Dallas Will Commission Public Art, But Don’t Ask Them to Actually Maintain It

There's controversy brewing over an aging piece of public art at White Rock Lake.


Francis Bagley and Tom Orr, "Wildlife Water Theater," 2001 (night view) 43 steel poles, 20 polycarbonate light poles, 15 floating fiberglass disks, 10 cast stone land elements, 12 aluminum educational wildlife charts, 1 solar system. Courtesy of the artist.
Francis Bagley and Tom Orr, “Wildlife Water Theater,” 2001 (night view) 43 steel poles, 20 polycarbonate light poles, 15 floating fiberglass disks, 10 cast stone land elements, 12 aluminum educational wildlife charts, 1 solar system. Courtesy of the artist.

I’ve written about why I think Dallas’ public art program is ill-conceived, but here’s another instance of the public art program’s short-sightedness. Dallas comes up with funds to commission art works via a “percent for art ordinance,” which basically ties art funding to city spending on capital projects. That funding tool, however, doesn’t deal with the problem of maintaining public art pieces as they age.

Case in point: this particularly beloved work by the artists Tom Orr and Francis Bagley, an installation consisting of numerous poles, some illuminated, that poke out of the water and function as a “stage” for the wildlife at White Rock Lake. This past January, the Office of Cultural Affairs said they wanted to remove the piece because they couldn’t afford to maintain it (many of the installation’s features, like its lights, no longer work). The city killed its maintenance budget for public art in 2009, and now new pieces of public art are required to need little or no maintenance or upkeep — as if the ordinance needed yet another stipulation to limit proposed art projects. But this particular art work has a lot of fans, and they are not very happy about the city’s desire to trash it. After a bit of a hubbub, the Office of Cultural Affairs announced they will hold public meetings on the matter this Saturday and next Monday at the Bath House Culture Center at 10 a.m.

In an email, Bagley says that the Cultural Affairs Commission’s decision creates a bad precedent: commission art now, trash it later. It also sounds like bad policy. Why go through the arduous and expensive process of commissioning art if there is no way of maintaining that art? It gets back to my problems with percent for art ordinance in the first place, the way the inflexible funding mechanism prizes quantity over quality. The ordinance will ensure that there are funds to throw up some concrete arches at a fire station somewhere in the northern hinterlands, but it doesn’t provide any funds for preserving Orr and Bagley’s piece at White Rock, one of the few thoughtful pieces of public art the City of Dallas has commissioned. Instead, it will likely fall back on Dallas’ usual cultural strategy: “Go find some rich guy to help you.”


Get a weekly recap in your inbox every Sunday of our best stories from the week plus a primer for the days ahead.

Find It

Search our directories for...









View All

View All


  • Bob Loblaw

    I don’t know about beloved. I lived a couple of blocks from the Bath House for a decade, and if you would have given me 100 tries, I would never have guessed those poles were “art.” At the time, the SMU women stored their boats there and I assumed it had something to do with that. I don’t think removal is any great loss.

  • Tim Rogers

    Wow. I’m with Bob Loblaw (good to see you back, sir). I live blocks from the lake and have for about 14 years. Ride my bike past the Bath House on a weekly basis. Never knew those poles were part of an art installation. I figured the eyesores were a remnant from when the Bath House was an actual bath house.

    Dallas: Big Things Happen Here!

    • Brett Moore

      I didn’t even know this piece existed, and I am allegedly an arts type personage.

  • Bruce

    I am quite shocked that the people who installed the art didn’t have to sign an agreement to maintain it. I am a Director in a neighborhood association and we installed a rock in a planting bed in a Dallas Park to commemorate and we had to sign an agreement of maintenance.

  • Brett Moore

    And I live on the south side of the lake.

  • LDR4

    I’m surprised that people didn’t know this was an art installation. There is signage posted explaining as much. Or there was, at least. I haven’t been down there in a while. But this is an unsettling trend in Dallas. The city removed Robert Irwin’s “Portal Park Piece (Slice)” recently. What’s next? The Moore in front of city hall? The eye? The bowler hat? Some world class city we are.

  • Douglas Martin

    There is signage and the piece is featured on the cover of the Public Art Program’s self-justification to the City of Dallas (and acts as a FAQ for the public wanting to learn about the program. http://www.dallascityhall.com/pdf/Bond/PublicArtBriefing.pdf It is not ok to throw away public art because maintenance wasn’t planned, nor is ok for the world to think Dallasites think its ok.
    Per the Public Art Ordinance, city bond proceeds cannot be used on public art maintenance. This might be something to look into during these discussusions since it seems like a job creation opportunity, but for now, it’s not an option. However a separate Public Art Account can be created, funded, and dispersed as directed by the donor(s). http://www.dallasculture.org/…/COD_Public_Art_Ordinance…

  • Peter Kurilecz

    nothing new here the City has been neglecting public art for quite sometime. just look at the Moore pieces in front of City Hall. 30 years ago there were numerous discussions over taking care of them, or look at the downtown library when it opened in the mid-80s. they eventually pulled out all the chairs to get cleaned. no one thought about what they homeless folks would do to those chairs.
    if the City wants to fund public art then they need to establish a permanent maintenance fund for it

  • Philip Goss

    Another story about the city not maintaining something. Color me shocked. Appalled and sad most certainly. But not shocked.

    Perhaps we could have used some of the millions that were used to purchase land next to the VA for a pipe-dream of an apartment complex and put that towards Public Art / Infrastructure maintenance. #MarySuhmsLegacy

  • artist

    No curiosity………will miss lots of art and wonder. That’s why an artist put a huge magenta arrow pointing to the Henry Miller sculpture at City Hall.
    The piece certainly deserves restoration, maintenance, and respect.

  • Eric

    And still The Big Brass Bulls are kept in pristine condition!