Monday, June 27, 2022 Jun 27, 2022
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A new building and a new life for the Dallas Museum of Art
By Tim Allis |

The structure lies low and heavy, quiet like a sphinx and as proud. When viewed from Woodall Rodgers Freeway, it is momentarily upstaged by the flashy skyscrapers to the south, but once the viewer’s eyes are fixed upon it, the new Dallas Museum of Art is captivating and pre-eminent. Squared, but not square. Solitary, but not a fortress. Simple, but far from plain. The building is an enigma-different from every angle, constantly asking to be re-evaluated, reconsidered. It invites the viewer to come inside and try to figure it out, something that thousands will do when the DMA opens its doors on January 29. It marks the realization of a collective dream as well as the beginning of a new cultural era in Dallas.

“It’s a coming of age and a milestone in the development of cultural ambition in this city,” says Harry Parker, director of the DMA. “I think the city has a new focal point for its art interests.” That focal point was, at one time, merely a gleam in Parker’s eye. He realized that the 47-year-old Dallas Museum of Fine Art had outgrown her home at Fair Park. There was too little space and no potential for growth-certainly not of the kind befitting a city of Dallas’ size. There was nothing spectacular to draw people out to the fairgrounds. Parker hoped that Dallas would support something spectacular.

In June 1978, it seemed as if the city would not. A $45 million bond referendum was put before the public, including an allotment for a new museum twice the size of the old one, which would be located in the Central Business District. To demystify the obscure and intimidating label “fine art,” the name would be changed to the Dallas Museum of Art. Despite Parker’s dream, the voters said no.

“My spirits were dashed,” Parker says. “I had expected it to pass. But, in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened because, in the aftermath of that rejection, the physical plans for the museum were reviewed and substantially improved. Also, we attracted a lot of underdog interest from the private sector-donors and collectors who watched the downfall and became very involved personally in the resurrection of the institution. We got almost $8 million more.”

After a massive campaign in November 1979 that proclaimed, “A great city deserves a great art museum,” voters overwhelmingly approved the $54.6 million bond issue, giving a $24.8 million green light to the new museum. It was the largest sum ever raised by public referendum for a cultural project in the United States. That money was more than matched with $30 million from private donors. The plans for the $29 million building were finalized, and ground was broken on the first anniversary of the vote.

With the new museum comes a significant increase in the city’s art collection and a more aggressive acquisition program; the revelation of artworks that couldn’t be exhibited in the DMFA because of a lack of space; a much broader, more effective education program with a strong focus on children; the potential for major touring exhibitions; and a centrally located art facility that will attract people who may never have ventured to Fair Park.

The DMA also will give Dallas a new world prominence. “The new museum puts Dallas squarely on the international art world map,” says Dr. Steven Nash, assistant director and chief curator of the DMA. “Dallas is, of course, emerging politically and economically as one of the major centers in the country, and now it’s emerging as one of the major art centers. I truly believe that Los Angeles; Southern California, in general; and Dallas are the most exciting culturally emergent parts of the country. This museum is going to mark for Dallas its birth into a whole new level of cultural importance.”

The DMA may not be in the same league as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. -their collections and financial support are staggering-but Parker says, “I think we certainly take the step from a basically regional museum to join the ranks of the nationally respected museums.” Museums in such places as Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit and San Francisco -good company, to be sure. Parker estimates that more than 600,000 people will tour the museum during its first year, a figure that would make almost any museum proud.

The 195,000-square-foot structure, which was designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes and is made of Indiana limestone, spreads across an 8.9-acre site bordered by Ross Avenue, St. Paul Street, Woodall Rodgers Freeway and Harwood Street. It anchors what will be the west end of the 60-acre Arts District, which will include the new concert hall (scheduled for completion in 1986), as well as several parks, plazas and fountains. In addition to its 70,200 square feet of exhibition space, the museum has an art library designed to accommodate 50,000 volumes; an education wing complete with an orientation auditorium, children’s exhibition areas and studios; a 360-seat auditorium; a buffet restaurant overlooking downtown Dallas; and a large, walled-in sculpture garden that is a pleasant labyrinth of well-spaced art, trees, water walls and runnels. The sculpture garden is an oasis in downtown Dallas. It is at once a respite from the city and a new way in which to experience it-the tranquility of the garden is enhanced by dramatic sculptures and the equally dramatic tall buildings that loom overhead. The sculpture garden has been open since October, and its popularity with downtown workers and brown-bag lunchers is indicative of the kind of unpretentious accessibility the museum is striving for.

