Jay Gates, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, pauses mid-sentence and fixes his baby-blue eyes on his interrogator, silver eyebrows arching authoritatively as he glances at the clock, rather like Alice in Wonderlands white rabbit trying to avoid a stew.
Somewhere under that impressive silver helmet of George Hamilton-esque hair, he seems to be calculating the most efficient means of selling his visitor on The Future-a task that does not come easily to Gates. In contrast to his predecessor, Richard Brettell, Gates is not a proselytizer for the Kingdom of Art, not a man given to levity or flamboyance. From his navy-blue blazer to his camel-colored slacks to his tan-loafered feet, he is pure Midwesterner: Cautious. Sensible. Punctual. Deadly serious. Used to working within limits of time, of money, of personality.
If he is not particularly charismatic, neither does he suffer foot-in -mouth disease. Ask whether the $30-mil-lion Hamon wing was a mistake, given the museum’s minuscule endowment and less-than-stellar collection, and his true thoughts betray themselves only through a smile. “You may want to say that,” he smirks. “I don’t.” (“It’s interesting,” he adds later. “I get beat up for not having the endowment that Houston and Fort Worth have; they get beat up for not having the building.”)
He is discreet, declining to discuss certain widely anticipated gifts of 18th- and 19th-century American and European art-despite the fact that the DMA is already “strategically purchasing” to complement those additions. “We don’t want the donors to feel taken for granted,” he says, displaying a feel for the delicate dance of philanthropy (“planned giving,” in museum parlance).
He neatly glosses over the palace intrigue that has plagued his three years as director. Other than mentioning that he had to “rebuild the museum staff,” he sidesteps the matter as though it were a mere doggie deposit on the sidewalk of museum administration.
But now he’s getting a little bit frustrated.
“We’re going to take a quick walk,” Gates commands, scurrying around his massive blond desk. Instructing an assistant to stall his next appointment, he drags his guest to the newly opened Third Floor Galleries.
The impromptu tour was prompted by a discussion of the museum’s newest acquisition, “The Pilgrim at the Gate of Idleness,” which Gates offers as Exhibit A in the category of “great things to come.”
The problem is that the picture also evidences the DMA’s limitations. The painting is an odd duck, the handiwork of a 19th-century Brit named Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, who was himself a follower of a small band of painters dubbed pre-Raphaelites, appropriately enough, because they painted in styles abandoned centuries earlier. The canvas, which depicts a pilgrim in medieval garb approaching a beckoning, ethereal young woman, is a sermonizing romantic parable about the dangers of idleness wrapped in saccharine nostalgia for a fictitious Arthurian past.
This strange throwback to history painting hangs in the middle of the DMAs European galleries like a nun lounging in the brothel of post-Impressionism, begging for an art-historical explanation that isn’t even attempted. (Of course the DMA, being the DMA, has managed to put the donor’s name on the wall-hut then the DMA always has been a place where one can learn more about the history of moneyed Dallas than about the history of art.)
The criticism clearly irks Jay Gates. Not because it is unfair. Rather, it goes to the museum’s biggest problem: money. The DMA’s endowment stands today at just over $50 million-up from an anorexic $14 million a decade ago. But that figure is deceptive, since a third of the endowment-at least $17 million-is dedicated to maintaining and operating the museum’s new wing. Compare that with the endowment of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum (estimated at $150 to S175 million) and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts ($230 million).
Put another way: Even at deflated ’95 auction prices, buying two important van Goghs would bankrupt the DMA.
In fact, the museum does not even have the money to properly hang and label its European collection, which is precisely the point that Gates is trying to make, albeit in positive fashion. And so he has brought his interviewer to the newly opened Third Floor Galleries, a brilliant and informative reinstallation of the Indonesian, African and pre-Columbian collections.
“This,” says Gates, gesturing to the fecund African figures lovingly relabeled and beautifully displayed on the third floor, “took two and a half years to plan. It took a year to raise the money. And it took eight months to construct. It doesn’t look this nice-it can’t look this nice- unless we figure out, real carefully and specifically, how we want each work of art to sing in full voice and then create the environment that makes that possible.”
“Moreover, this is in the middle of an axis that defines our artistic identity. We go from contemporary (the first floor) to European (the second) to a floor that has been closed (the third). This had to open and open first. Come this fall, we will redistribute and rethink the European galleries. Not with a complete reinstallation-that is a much longer-term goal-but in order to address how these works speak to you and to each other and what dialogues they establish.”
“We have to do one. and we can go to the other. OK?”
Well, OK. But the Burne-Jones illustrates both the good and bad news at the DMA.
