This Year’s Visual Arts: A Look Back at the Trends and Names that Shaped 2012

Instead of our weekly survey of local art happenings (here’s your gallery opening, and you can go look at some Bryan Adams photos of rock stars if you want), it’s time to look back on the year that was. I guess I could tackle this in a variety of ways. I could hand-out ribbons for the art I liked or rank my favorite shows or galleries or artists. I could get drunk on eggnog, flip on the video camera, and mime air guitar until I pass out, fall over, and knock down the Christmas tree – and then post the video with a caption claiming that the act was both an homage to Dave Hickey’s quitting of the art world in 2012 and a semiotic critique of a critical methodology that perpetuates patriarchal aesthetic criteria manifested in the self-indulgent and quasi-religious practice of creating year-end lists.

But I won’t do that. Instead I’m going to pretend that I have a firm grasp of the underlying activity in Dallas culture and write about a handful of trends that, for better or worse, shaped the year that was. Now, the requisite caveat, for which I’ll merely link to Christopher Mosley’s already-stated caveat: that writers pretend thing are new when they notice them for the first time. That said, I believe the list below does in fact reflect some significant and influential goings-on. Here we go:

Curators/Collectives Trump Galleries

Perhaps the most exciting and dramatic thing to happen this year was the quick migration of the conversation about local art from the commercial galleries and into the pop-up, artist-run, or university-funded spaces. Independent curators, artists, and art collectives staged shows featuring a mix of local and non-local artists based around a diversity of curatorial ideas. Not that that conversation was in all cases productive or civil, but it did reveal a growing impetus on the part of individual artists and curators to create the kinds of shows that weren’t otherwise happening locally.

From the Art Foundation’s projects, which landed their “book” in the collection of the Nasher Sculpture Center, to the ongoing programming at Centraltrak and Oliver Frances Gallery, and collectives like S.C.A.B. and DB12, many local artists and curators took pains (financial and physical) to organize exhibitions that cross-pollinated art, artists, and ideas. There was also peripheral activity, like homespun lectures and panels, musical programming,  DJs, and parties. Frivolity? Of course. Quality? More often than not.


The Year of the Max

Since Maxwell Anderson arrived at the Dallas Museum of Art earlier this year, the new director has wasted no time spearheading a number of initiatives, from conservation and new technologies, to international partnerships and attempts at buying big-name art. All of these things are designed to change the way the DMA – and by extension, this city – is perceived globally. But perhaps the biggest change has been tone. Since Anderson took over in February, those of us in the media have been inundated with a deluge of press releases announcing changes almost weekly. Some of it smacks of the way David Bowie’s manager tried to make his folk singer-turned-rocker a big name in the 1970s: act like a big shot and suddenly people will treat you like a big shot.

The most revolutionary changes at the DMA are only starting to take hold. The first is the free admission policy which will not only broaden the museum’s audience base, but by instituting a supermarket-style members rewards program – and opening that membership to virtually everyone who comes through the museum’s doors – the DMA will capture an incredible amount of data about its visitors. We will have to wait to see how this new market information will impact how the museum organizes and sells their exhibition schedule, but what is significant for the DMA is that the museum is breaking new ground in the way museums think about how to track their audience. If it works, expect the approach and technologies developed at the DMA that facilitate the program to be exported to other museums.

And speaking of exports, the second major change that occurred this year was the launch of the Dallas Museum Exchange (DMX) program, which, alongside the appointment of the DMA’s senior advisor Islamic art, will dynamically change how the museum interfaces with other international museums, particularly in the Islamic world. In light of the DMA’s new found technological ambition, led by new Deputy Director Robert Stein, to quantify, track, and attach data to every aspect of museum operation, the DMX program suggests the emergence of a more fluid system of international art exchange based around short- or mid-term loans of individual or small groups of art works. This is no small innovation; it suggests a new way of understanding the idea of a museum collection. Rather than a treasure chest of precious objects attained over a long period of time by a specific institution, the museum world could begin to resemble a system of “computer servers” (museums), each temporarily housing a free-flowing network of “data”(art work), with fluidity of exchange promoting broad-based access to objects in a way that could completely change how museums function globally. It’s not a new idea; Anderson, as well as British Museum Director Neil MacGregor, have long been advocates for such an approach. But now the DMA is positioning itself to lead the charge.


Museum Tower: The Monolythic Glass Question Mark

The questions surrounding the future of the Museum Tower and the Nasher Sculpture Center will eventually be resolved, for better or for worse, and it will likely require the expenditure of a significant amount of money that someone will reluctantly come up with. But the controversy has reminded us of a number of things. It has been a warning (however tardy) of the potential pitfalls of too aggressively promoting cultural prestige as an economic driver. It has shown us that the essential value of a museum – the quality of its light – is something that is scarcely appreciated and inadequately protected. And the attention the entire controversy has garnered has also reminded us that when it comes to finding a national news hook about Dallas, big personalities, big money, big gaffes, and big morons still drive the lede. Artists looking for a way to get attention should take heed of that.


