Welcome to the shadowlands. I don’t know where you lived the year in the Dallas arts scene, but where I ended up spending most of my time was in the world of rumors, side deals, quite rumblings, murmured plans, and mysteries. The big mystery – the one I which I wrote about in the December D Magazine – was the sudden departure of DMA museum director Max Anderson, which seemed to surprise everyone except anyone close to the museum. But that’s just where the intrigue begins. Much of the year was also dominated by news (or not-news) of the Dallas Art Prize. It was happening, then it wasn’t happening, then it was happening. Finally, Art Prize wasn’t happening for real, and just like that we found ourselves without a heated debate about artistic populism to look forward to in 2016.
We also had pseudo-intrigue this year. Loris Gréaud smashed-up his art exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary, berated the Dallas Observer’s Lauren Smart through Facebook, and then jumped back-and-forth about what exactly the intention of his project actually was. There was the über-quiet opening of the Karpidas Collection in the Design District, and Rick Brettel – the Dallas Morning News art critic, UTD professor, and former DMA director – was quietly laying the foundation for the new Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History. In fact, there were so many secrets in Dallas this year that artist and art impresario Darryl Ratcliff launched a discussion series at Ash Studios in which attendees had to turn in their cell phones at the door so the conversationalists could speak freely, a kind of performance panel that was as much about generating transparent conversation as it was a way to call attention to the stratification of information. Should we use that omnipresent buzzword of 2016 and call it all “information inequality?”
Out from the shadows, it was a year of shifting deck chairs. Some galleries opened, like Site 131 and the new MAC, and other galleries closed, like RE Gallery and OFG. Still more moved, including The Public Trust, Cris Worley, Circuit 12, Liliana Bloch, and Holly Johnson. Levee St. is the new Dragon St., and the Cedars is vying to be the new Expo Park. However, at the end of the day, as we close out 2015, the Dallas art scene doesn’t look terribly different than it did at the beginning of 2015.
Or does it? There were a handful of little shifts and tiny tectonic activities. At this list-making time of the year, I’d like to call attention to a few things that seem to me to indicate a growing maturity and expanding of possibility within the Dallas cultural scene.
Arts funding in Dallas leaves much to be desired. Private philanthropy rules the day, which does much to perpetuate a top-down approach to cultural investment. But the past year has seen the growth of alternative funding mechanisms for artists. These aren’t going to be life changing – just small grants that make a project, a trip, research, or some other pressing need possible. The Nasher Sculpture Center launched its first round of micro grants. The Office of Cultural Affairs launched a program last year, and this year they expanded it. The Dallas Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which administers the Tourism Public Improvement District, or TPID, has taken strides to make accessing funds set aside for cultural programming easier to access. These are all baby steps in the right direction, and artists would be foolish not to jump on the opportunity. (In fact, one complaint I’ve heard from all three granting programs is that not that many artists are actually pursuing these grants. Come on, people! Get on it!) Hopefully in coming years we’ll see continued reinvestment in Dallas’ artists – and not just its arts venues – as the fruits of these small investments are realized.
Dallas Artists Break Out
The flashy art market success story of the year belongs to Jeff Zilm, who, after decades of working in Dallas, found his way to the Minotaur at the center of the art world maze. He heads into 2016 represented by Simon Lee in London, and stares down a string of high-profile shows in Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and London.
But Zilm’s success wasn’t the only instance of artists breaking of out Dallas. Noah Simblist launched his book Places of a Present Past at Wendy’s Subway in Brooklyn. Lauren Woods received a 2015 Art Matters grant. The internet carried Pierre Krause to the acclaimed “Girls at Night on the Internet” exhibition in Brooklyn. Carol Zou and Darryl Ratcliff’s Michelada Think Tank landed a residency at the Los Angeles Contemporary and generated quite a bit of attention. And can we claim Josh Reames? The Dallas-bred, Chicago-educated artist made most of the work that has fueled his post-Brooklyn-move rise into the circle of darlings at Oliver Francis Gallery. I’m sure I’m leaving other people out here, but those are just a few of the highlights that jump to mind. The point is more and more artists seem to be figuring out how to make their home in DFW while staying relevant to a broader art conversation. Contributing to that mapping of Dallas is Michael Corris’ recent series of columns on Dallas that are running in Art in America.
But there are other kinds of artistic successes. For example, what made Art Peña’s show at the Latino Cultural Center such a triumph was not just his deftly executed, tangy and thoughtful paintings. Pena completely rethought the Latino CC’s configuration, working with the architecture of the Ricardo Legorreta-designed building in a way that was something of a revolution, both in terms of how the architecture elevated Peña’s show and how Peña’s show seemed to elevate the value and potential of the LCC’s space. It was an exhibition that demonstrated what is possible when the city’s public spaces put their confidence and resources behind some of this city’s best artists.
It was a tale of two museums at the DMA this year. On the one hand, there were all the distracting rumors swirling around what was going on with the administration. On the other hand, the DMA managed to mount one of its best years in recent memory. It was an institution firing on all cylinders, which may have been part of the problem. But let’s hope the interim administration can take care of the necessary housekeeping without turning the tide of a museum whose programming is on the march.
Highlights included a trio of major painting exhibitions – Michael Borremans, Kazuo Shiraga and Sadamasa Montonaga, and Jackson Pollock — that were each important and revelatory. Then there was International Pop, a wonderful hot mess that challenged easy definitions of what we may have previously believed to be an easy to pigeonhole art historical moment. And it didn’t stop there. The year-long video-centric Concentrations exhibition, Mirror Stage—Visualizing the Self After the Internet, was the most relevant and challenging contemporary art exhibition at the DMA since Omar Fast’s 5000 Feet is the Best, while the exhibition featuring a handful of the museum’s newly loaned Keir Collection was simply exquisite – virtuosic craftsmanship and subtle beauty that cut in sharp contrast to the crassness of the public conversation around Islam and nearly moved me to tears.
I love how quiet and unassuming the Amon Carter Museum of American Art is. This year saw yet another strong showing from the museum, and what made it particularly special was the attention it paid to so-called outsider and folk art. There was Texas Folk Art, Self-Taught Genus: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum, and the commission of Esther Pearl Watson’s kooky mural. Someone slap my hand, but I almost want to include the Remington and Russell exhibition in with these quirky outsiders. Though they are the two titans of Western art, both R’s possess such a flair for pulp theatrics and an intuitive sensitivity for the power of the American id that they seem to point towards the fork in the trail between American folk and fine art.
I also feel compelled to loop the Webb Gallery’s great year in here – what, with Bruce Lee’s publication of As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society – as well as nod toward Kirk Hopper’s regular explorations of the eccentric. Sure, outsider art is increasingly trendy in art market circles, but in a city whose collections – private and public – are known for tracing the digestible and often predictable tastes of the avant-mainstream, it is refreshing to see the brash weirdness of Texas bubble-up from the prairie and into our art spaces.