bronze legacy sculptures in the public domain. They can be found in any European city or larger US cities. It is a way to impress an longterm identity that may or may not be true, while providing no real means for the public to contest its veracity or confiscation of space. The same type of occurrence certainly happens other places in the world. The government placement of likenesses of authoritarian figures comes to mind.

    There is much to be said about work when it exits the museum and enters the pubic domain. Yes, Smithson and others worked in a genre loosely known as “earthworks.” It began as an exploration of art, nature and artifice with some measure of the age-old question: “If a tree falls in the forest, if art is displayed in nature…does it…” Most of us are acquainted with Smithson’s installations through photographic representation. Most of the images are from a camera’s vantage point which does not replicate what the actual pedestrian would encounter (“Spiral Getty” comes to mind). As far as Christo, the process is quite complex and the actual installation involves the assembly of a community to participate in the process. I can only imagine what it takes to get people on board with the notion that putting a silk shirt around an atoll is a good expenditure of time and resources. Again, the images of the finished project—taken from an airplane—represent a remote experience. The actual production must have involved a very different realm. (Did it involve boats and swimming? How many people did it require? How many yards of fabric?) Simek conducted a very lengthy interview with Christo that is posted on this site. It is by far the most accurate and substantial portrait of Christo’s art practice and how it is financed.

    Returning to bronze sculpture in Dallas, I think the cattle stampede draws people for simple reasons: Water, shade, an interesting landscaped terrain. The cattle are an additional bonus that allows people to photography their children on top of them. For similar reasons, people flock to the Bishop Arts District: Shade, walkable sidewalks, and architecture that is human-scale.

    One of the most consequential public art experiences I have had is actually in an air-conditioned mall: NorthPark Center. I mention this for a reason. The collection was carefully chosen, exists in an egalitarian space (no admission fees required) and is enveloped in a climate-controlled environment. In Texas, requiring people to experience public sculpture by any other means than driving by it in an air-conditioned vehicle, is risky. And our sidewalks and commons (does that concept even exist here?) are not conducive to fluid walking nor lingering for any great length of time.

    So it might be a more important endeavor to analyze environment, modes of movement and engagement, community attitudes, and so forth than to simply fulfill a formula that places large objects in outdoor space by way of a bureaucratic committee. It seems plausible that people must be convinced there is good reason to be outdoors prior to anything else.

  • Diana

    After one of the hottest summers on record in Dallas, people may need to be convinced to be outdoors. But for much of the year, while the rest of the country is experiencing cold weather, we have enviable weather. Climate plays a role in the outdoor life of a city, but it is our response to climate, our adaptation, that is more important. Other cities around the world within our latitude have adjusted their architecture, public spaces, access to shade and water, hours of work, clothing, lifestyle, etc. to create a vibrant outdoor city life within a hot climate.

    If we do not have a vibrant street life, it is a fault of design and an outgrowth of the car culture within which this city grew. But these things can be improved upon over time.
    Myself, I do not find an indoor mall a pleasant experience in and of itself, let alone as a place to view art. Northpark is a beautiful mall as malls go, undoubtedly helped by the kind gift of its shared art collection. Yet Northpark’s art is on view to the public much the same was as it would be in a museum, particularly when museums were free. It has little relationship to its context. For this reason as well, I do not think that museum curators are the answer, unless we are looking to take museum work to the streets.

    Perhaps it is an issue of semantics, where the transition from the term “site specific” to “public art” has changed the intent and degraded the original process?

    Public art that grew out of a tradition of earthworks ala Smithson and others (going back to my previous comments) responds to site and context. Within this context, it is exactly right that it is “more important to analyze environment, modes of movement and engagement, community attitudes, and so forth”. This can be and has been done within the realm of public art. It is also important to have collaborative relationships with architects, urban designers, landscape architects, engineers and to realize that the collaboration leads to exciting possibilities but may result in subjugated art. The result can be a vibrant public space that works. To achieve this, one needs the correct process and for the people involved to be wise stewards of the process.

