Robert Irwin’s Portal Park Piece (Slice), 1981 - Photo by Steve Rainwater via Flickr

The Sorry Tale of the Most Neglected Public Artwork in Dallas

All too often, Dallas is quick to demolish or cast aside objects that it has neglected.

On a hot summer afternoon, the sound of a lone cicada pierces the air, briefly masking the drone of the flanking traffic. Above cars rattle on IH-345, and to the west traffic snakes through a maze of construction barriers on Pearl Street. Between these roadways runs a sculpture, broken into three sections, from Live Oak to Pacific Avenue. The work, whose surface is marred from graffiti, exists as an afterthought from a vision of downtown that was never realized. Robert Irwin’s Portal Park Piece (Slice) was meant to be a gateway, ushering people into downtown from the East Dallas. Instead it sits forgotten in John Carpenter Plaza as road realignment further isolates its neglected section of downtown.

Almost two years ago, the City of Dallas planned to deaccession the sculpture. The piece, a 700-foot-long, steel wall standing approximately eight-feet-high, protruding from grassy berms and installed in 1981, was not in the initial redesign plans for John Carpenter Plaza. Basketball courts and food trucks were to take its place as the signature features of the new park. The city even had permission from the artist to deaccession the work. Irwin signed off on the removal after seeing the condition of the piece, declaring it obsolete. With the condition that it was left in over the years, it’s no wonder that he was willing to see it go.

Despite its massive size and notable creator, Portal Park Piece (Slice) isn’t as well known as some as the more recent plop art sculptures in the city, like Deep Ellum’s Traveling Man or the Tony Tasset Eye downtown. The work, despite being created by a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, isn’t even listed in the links provided to explore the city’s public art collection on the Office of Cultural Affairs’ website.

Regardless of its long status as an artistic afterthought in Dallas, the real reason the city wanted to rid itself of Irwin’s piece is money. The problem is Dallas has virtually no budget for the maintenance of public art. Funding for upkeep was slashed to zero in 2009, though there have been some increases for maintenance since then. Still, Dallas’ lack of maintenance is more than just a difficult reality in the world of municipal budgeting. All too often, Dallas is quick to demolish or cast aside objects that it has neglected, and Portal Park Piece (Slice) isn’t the first work left to deteriorate by the city.

Last year the city’s neglect of its public art collection was the center of a high-profile spat over a work of art at White Rock Lake. White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater behind the Bath House at White Rock Lake garnered a lot of attention after the water installation by artists Tom Orr and Frances Bagley fell into a state of disrepair. Originally installed in 2001, restoration costs were estimated at $200,000, an unaffordable sum for a city with no public art maintenance budget. Despite vocal support for the artwork, the Cultural Affairs Commission voted to have it removed, though the city has since said it will commission another work at the lake by Bagley and Orr.

To address the challenge of lack of funds, the city has revised its criteria in commissioning public art in an effort to reduce potential maintenance costs. When the budget of the city’s public art program was cut in 2009, maintenance considerations were strengthened and a new requirement was set in place that all new public art commissions would require little or no maintenance. According to a city presentation to the Arts, Culture & Libraries Committee, much of the required maintenance of works completed after 2009 has been little more than “simple cleaning or dusting.” In other words, spit and polish is all the city can really afford when it comes to maintain its public art.

Per the city’s policy, there are only a few criterions to determine the long term care of a work: whether it will it holds up in terms of structural and surface integrity, that the work submitted not be of shoddy craftsmanship, and that materials used for repair not be excessive. While these considerations are important, they are also lacking. The conservation of art is an ongoing process. It is not something that can be neatly determined from the outset. Art in the public realm is subjected to the environment and any number of unforeseen conditions and stresses. These variables are always changing. If the city wants to preserve its public works of art it needs to be proactive rather than reactionary or, worse, neglectful as with the two aforementioned works.

With the writing all but on the wall, Robert Irwin’s sculpture may get a second life as a prominent feature of the remodeled park, but as is typically the case with Dallas, the piece’s future lays in the hand of private – not public – funding sources. The park is currently trying to raise funds to remove, store, and eventually integrate the piece into a new design for the park. While alterations to the work have not been finalized, “the piece will be re-oriented to a different alignment parallel to another road and shortened slightly,” Peter Bratt relayed in an e-mail on behalf of Michael Hellmann, Assistant Director for Planning, Facilities and Environment Division of the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department. “Certain panels will be rolled into a radius to create a ‘portal’ within a reconfigured Carpenter Park,” he added. “The piece will also have a new filigree (voids punched or cut into panels) in a specific pattern.” All of the adjustments will be designed and supervised by Irwin.

It will be a while before this can happen, though. The city still needs to come up with the funding for the redesign of John Carpenter Plaza, which is estimated at $10 million, as well as the removal and storage of Portal Park Piece (Slice). This is Dallas after all, only big things are funded here. The city is working with a local contractor and is hopeful to reach a cost estimate for the removal and storage of the work within the next 30 days. Funding for the removal of the sculpture will be private.

Despite these efforts to salvage the sculpture, there is still some opposition to the Irwin piece. In a November 2014 Facebook post, Councilman Philip Kingston argued that Portal Park Piece (Slice) is not similar to that of White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater because the effort to save the work was done by “philanthropic interests” rather than the will of the people through a grassroots movement. He suggests that the motivation behind saving the work might not benefit the park or the people of Dallas.

It’s understandable that the councilman doesn’t want private interests to have too much authority over a public parks project. However, the problems facing Portal Park Piece (Slice) and White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater are one in the same. They are both the product of a neglected and underfunded public art program. It shouldn’t matter who or what stepped up to save Irwin’s work. What matters is that, unlike the piece at White Rock, it might be saved.

If the city is serious about its public art, often citing it as reason Dallas is a cultural destination, then it needs to make a bigger commitment to its cultural holdings. This city’s history of neglect and deaccession when it comes to public art point to a troubling trend. Perhaps the Irwin piece offers a model for a way forward. Four of the works currently in the city’s public art collection were funded by both the city and private donations. Private and public partnerships are anything but unusual in Dallas — just look at the popular Klyde Warren Park, also a joint venture between public and private funds. It follows that funding for the removal and storage of Portal Park Piece (Slice) will be private.

Why shouldn’t the city work more with private entities to help maintain its public art? It’s time to rethink how we maintain and fund public art in Dallas. A great city deserves great art and Dallas has some great works of public art. Yet, does Dallas deserve them if it continues to look the other way once the installation is complete?

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