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Visual Arts

Dallas Fire Marshal Addresses Clampdown on Small Art Spaces

Artists remain concerned that zealous code enforcement is 'killing' the city's creative scene.
Last month, the Dallas Observer published a story about fire marshals shutting down art functions at creative spaces like it’s going out of style. Since then, the department has only seemed to double down on these efforts. Mini-Gallery and Erin Cluley Gallery have been visited. Some galleries, like Kirk Hopper Fine Art, have been revisited a couple times. About twenty vital creative spaces have now been compromised. And some gallery operators prefer not to say if fire marshals have visited.

On July 30 at the South Dallas Cultural Center, a crowded Office of Cultural Affairs community meeting was nothing less than a disturbing commentary on the state of the art scene. “They’re killing us,” said Lara Lenhoff from the Mini-Gallery. “Something needs to be done.” The crowd applauded, many wiping tears from their eyes. Seeing a brilliant artist like Carlos Donjuan visibly nervous and asking if he should cancel or move his latest show was equally distressing.

Not surprisingly, this Tuesday’s scheduled meeting with Deputy Fire Chief and Fire Marshal Christopher Martinez was moved to a larger space in the Dallas Public Library’s central branch downtown due to the overwhelming public interest in the issue.

“We’re going to experience some people who are frustrated,” Martinez says. “We are fully expecting that.”

After some typical crackdowns on New Year’s Eve, the fire marshals’ efforts have steadily continued. But Martinez points to an increase in complaints, especially through social media or other electronic means, going all the way back to May 2015. He specifically references a crowded event at a space on Dragon Street. The event took place on a rooftop and there were questions about occupancy load, catering, tents, and tables.

The organizers genuinely didn’t seem to know about the checkmarks for the event. They also couldn’t immediately provide requested information, Martinez says. This became a familiar pattern. Fire marshals showing up to places at night do not have the assistance of other departments that operate during normal business hours. When forced to make judgment calls without all the necessary information, they tend to act with safety in mind.

“That was one of the first events that kind of alerted us,” Martinez says. “There was something going on in a facility that is not normally used for this type of purpose.” For months, art functions were hit sporadically. But eventually the department became more clued in to what was happening—perhaps partially, some in the arts and music scene have speculated, because of an Observer story that detailed some of the underground playbook. “We’re better at checking social media now,” Martinez says.

“I try to step outside the box and look at it from the other side,” Martinez says, when asked if art functions and galleries are being targeted. “I definitely understand the impression it can give.” But he says his department eyes all assemblies. For these particular events, he sees a pattern of unmarked or possibly blocked exits, a lack of sprinklers, and occupant loads being exceeded.

Some of these spaces are up to code, but the issue lies with the building not having the right kind of certificate of occupancy (CO) for an event. “I understand that some people could wonder what the real concern is if the safety is there,” Martinez says. “But technically it is a violation and we have to note it on a notice of violation.” He also points out that a notice of violation does not equal a fine.

But one has to wonder why an event or space would be shut down when this is the case.

“We try to use as much common sense as we can,” Martinez says. He mentions weighing options in countless difficult late-night conversations with limited resources. There have been times when they let events continue. “We found ourselves in a tougher situation trying to find that delicate balance. Is two times enough before we shut them down?”

Martinez is unable to provide a clear answer on why an art gallery with fewer than 10 people in it would be shut down, or why places that have been doing the exact same things for years would suddenly be getting visits. It is also curious that similar music events are rarely shut down, even if they are over capacity or hosted in spaces not up to code.

“We’ve been working feverishly behind the scenes to resolve this,” Martinez says.

Martinez says the department has not noticed as many events devoted solely to live music, or received many complaints about them. As far as how the department determines whom it will visit on any given night, he says marshals consider areas of concern in parts of town they will already be in for inspections, check social media, and respond to complaints. Martinez says that they have received complaints from people telling them an event is going to happen as early as the night before, sometimes with details about how many people are expected to show up.

To resolve this issue, Martinez says increased coordination with Building Inspection, Code Compliance, OCA, and Office of Special Events is key. An effort to help people navigate the complicated processes of getting the correct CO or bringing a building up to code is one of the first steps, he says. There are artists and creative space operators who have been investing time and money every week for months with little or no progress.

Chief Building Official Philip Sikes says the process is complicated: “It’s not something we would expect a layperson to understand. We’ve decided that the best way to handle it is to have someone who will hold their hand through the process.” After the fire marshal visits someone, they will notify a senior plans examiner who will reach out to assist.

“We’ve been working feverishly behind the scenes to resolve this,” Martinez says. But he is not necessarily willing to be lenient in the meantime. “We’ll do the best we can to enforce that code as reasonably and objectively as we can for safety.”