On one hand, the purchase is a clever use of finite cash, allowing the DMA to present an interesting-if relatively obscure-moment in the history of European art, an area in which the museum has always been weak. On the other. Burne-Jones is a painter of dubious art-historical merit, interesting chiefly because be influenced painters (Serusier, Bernard) who influenced the French Symbolists. And therein lies the DMA’s dilemma. Given its relatively puny endowment, the museum must choose between presenting major works by minor painters, or second-rate works by major figures. Its few blue-chip holdings lie, for the most part, in areas far from the mainstream of Western artistic tradition: African art, decorative arts, pre-Columbian art, Indonesian art.
There are worse fates for a museum. But at present the DMA does not win Dallas what it wants: the bragging rights that come with a “world-class” museum. Or, as one DMA trustee puts it: “Who really cares? I don’t give a damn. Nobody cares about Indonesian art.”
“The purpose of the art museum is not to curry favor with narrow views of what happens to be fashionable now,” says Gates, eyebrows plunging into a frown. “The purpose of art museums is to collect great works of art. And in the process to distinguish the pearls from the fisheyes…And to simply say that certain traditions don’t matter is narrow-minded. And, frankly, much worse,” he says, fixing the messenger with a how-dare-you look.
Perbaps New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, reviewing the new wing, best summed up the verdict on the DMA. Noting trial ” the strongest works in the Dallas collection ” are from ancient cultures. he applauded the DMAs efforts to “put its best loot forward.” Overall, though, he found the DMA incongruous. “Museums bave art and they have real estate, ” he wrote, “and often they think the way to bring attention to the former is to make more of the latter. Even in a city as enamored with extravagant gestures as Dallas, the fiber-optic lighting, fancy cases, darkened rooms and pompous gold treasury are too much; the new wing is grand and uninspiring. There’s too much architecture for the amount and quality of art in the new museum.”
But there is hope.
For perhaps the first time in the DMAs long and rather undistinguished history, there is at least the possibility of greatness-in the area of contemporary art. The DMA is home to an amazingly strong collection from the heroic period of post-WW II American painting, a period in which American painting has dominated the art world. There are any number of contemporary collectors in the area who aie building relationships with die DMA.
And of course there is what may be the art-world prize of the decade: Dallasite Ray Nasher’s collection of 20th-century sculpture, which may (or may nor) go to the DMA. “It is an absolutely extraordinary collection.” says an official at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. “They [Nasher and his late wife Patsy] really did their research and they had a great eye. And, as all great collectors, they sought out and accepted advice. But the period of the collection-the last century in sculpture- is really a remarkable period.”
Indeed, Nasher’s collection includes sculpture by the greatest names in both modern (pre-WW II) and contemporary art: Rodin, Picasso, Miro, Ernst, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Kelly and Smith, to name a few.
“That collection would single-handedly turn the DMA into an art world player,” says Talley Dunn, director of the Gerald Peters Gallery.
But if the contemporary area offers the DMAs greatest hope, it also presents a host of challenges, since contemporary art is an area in which many museum-goers, especially in Dallas, are notoriously uninterested.
“Let’s face it,” says Deedie Rose, who chairs the DMAs board of trustees, “blue and pink Impressionist paintings are what people everywhere in this time think of as art with a capital A.”
And so, even as the DMA confronts unprecedented opportunity, it faces a number of questions:
Can the museum land Nasher’s collection?
Can it find the money to fund the blue-chip exhibitions that were the rationalization for building the largest temporary exhibition space in the country in the first place?
Can Jay Gates-by anyone’s account, not the most magnetic guy- overcome the threat of Rick Brettell’s popular government-in-exile, the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, operating a mile away?
And, last, but certainly not least, can the DMA make Dallas care about contemporary an?
“I DON’T WANT TO STEP ON ANY OTHER directors’ toes,” says Deedie Rose, “but I am feeling a huge sense of hope- fulness about the museum that I haven’t felt for a long time.”
Cocooned in a gray chenille club chair in the den of her Antoine Predock- designed home, a fantasy in concrete, glass and steel, the former DMA docent-turned-president is refreshingly frank about the five years the DMA has spent in “museum hell.” A tiny woman with porcelain skin who could easily shave two decades from her 55 years, Rose represents a new generation at the helm of the DMA. The difference is phys- ical as well as philosophical; casually clad in a hi^h-collared blue cotton shirt and bottle-green breeches, she is a far cry from the overdone grand dames and ego game-playing trustees who have marred the DMAs past. One long-time museum watcher says she is “motivated purely by belief in the cause. “
When Rose became board president in 1993, she assumed the helm of a museum in crisis. Six months earlier, Dr. Richard Brettell, the muse-um’s director and art-world wunderkind, had resigned under conditions that were, to say the least, unpleasant. On the eve of the DMAs important Pissarro show-a show that represented the culmination of five years’ work by Brettell, and brought rave reviews from around the country-he was arrested for fondling an undercover police officer in Reverchon Park.