Oddly enough, the power of the museum’s architecture is experienced best from the inside out. Large slat windows that seem impenetrable from the street become, when viewed from inside, bold telescopes of the city’s skyline, the sky and other angles of the museum. Space begets space. The impressive wide stone hallway-the spine of the building-suddenly pours into the magnificent 40-foot-high barrel vault, the center of the contemporary art area that also includes four smaller galleries. A half flight of steps moves effortlessly up to the second level of the museum, where traditional European and American art is displayed. Arranged around a central atrium and courtyard, this area cleanly gives way to another set of stairs, punctuated by the huge bust of Tlaloc, the rain god, which leads up to the third level housing pre-Columbian, ethnic, Oriental and ancient Mediterranean art. The most striking thing about the galleries is their simplicity-their clean lines and logical progression.

“The building,” Nash says, “offers very dignified, handsome, elegant, quiet spaces in’which to hang art as opposed to having a lot of architecture competing with the artworks.” Says Parker: “The museum shows the works of art with sufficient space and proper lighting so that the whole collection is going to be a lot more accessible to people and a lot more impressive.” The lighting system alone is a marvel, a mix of artificial and natural light controlled by computer-operated shades that respond to the position and exposure of the sun. The controlled sunlight should enhance the paintings and bring a special brilliance to the gold artifacts.

In the old DMFA, a large temporary exhibit such as the El Greco show would take up part of the space usually allotted to the permanent collection, which meant that museum paintings had to come down for the duration of the run. The DMA has a 9,500-square-foot temporary exhibition space separate from the permanent collection. It’s located near the museum’s main entrance and is flexible enough that it can be used for one large show or for several small shows. The museum’s floor plan was designed with meticulous common sense that should prevent visitors from experiencing museum fatigue and should be a relief to the DMA staff: The facility has ample storage, conservation and office space as well as a finely tuned system for getting the artworks out of their delivery trucks and onto the museum walls.

The new museum brings with it a number of exciting new artworks to supplement the old collection, the strength of which lies in its pre-Columbian and African sculpture and post-World War II American art. Recent acquisitions include the Frederic Church painting, The Icebergs; 38 paintings and sculptures ranging from impressionism to abstract expressionism; five paintings by Piet Mondrian; three paintings by Fernand Leger; a collection of fertility figures; a collection of Tiffany works; and a group of Southeast Asian sculptures. For the sculpture garden, the museum acquired works such as Ellsworth Kelly’s stainless-steel tent (untitled) and Robert Graham’s stark, realistic bronze nude woman, Cherie.

The gate has been opened for serious collecting, and that’s Parker’s plan. “The next phase of the museum is going to be all about acquisitions and public programs,” Parker says. “We need a great Picasso, a great Braque. We need a Constable and a Turner for our 19th-century collection.”

Nash admits that the DMA is weak in the area of Old Master paintings, but says, “We feel it would be very difficult to go back and try to collect Old Masters. We want certain historical examples to fill in the gaps, but we plan mainly to build on our strengths and develop those particular pools where we can be superior.”

A final goal of the DMA is to sponsor touring exhibitions. “The Dallas Museum has got to-and will-emerge as one of the major exhibition organizers in the country,” Nash says. “In the past, we have not been terribly active in that field. We’ve been mostly takers of exhibitions as opposed to providers.” Hosting, however, is important. The museum’s first touring exhibition, “The Shogun Age,” opens March 18. The collection of 300 objects and artworks from Japan’s golden age are touring in only three other cities-Los Angeles, Munich and Paris.

Nash, Parker and other DMA staff members speak of the museum’s responsibility to the community and to children, particularly, in a staid tone of voice. Even when describing the museum building, they use words such as “rational,” “restrained” and “sensible,” as if too much excitement over the sheer impressiveness of the thing might shatter the dream. But art begins and ends with an impression, and Parker admits that although the DMA’s architecture isn’t overwhelming, “it’s not underwhelming, either.” Nothing about the museum, or Parker’s plans, could be called underwhelming.

IN FRONT OF the museum stands anenormous Mark di Suvero sculpture, Ave, ajuncture of bright-red steel I-beams thatshoot toward the sky. At Fair Park, Avesignaled the doorway into the DMFA andbecame the signature of the museum. It alsosignaled adventure for the museumgoer-especially children, who loved to climb upone side and slide down the other. The structure, newly painted and transported acrosstown, once again marks the museum’s entrance-a fitting symbol of the tie betweenthe old and the new, the doorway and theadventure, the children’s heritage and theirinheritance.