Art SOHO WHAT?

Dallas artists yearn for some space they can call their own.

Openings can be dreary affairs – cliches and canapés and scraps of mindless gossip. But it’s hard to ignore one that draws almost two thousand people in two nights, which is what happened recently at 500 Exposition, Will Hipps’ and Richard Childers’ new gallery near Fair Park.

Formerly a tire factory and a warehouse for air conditioners, the building has been divided into two huge exhibition areas, several lofts, and a dozen studios. The setup is unique in Dallas, as is the concept behind it. Twenty artists have formed a stockholding corporation to which they contribute $50 a month towards upkeep and other expenses. In return, they get a vote, a share of the profits, and a chance to show what they want for as long as they want. “Our idea is to give artists more freedom than they’d have in a conventional gallery,” explains Childers. “We have no prevailing style or philosophy, no curators. The artists set their own prices.”

Initial response suggests that the idea has fallen on fertile ground. The opening had a carnival atmosphere, with artists in sneakers and paint-stained jeans mingling with elegantly attired couples on their way to the Pyramid Room. It took me fifteen minutes to get my glass of Chenin Blanc and another fifteen to find enough elbow room to drink it. What I could see of the show was impressive, but I spent most of my time admiring the space and eavesdropping on conversations about the possibility of a SoHo in Dallas. Many of these involved visiting artists, who were slavering over the other warehouses in the area, yet even the resident skeptics seemed cautiously optimistic.

Just down the street, for example, an entire block of seedy rooming houses and fight-a-night bars is being converted into lofts and studios. Spokesmen for the owner, MidCity Realty Company, say that their intention is to bring the buildings up to code and then lease them at low rents, probably around $1 a square foot. This would provide inexpensive work space for artists and allow the company to keep the property on the tax rolls. A promising arrangement, except that MidCity has also made it clear that it considers it a short-term venture, five or six years or until the city makes up its mind about the linkage corridor from downtown to Fair Park. If the corridor goes through MidCity’s land holdings, they’ll more than get their investment back through condemnation proceedings.

The phoenix of local urban design concepts, the corridor was revived again last month as part of what appears to be a trade-off between downtown and Fair Park. Because the issue of the Museum’s departure has been settled without disruptive public controversy, city officials seem inclined to give the Fair Park area something other than the raspberry, most likely landscaping along the new Highway 352 and, later, some kind of connecting boulevard to downtown. How much later is anybody’s guess. The consensus is that the boulevard is a low-priority item for the upcoming bond election, particularly when set beside such glamour projects as Town Lake and a new library. If it turns up at all, it may be in the form of a feasibility study, with funds for land-taking and construction still years away.

Obviously State Fair General Manager Wayne Gallagher and the East Dallas Chamber of Commerce want action before 1986, the year of the Texas sesquicentennial and possibly a world’s fair. But for the artists in the area, where is a more crucial question than when: One of them describes boarding a bus for a tour of his “revitalized” neighborhood and discovering that his studio will be one of the first to be demolished. That sort of thing dampens the creative spark. According to the latest proposal, the boulevard would follow the Texas and Pacific right of way from downtown, swinging close to Baylor Hospital and a section of the new Fox and Jacobs development, then continue on to Parry and the fair grounds. Compared to earlier proposals, the advantages of the new route are obvious: lower land costs, one transaction instead of 500, proximity to new development. The disadvantage, equally obvious, is that it would wipe out most of the warehouses and other buildings that might be the hub of a new arts district. Childers and Hipps have decided to go ahead anyway, hoping that by the time the city gets ready to act, the area will have become such a cultural resource the bulldozers can be stalled. If not, at least by then some of the artists may be able to locate in other parts of the city.

Downtown, for instance. Jim Murray is a Dallas filmmaker with a weakness for warehouses. He owns three on the fringes of the Historic Preservation District, one of which he is gradually converting into a media center. He has an office and studio on the second floor, across the hall from photographer Bill Crump. Downstairs are a painter, a fashion photographer, and another commercial photographer who specializes in ice cream. In time, Murray plans to build more studios as well as loft space, a gallery for artists and filmmakers, and perhaps a small experimental theater. Last fall the New Arts Festival staged a production of Pinter’s The Collection on the fourth floor. A few of the lights and drops are still up as reminders of what could be done with these vast, high-ceilinged buildings. “The potential for this kind of facility is enormous,” says Murray.”Frankly, I’m amazed that no one has tried it before. It’s being done all the time in other cities.”

John Tatum, an architect and fellow urban pioneer, literally stumbled into his building on North Lamar. After a late dinner at Brennan’s, he was wandering around the district and saw a light in Murray’s window. “Any warehouses for sale near here?” he inquired jokingly. Murray leaned out and pointed in the general direction of Woodall Rodgers. John took one look at the old White Swan coffee roasting plant and bought it. Four floors, roughly 20,000 square feet of bright, airy space. Perfect for studios, theater groups, an arts center, he thought.

Enter reality. After calling dozens of local arts organizations, he couldn’t find one that could afford the rent. Eventually the Historic Preservation League moved into a front corner of the building, but the rest of the space has gone begging. ” The artists never materialized to fill it,” John says. “I was also naive about what it takes to get a project like this off the ground. Recently I’ve been looking for art-related tenants like architects and commercial designers, who can use large spaces effectively. If this works out, I’ll try to do the art thing with a second building.”

The difficulties of developing new art space downtown go beyond finding solvent tenants. Some of the new ordinances defy rational interpretation. Parking is also extremely tight, a problem the city has been slow to address. A proposal to allow parking under the new elevated stretch of Woodall Rodgers has been coolly received, so that at the moment the standard procedure is to demolish existing structures – hardly in keeping with the idea of “preservation.”

And then there’s the matter of financing. So far, Dallas banks have been slower than those in other parts of the country to invest in recycled buildings. For years, SEDCO’s Old Cumberland School was the single shining exception. The recent move of Dahl, Braden, Chapman into the district, and rumors of other moves, suggest that things may be loosening up. although banks still aren’t beating the bushes for unconventional projects. Caution, bordering on skepticism, has been the general rule. “A lot of banks think it’s an interesting idea,” says Tatum, “but none of them seems willing to go out on a limb.” Others see the issue in philosophical terms. “There’s a prevailing high-rise mentality in Dallas,” says one developer. “The notion of converting old structures to new uses, along the lines of SoHo or Quincy Market in Boston, still strikes many people as far out. radical.”

The SoHo model, much touted when the Historic Preservation District was created in 1975, may not suit Dallas anyway. In the first place, the existing warehouse area is relatively healthy, with upwards of 75 percent occupancy by some estimates. Landlords aren’t desperate for tenants the way they were in New York, especially now that the official designation has sent land values soaring. Space that was leasing for $.25 to $.50 a square foot only a few years ago is now going for $5 to $6 a square foot, more in some cases. Owners who were previously holding property in hopes that the Central Business District would expand in their direction are now holding it in anticipation of a flurry of boutiques, restaurants, and other kinds of fashionable development. The last people they’re looking for are artists. The pattern is the same in Seattle, St. Louis. Galveston, even SoHo. As an area becomes popular artists soon find themselves priced out of cheap space. “It may already be too late for loft-studio development within the Historic District.” says one planner. “We’ll probably skip that phase entirely and go right into high-intensity development, with the artists being pushed to the fringes.”

The situation is very fluid, of course. The presence of a new museum will undoubtedly make the idea of living and working downtown more attractive to artists. And if 500 Exposition turns out to be a smashing success, others may follow the lead. Hipps and Childers will be living in a glass bowl for a year or two. which is at least preferable to living within the arc of a wrecking ball.

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