It was the end of an exciting four years. In 1988, after an exhaustive search, museum trustees had selected Brettell, then a 39 year-old curatorial talent at the Art Institute of Chicago, to succeed Harry Parker, who had been director from 1973 to 1987. Though Parker was a talented young director who had taken the museum through two major building campaigns-a 1979-1984 campaign that moved the museum from Fair Park to its current location, as well as the 1985 opening of the Reves addition-some board members deemed him “too conservative” to lead the DMA into the “first tier” of art museums. They needed someone provocative, a risk-taker, an up-and-corner, an ambassador for art; in short, someone like Brettell.
And from the moment he arrived, they were scrambling for cover as Brettell proved to be something of an enfant terrible, tramping on more than a few well-manicured toes. Only weeks into his tenure, for example, Brettell had the gall to say aloud what everyone in the museum world was thinking (and more than a few art critics had been rude enough to write); that the museum should never have agreed to donor Wendy Reves’ numerous demands regarding display of her collection of paintings and furniture.
By way of reply, Reves left pan of her estate to the College of William and Mary despite previous promises it would go to the DMA to fund the operating costs of the wing built in her honor. The maneuver proved embarrassing to the trustees, who had an unfortunate history’ of neglecting to get details of the Reves deal nailed down in writing before proceeding. Though she later reassured The Dallas Morning News that “I still have Dallas in my plans,” at the time her gift to William and Mary was announced, Reves told the Dallas Times Herald she had made the decision because she couldn’t work with Richard Brettell.
The next year, Brettell took on the thankless task of trying to talk donor Nancy Hamon out of giving $20 million for a new museum wing; that money, he pointed out. could better be used to bolster the endowment, which in 1989 stood at just over $20 million. Hamon wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted a building, with her husband s name on it, and she was willing to give $20 million toward the estimated $30 million cost. If the DMA couldn’t accommodate her, other cities no doubt would.
She got her wing.
That Brettell was right on both counts hardly mattered (in fact, a number of present and former trustees insist his ouster had less to do with die Reverchon incident than with the feathers he had ruffled). He did, however, generate important and stimulating shows: “Images of Mexico”; a memorable contemporary exhibition entitled “Now, Then, Again”; and the Pissarro retrospective, which broke new scholarly ground. And while, under Brettell s tenure, the museum books reflected a number of budget deficits-caused, for the most part, by recession-related revenue shortfalls-the fact remains he did quality work on a shoestring. Throughout Brettell s reign, the budget for special exhibitions hovered around $700,000-a fraction of that at comparable museums.
But the greatest excitement of all came with Brettell s arrest at 4 o’clock on a Monday afternoon in October 1992. In November, he pleaded no contest to die charges.
It was more excitement than the trustees could stand. Brettell resigned under pressure, although he agreed to stay on as a consultant to help with the Hamon wing, which was scheduled to open in the fall of 1993. Meanwhile, the trustees mounted a nationwide search for a new director. They settled on Jay Gates, then director of the Seattle Art Museum, in June; by the time Gates arrived in August, the new wing’s opening was just weeks away.
“It was bizarre,” recalls one museum insider. “Here was the new director, trying to get acquainted with the museum and its board, while Brettell still had an office and was at the museum every day.”
Despite the friction, the Hamon wing opened on schedule, with 14,000 square feet of temporary exhibition space that made it the largest such space in the country. In public, museum officials were all smiles-telling The Dallas Morning News that they “now plan to have two to three major shows running concurrently. ” What such puffery failed to mention, however, was that when the Hamon wing opened, the DMA had received less than $3 5 million of the $55 million it needed to raise for the new wing. Even counting money that had been pledged but would not be received until as much as five years later, the building and endowment campaigns had come up $6.3 million short.
In retrospect, while the Reves addition is perhaps best understood as the admirable folly or” a board whose ambitions far outstripped its means, the Hamon wing is harder to justify- When ground was broken in 1990, even the normally boosterish Morning News called the timing “less than propitious.” Since 1987, Dallas had been in the throes of a stubborn recession brought on-ironically enough-by savings and loan-fueled overbuilding. Thanks to the recession, in 1989 the museum’s books reflected a $12.5,000 budget shortfall; in 1991, they showed an additional hall-million dollar operating deficit, leading to reduced museum hours. At the end of the year, the museum defaulted on a note payment to Faith Bybee for the purchase of her collection of American furniture. The museum took out a bank loan to pay her off, which it secured with pan of the collection-an eyebrow-raising maneuver in the staid world of nonprofit institutions.