We Still Don’t Have Adequate Ways to Fund Our Art, Artists, and Curatorial Projects

Maxwell Anderson can go out and raise tens of millions of dollars for a painting by Leonardo da Vinci from donors who have not typically given money to the Dallas Museum of Art because he can sell them on the fact that a big name acquisition like the Leonardo would offer a boost to civic prestige. Prestige is an intangible entity, but it is something that, I suspect, is understood by donors because in Dallas we understand the value and status that comes with being associated with a good brand.

There are ways to win cultural prestige besides buying Renaissance paintings, of course, and of them is to foster a vibrant and robust community of working artists whose practices are thoroughly engaged in the global conversation. Dallas is years away from such a goal, and there are certain intrinsic obstacles to its emergence as a global center of art practice, most of which are related to how the art market is structured or the density and prestige of our art schools. But what the new propensity towards independently-organized exhibitions and curatorial projects has shown, is that a few intrepid individuals funding themselves out-of-pocket can move the needle on what is possible in this city. And yet at some point enthusiasm will wane and bank statements will have to be tallied. In other words, without a consistent and sustained source of funding for more projects like what we have seen (and, hopefully, even better ones), then there will be a ceiling on the potential long-term impact of this new energy.

Dallas still lacks reliable ways to fund independent artist and curatorial projects. What we need is to endow some kind of granting organization, independent from its own program or physical space, that can focus on supporting and mentoring independent projects. Such an organization would not only support our local artists, but it could potentially attract additional artists, curators, and writers who see a benefit in living in a region that is globally connected through its institutions and collectors, and also enjoys robust support for locally-initiated projects.

There is no reason why this shouldn’t be possible. The Leonardo reminded us that even as the nation suffers from a recession, Dallas is an insanely wealthy place. It is also a place that values prestige. What we need is a fundraiser who knows how to articulate to donors the potential prestige not only in acquiring high value product, but in fostering and sustaining high quality production.


We Are Kind of, Almost, Sort Of, Maybe, Beginning to Figure Out Public Art

As I’ve written before, historically most of our public art projects have been funded through the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, and one of the drawbacks of that funding mechanism is that the projects are instigated not by the idea of an artist or curator, but by the investment of city funds in some sort of ancillary real estate improvement. But this year three very different organizations showed that there are other models for promoting and presenting public art.

The Dallas Contemporary commissioned murals by Shepard Fairey in West Dallas; the Dallas Video Festival worked with the City of Dallas to obtain permission to use the façade of the Omni Hotel as a massive public video screen; and curator Cynthia Mulcahy was able to gain access to a vacant field for Seventeen Hundred Seeds, a green-installation on Davis St. in Oak Cliff. And while each one of these projects had some specific drawbacks, each did manage to achieve what city-funded art rarely does: the projects addressed ideas of real estate, marketing, permission, community, civic character, taboo, and reutilization. Look for more projects like these in 2013, specifically from the Nasher and The Art Foundation.


The List: The Shows that Mattered

Okay, we can’t resist. Here are two lists. The first one is of the museum or foundation shows that we found most essential:

Omer Fast: 5000 Feet Is the Best at the Dallas Museum of Art

Glen Ligon: America at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Adam McEwen at Goss-Michael Foundation

Nikolas Gambaroff:  I Am Real Estate at the Power Station

Dallas Biennial at the Dallas Contemporary

Diego Velazquez: The Early Court Portraits at the Meadows Museum

Focus On: Nobuo Sekine at the Dallas Museum of Art

Mark Manders: Parallel Occurences / Documented Assignments at the Dallas Museum of Art

Sculpture in So Many Words: Text Pieces 1960-1980 at the Nasher Sculpture Center

David Jablonowski: Many to Many (Stone Carving High Performance) at the Dallas Contemporary

Anthony McCall: Line Describing a Cone at Angstrom Gallery, part of The Power Station’s “Four Nights, Four Decades” Video Series

Lucian Freud: Portraits at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth


The List: The Artists to Watch

Here’s a list of local artists who, for a variety of reasons, caught our eye this year.

Moreshin Allahyari

Jesse Morgan Barnett

Christopher Blay

Cassandra Emswiler

Nathan Green

Otis Jones

Stephen Lapthisophon

Tom Orr

Kris Pierce

Ludwig Schwarz

Bret Slater

Eli Walker

John Wilcox


Image at top: From the homepage of DB12


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