Dallas Museum of Art Picks New Director

andersonV01As Krista mentioned below, our own Peter Simek has proven himself to be something of a soothsayer. Only with a twist. He predicted the future by saying the future was exactly what wouldn’t happen. How (kinda) embarrassing. Our November issue won’t hit newsstands for another 10 days or so. In it, Peter writes about the Dallas Museum of Art and how they don’t know what they’re doing (my words, not his). He says if they knew what they were doing, they would hire as their next director a fellow Maxwell Anderson (pictured) from the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Well, as we learned today, the DMA went out and hired Anderson. Two things: in fact check, the DMA people told us a new director wouldn’t be named until the new year. Second, Peter swears he hadn’t heard Anderson’s name whispered before he wrote his story. I believe him. Why? Because he wouldn’t have written “the current DMA brass lacks imagination” if he’d thought there was a possibility that Anderson would get the gig.

In any case, why wait to publish? Here’s what you’ll read in your November issue of D Magazine:

Help Wanted
What sort of director should the DMA hire? Look no further than, of all places, Indianapolis.
By Peter Simek

When the exhibition “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk” opens at the Dallas Museum of Art on November 13, don’t expect what happened in Montreal. There, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a wild Gaultier-fueled parade kicked off the exhibit’s three-city tour. Acrobats, musicians, dancers, and street artists, all decked out in Gaultier-inspired garb, marched through downtown before breaking into a huge street party. Then the designer himself made a triumphant appearance before the cheering throngs, which numbered nearly 100,000, according to The New Yorker.

What did Montreal’s parade require that Dallas doesn’t have (besides the French)? Long, straight, with lots of sidewalk space, Flora Street seems like a good parade route to me. Looking at the buildings in the Arts District, I’d say Dallas has the patrons to fund an art-parade bacchanalia. And this city is supposedly fashion-crazed, right? While there are a dozen reasons why Dallas won’t celebrate the arrival of Gaultier with the same civic fanfare he found in Montreal, one reason stands out: the current DMA brass lacks imagination.

Want proof? When Gaultier visits Dallas, he will attend a couple of invitation-only events at the DMA and a luncheon for which they are selling 250 tickets.

Sometime next year, the DMA will name its next director. The appointment should mark an important shift in the cultural life of this city. The events in Montreal show us that an art museum can drive the life and culture of a city, and if the right person is named to the DMA job, the museum has the opportunity to engage this place like never before. This doesn’t mean we need parades to open every new exhibition at the museum, but over the past decade, an administrative blandness has come to dominate the culture of our city’s museum. The DMA needs a director who can reinvigorate the institution and rethink what its roles and responsibilities are. There is a model for this kind of regional museum director. His name is Maxwell Anderson.

Since 2006, Anderson has been the director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Although he once headed the Whitney Museum, since retreating to Indiana after some controversy in New York, he has relished his role as art-world outsider, taking full advantage of the freedom that comes with running a regional museum. But he has also challenged the museum to raise its profile, to “move that meter” nationally, as he told the New York Times in 2007. To that end, he has challenged Indianapolis’ capacity for innovation, launching shows involving everything from the grotesque to the sexual, and found that the Midwestern city is more comfortable with provocation than it is given credit for.

One of the first things Anderson did was make admission to the museum free at all times. Then he started taking chances. One example is this summer’s commission of William Lamson’s Divining Meteorology project. The artist reassembled an old communications tower inside the museum and installed a system of speakers on it that receives the weather radio signal from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. By moving a magnetic pickup across the structure, Lamson can effectively “play” the tower as an instrument, creating a composition that mixes recordings of his movements with the live weather radio broadcast.

This is the kind of project we never see at the DMA, a museum offering an early/midcareer artist complete license to do something strange on a large scale. By doing so, the IMA demonstrated an understanding of its own power as an artistic institution. It can promote innovation while creating an environment that allows audiences to approach new kinds of work. The IMA’s bold moves have had the desired effect. The national meter has moved. As proof, one of IMA’s curators was tapped to curate the American Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Another major achievement during Anderson’s tenure was the launching of Art Babble, most easily described as the YouTube of art. Now expanded as a partnership among 32 of the world’s greatest museums and organizations, Art Babble is an educational tool and media website that makes art accessible without compromising the intelligence of the work. It begins with the assumption that a wide audience can understand and appreciate the provocative complexity of contemporary art.

For Anderson, it hasn’t all been about contemporary art. He has strategically repositioned the museum’s collection despite its limited means by taking the emphasis off collecting expensive 20th-century works and instead focusing on deepening other areas of the collection. He has also worked to make the museum’s operations more transparent, both with the acquisition and deaccessioning of holdings and in the way the museum interacts with its donors.

Here’s where the DMA could again learn from Anderson’s example. In numerous papers and lectures, Anderson warns about something he calls “venture philanthropy” in which the strings attached to donors’ gifts “trump institutional need.” At the DMA, which is dominated by a handful of prominent collecting families, any new director needs to be both steadfast and diplomatic in ensuring that the integrity of the museum is not compromised by its relationship with its principal patrons.

This kind of boldness — the courage to not be beholden — should stand as an example to many areas of Dallas’ cultural life. Let’s at least get it right at the Dallas Museum of Art.

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