    As far as the comments pertaining to Christo, his process is the artwork as much as the end results. His work is viewed through drawings, through photographs, during the participatory fabrication process, and by an interested public. He must collaborate and coordinate with many, many entities to produce his work. His considerations, for example in the Gates project, are for climate, context (urban and natural), public engagement, history, tactile, color, scale, and experiential concerns, etc. And while many may question the scale and temporary use of such an amount of resources, throughout the history of mankind we have seen evidence of the importance of the grand gesture, the mad passion or obsession, the fight to go against the impossible, which is the ultimate display of man’s seemingly unquenchable creative spirit and is probably grounded in some way in our questioning the meaning of life, our fear of death and therefore our need to leave a mark on this world.

  • Call me Art

    1-If funding is lumped as you suggest, art would be allocated to areas where we deem them appropriate. Percent for Art is for community, its not classist – the direction it would want to take using public money. If a perceived criteria, does not mean the work is significant nor should a specific dollar mount make it so. The current ordinance is not very different from other municipalities. It allows our public art manager to access funding from project “proximate” to the public art project — doing what you suggest. It’s not a novelty but standard practice for many municipalities whose construction yields public art funding. Mr. Lyles has not created anything different to date.
    2-If I invite you to my home I am the first to knock those culture barriers. Please understand the world of the municipal office—articles, critics, public, art professionals, activists, community—they are their “boss”. City funds come from a broad scope of individuals. To say the arts community should hold more weight (a nice gesture) would be flat wrong. Become involved in the process, ask to be considered to selection panel for your community, give of yourselves, educate your artist base of up and coming “titans” to contribute to the public art forum. That’s how you change the process!
    3- Within the realm of creating, an artist under goes a thought process, public art narrows the process for the artist — its intent is not to constrain, but to offer a clear path for opportunity. As a result many studio artist/curators see this as direct dictation for a specific work. Thus, the farce being one has to create benign works—which is further from the truth. Public art should be (and is) provoking and challenging. The demise, I as an artist begin to think I am greater than the whole.
    4- While the commission and the city have allow some outstanding talent outside our city. I’m going to direct this to local. “…no one will care where the artist lived that created the work.” That’s quite short sided! If that same great artwork comes from an artist in the community, fifty years from now the community will revere him/her more than an outside artist. That’s why we should support local artist…and of course challenge them.
    5- I agree somewhat. No one likes to be mirco-managed and yes some requests are narrow in their statement, as well on a national level. However, if the artist (titan or local) feels as thou he is not suited for the project, that is the natural process of living in the world. He/she may have …insights and understanding about their craft… So should “we artist” know if my work is fit for society? On a national level there have been many great artists not suited for the community. Should we force artists on a community? Certainly, not. That’s why we have art institutions.
    6- Artist-initiated projects? This sounds like a grant opportunity. As an educational institution the museum you speak of should be eligible for grant dollars. If the idea is great, it could easily garner grants. Don’t wait on a major renovation, contribute to public art. Should we give public money to an artist based on “an idea”? Does a grant for a significant dollar amount scrutinize the commissioned application/work? Of course! The opportunity of art institutions to raising public art awareness, funding and partnering with the city to commission public art beyond its current environment, and fund artist-initiated projects. I like that!
    7- The majority of the funding for the two temporary art projects are primarily funded by private supporters and corporations — not city funds. I’d like to create public art program for the city. I need funding and our art institutions look like a viable resource—after all they deal in the “real art”. Surely, they would share a portion of there funding proceeds for temporary public art. Lets do it, I truly believe it can be done. Now we can begin to educate the community, challenging our artist and take charge of improving public art in Dallas.
    Where did the funding for the new bridge come from? Who selected the titan? Does the general public know who that architect was? I know what “is” real art, does that make it good. What is real art? Is it my self-imposed opinion of what art should be, declaring me a so-called ambassador. Because I don’t like a certain artist or work, should I negate that work the opportunity to inspire others. No one knows whether one work will out last another—revere today, benign tomorrow. In the end public art is different practice. It does not dictate the artist outcome. Any constrains are typically self-impose. Yes, there is good and bad public art, studio art, fine art…Is there room for improvement? Always