6 Things We Can Learn From the Nasher Sculpture Center’s Public Art Initiative

A few days ago the Dallas Morning News‘ art critic, Rick Brettell, wrote that the Nasher Sculpture Center’s Nasher XChange project, a ten artist public art exhibition launched to commemorate the museum’s tenth anniversary, doesn’t quite work as an actual exhibition. The works are too spread out, he argues, the artists and their various approaches are too desperate and seemingly unrelated to draw any singular conceit through the show — or to even experience the works as an exhibition in the first place. In addition, Brettell adds, among the individual works there are few, if any, that really wow.

I confess to liking the idea of Nasher XChange more than its execution.

Even with its homage to Henry Moore, Harrison’s piece in City Hall Plaza is silly — an expensively fabricated visual one-liner that does not benefit from deeper thought.

Long erected an object called Fountainhead in NorthPark Center that links, according to him, Ayn Rand, digital technology and capitalist shopping binges into a “three-coins-in-the-fountain” feel-good experience in convenient, credit card charity. The hideous neo-Gatsby graphics and the even sillier base for the work do little to help.

Brettell’s reaction to works in Nasher XChange was largely my own. I shared his ambivalence over Long’s almost tongue-in-cheek Fountainhead, Ochoa “tornado steel” plop sculpture at the Arboretum, and Harrison’s smug, paper thin “one-liner.” Even more formal or elegant work, like Liz Larner’s pair of X sculptures (only one of which is currently on view) at the University of Texas at Dallas, I found elegantly anodyne, while pieces like Alfredo Jaar’s box of baby cries and Lara Almarcegui’s Buried House felt like works whose final forms weren’t entirely evocative of their intriguing poetic concepts.

That said, the intention of Nasher XChange was never to create an “exhibition” in the typical musicological sense, but rather to execute a mission of strengthening ties between the museum and the city, using art placed in public settings as two-way portals through which Dallasites unfamiliar with the Nasher could find the museum, and those insufficiently familiar with their own city could find their way out into unexplored corners through art. It’s a laudable, ambitious, and complicated goal, and viewed in the way that the Nasher XChange “maps” Dallas, focusing aspects of the city through the lens of individual works of art, Nasher XChange is a success.

But there’s more to take away from the Nasher’s ten year anniversary. Inherent in the Nasher’s program is a meditation on the nature of public art, its current iterations and its possibilities for civic life. In light of this, there are some things we can pull from the successes and failures of Nasher XChange as we think about how to commission and support public art moving forward:

Temporary Installations Invite Welcomed Risk: I expect of all of the art in the Nasher XChange’s program, Rachel Harrison’s giant pink arrow pointing to Henry Moore’s sculpture on City Hall Plaza will get beat-up the most by the public. It resonates with that kind of aloof, art prank nonchalance which will inevitably raise the “why is that art” question from curious viewers (to which Harrison would likely borrow a line from Dignan in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, “Exactly”). But what is appealing about the work is its punk-ish swagger, a brush-off gesture that could be read as admonition or homage — or both. It’s precisely the kind of statement that is possible only because the work is temporary. Dallas could benefit for more opportunities for the exhibition of temporary public art, and not only because such programs have proven popular at sights like New York’s High Line, but because they allow for qualities — bold, brash, ephemeral, uncomfortable, and  unconventional — that is often weeded out of commissions of permanent structures.

The Value of Smart, Bold Local Artists: I think my favorite of the Nasher XChange projects was Vicki Meek’s Black & Blue: Cultural Oasis in the Hills, a series of placards on the campus of Paul Quinn College which marked the histories of important African-American cultural leaders in Dallas. That was surprising, in part, because ahead of the opening, Meek’s work seemed to me the least visual robust of the proposals, and in a way, that’s why in the end it felt like one of the strongest. Meek’s project is such a simple, accessible, and yet deeply resonating gesture, one that implicitly evokes a consideration of the nature of censorship — social and political censorship, historical censorship, and personal censorship, the way we forget or neglect to tell our own histories. Meek’s work showed that artists responding to their own communities have a leg-up on the parachuting international art stars when it comes to fulfilling a vital aspect of public work, namely, responding deeply and calling attention to deep-rooted historical and cultural anxieties of a given place. Similarly, Good/Bad Art Collective responded in a unique manner by launching a project that, in part, highlighted vacant office space as a kind  waste product of a malevolent local economy that subjugates public space to the whims of boom and bust.

Look for the Art is Around the Art: A week after the opening Nasher XChange, Rick Lowe’s Trans.lation project team in Vickery Meadow suddenly found the green space they had commandeered to create a public communal ground for the fragmented and diverse neighborhood blocked off from the street by a fence that had been hastily constructed, seemingly overnight. More than a mark of failure, the obstacle seems indicative of the project’s success, which, like a hot compress on a boil, continues to draw puss to the surface. In this piece, but also in pieces like Almarcequi buried house in Oak Cliff, Long’s muddled Ayn Rand riffing in Northpark, and Ugo Rondinone’s dock in West Dallas, what’s most interesting is the way they attempt to re-contextualize the community around them. In many ways it is what is around the art that becomes more interesting than the art itself.

Let’s Rethink the Percent for Art Ordinance: The Nasher had the luxury of $3 million of private funds with no strings attached. That meant that each of the works — their form, content, and location — was a product of a process that was driven by the chosen artist. The majority of public art in Dallas, on the other hand, is funded through he Percent for Art Ordinance, which allocates a percentage of city construction or public works projects to public art. This has proven an effective way to ensure that the city continues to commission art, and in particular, to provide art for public buildings. But too often the works commissioned by the public dollars are hampered by conditions set forth by the public funding mechanism, resulting in art that is often either effectively designed by the committees that set the parameters for the commission or outsourced to design firms that broker their services as “public artists,” an absurd a artistic distinction if their ever was one. We need to rethink how we can use percent for art funding in a way that allows the commissioning process to be artist-driven and not tied to specific locations.

Private Funds: That said, the recent outpouring of private funds into culture in Dallas only further highlights that this city’s great cultural resource is philanthropy, and finding new and innovative ways to steer philanthropy towards public work — as well as other non-traditional art practices — should continue to be a goal moving forward.

Don’t Loose Momentum to Explore the City: My little dream is that Rick Lowe’s project ends up producing a team of energetic artist activists who then go out and try to emulate the process in Vickery Meadow throughout Dallas. That’s because the Nasher XChange underscored the reality that Dallas is a big, diverse city that is underutilized. Hopefully both institutions and individuals will follow the museum’s lead in an effort to create more excuses to spread out, engage, and connect with more of this city more regularly.

Image: Ugo Rondinone’s dear sunset (3200 Fish Trap Rd., Fish Trap Lake) Photo by Allison V. Smith for the Nasher Sculpture Center.