The trustees had learned a lesson from the Reves fiasco, however; this time, they insisted on raising a $25 million endowment to cover the additional operating costs of the new wing, bringing the total price tag to S55 million. Though trustees denied problems in public, the building campaign did not go easily or on schedule. They did manage to squeeze an extra $10 million from Mrs. Hamon for the endowment, bringing the public’s share of the $55 million tab to just $25 million, But by the fall of 1993, the public had ponied up only $14.5 million, forcing the museum to borrow more than $3 million from the endowment just to pay the contractor. (The museum is still paving the endowment back.)
Needless to say, it was austerity time.
“What we tried to determine,” recalls Deedie Rose, “is what was reality, and what was not reality.” Costs were pared wherever possible, and museum officials aggressively panhandled to complete the drive. (Although trustees insist the $55 million goal for pledges was reached, the claim is hard to check, since the museum s auditors quit breaking out Hamon drive receipts in 1994. They do, however, concede that all the money isn’t in the door.)
In recognition of the museum’s extreme fiscal squeeze, the entire board met to form a strategic plan. “Some of the things we had been planning to collect-just dream on,” says Rose. “We really struggled, trying to define, really, what were the areas we were excellent in, what we have in this museum that is within the top five museums in the country. And we came up with five pinnacles of excellence; African, pre-Columbian, American decorative arts, Indonesian art and contemporary art.” In addition, the board noted two “emerging areas” they expected would be augmented by gifts: 19th century European painting and 19th-century American painting.
Meanwhile, however, exhibitions fell off [he map. “When Jay came and we had been without a director tor a while-really, our exhibition schedule was kind of frightening,” recalls Rose. “We didn’t have a whole lot of things on the books.”
Indeed, since the 1992 Pissarro show, the DMA has been through an exhibition drought, made all the more noticeable by outstanding shows in most major cities. Without even considering New York, the list is impressive: Houston’s Fine Arts Museum had Baltimore’s Cone Collection. The Art Institute of Chicago had Monet, which also traveled to New Orleans, Even in the absence of a director, Los Angeles County has had any number of significant shows: Picasso’s “Weeping Women,” R.J. Kitaj, Kandinsky. Philadelphia has Cezanne. The National Gallery had Vermeer. Meanwhile, the DMA had American silver, pretty glass by Dale Chihuly and watercolors of Windsor Castle done for the 18th-century tourist trade. This fall, it will become the last in a tsunami of American museums presenting, for the most part, over-hyped shows of Asian artifacts. The DMAs show, part of the Sun & Star extravaganza, will feature the treasures of 16th-century Japan.
And don’t even mention Fort Worth.
“I can tell you every exhibition that has been at the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum in the last five years,” says one prominent local art dealer. “1 can’t recall any of ours. Forget the Kimbell [which hosted the Barnes exhibit]. Suddenly, even Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum is the superior institution. They’ve got their act together, they’ve got money…We’re a ship of fools at the DMA.”
But perhaps the greatest challenge of all was internal. “I went through a period of not sleeping at night, and knots in my stomach all the time,” Rose says, groping for words to describe the past few years. “Because I was really scared for the museum. It had been through a period of real suffering. And I was really frightened that it would be…that at the end of all that, it would be left scarred. Because people take sides. And…you lose support and you lose followers and…It’s so sad to me. It may even make me cry,” she says, looking away to halt the tears filling her pale-blue eyes.
Dr. RICHARD BRETTELL HAS JUST CONCLUDED A BOARD meeting at die McKinney Avenue Contemporary, the alternative contemporary exhibition space where he currently serves as vice president in charge of programming. A pixieish man clad in chinos and a cotton shirt who moves with amazing speed, he has already passed the coke-and-cappuccino bar by the time he hears his name. He is asked for an interview just before a MAC staffer asks if we would like something to drink. “Quick, a double scotch,” quips Brettell, before asking the focus of the article. His reluctance is clear.
“There are probably some things I’d like you to know I think,” he says, “but I’ll have to figure out how to let you know I think them. “
He promises to call later in the week but does not. Nor does he return numerous follow-up phone calls.
Any number of museum supporters and volunteers accuse Brettell, who has written for D Magazine, of fomenting insurrection at the DMA, a charge his response does little to dispel. Yet no one can point to any specific incidents, and some of the charges seem vague and trivial.
“He’s always organizing these trips to places,” complains one DMA volunteer.
“He showed up at the opening of the ’Hot Cars’ exhibition [this past summer],” says another museum insider. “I mean, what’s that all about?”
“He has a private lecture series-it’s by invitation only. He holds it at the MAC. It’s very chi-chi to be in that group,”
Brcttell’s most obvious sin may be his pied-piper quality, which contrasts sharply with Jay Gates’ reserved and pedantic style. Much of the resentment focused on Brettell may be mere transference (“displacement” as the shrinks say) of emotion directed at the MAC itself, which has become a hot venue for endeavors ranging from lectures to theater to movies. Although the MAC doesn’t draw the crowds or the attention focused on the DMAs “Texas Bound” series, the MAC’s forays into these areas are frequently more inspired and usually more topical than the DMAs efforts. For example, the MAC’s program this fall, designed to complement the DMAs Sun & Star exhibition, threatens to be more interesting than the exhibition itself; among other offerings, the MAC will feature avant-garde Japanese architecture, a contemporary Japanese cartoonist “dealing frankly with issues of homelessness, government corruption, unimaginative education and xenophobia in Japan,” and masterpieces of Japanese cinema such as Akiro Kurosawas Rashomon. It doesn’t help that the MAC was founded by a former DMA board member who was, like many board members, angered over what he viewed as Brettell’s shabby treatment, Many DMA stalwarts view the money that goes into the MAC’s coffers-including a recent anonymous gift of $.50,000-as money diverted from the DMAs coffers.
But Dallas should be more than large enough to support a second contemporary exhibition gallery-especially one as small-scale as the MAC. “Personally, I believe more is more,” says Charlie Wylie, the DMA’s new curator of contemporary art, who arrived in February.
Given the violent reactions Brettell sometimes provokes, it should have come as no surprise that his short tenure and dramatic departure plunged the museum into turmoil. Insiders say that most of the DMA’s curators fell into either the Brettell or Gates camp, and that they warred openly. The list of casualties grew: Sue Graze. Steve Nash. Susan Barnes. Annegreth Nil], Emily Sano. Stephen Vollmer.
“I’ve had to get down to work,” says Wylie. “I haven’t had time to get bogged down in it all. In a way, it’s really a relief.”
“Finally, everybody is in place,” Deedie Rose says of the DMA curatorial stuff. “And those people are working well together, though I need to knock on wood. But things are really starting to hum down there.”
FOR YEARS I WAS A MUSEUM BASHER,” CONFESSES Howard Rachofsky, a DMA board member since 1993. “Because there wasn’t programming that interested me and I didn’t sense that what was going on was anything but a lot of political infighting. Not that that doesn’t exist elsewhere, but it just didn’t have a good feel.”
Relaxing on a black leather love seat in his North Dallas home, which is crammed to the gills with first-rate contemporary art (he will soon move into his new, Richard Meier-designed borne, in part to accommodate his burgeoning collection), Rachofsky is the very picture of the new leadership running the DMA. Behind him, gobbling up the entire wall and intruding over the obviously unused fireplace, is a Stella canvas from the important “Protractor” series of the late ’60s; behind him, a Stella wall construction from the ’80’s “Had Gadya” series; in the entryway, a monumental Schnabel painting on velvet; in the dining room, a delightfully wicked Koons sculpture of a woman in a tub.
Like many local collectors, Rachofsky, a Dallas native, says he got interested in art someplace other than the DMA- in his case, through traveling to New York and “dating a girl who worked in an art gallery.” It is a state of affairs he is determined to change, for the sake of future generations.
In truth, many of the problems at the museum spring from history; in matters cultural, Dallas had to make up for decades overnight. Though the museum dates to 1903, when a group of Dallas matrons eager to promote arts education established the Dallas Museum of An, Dallas was a sleepy cotton market with a population of less than 50,000. During the period that many of the great art collections in this country were amassed, from 1890 to 1930, Dallas was a bona-fide cultural wasteland; few Texas colleges and universities offered art classes, and local papers covered culture on the society page. During the ’20s and ’30s- the heyday of European modernism-“art exhibitions” in Dallas consisted of oilmen offering a king’s ransom for the prettiest bluebonnet painting. What arts patronage there was remained, in the words of art historian Francine Carrano, “solely the province of wealthy matrons who ventured to New York to purchase works by second-rate European artists,”
Matters improved a bit during die Depression thanks to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and the emergence of the Dallas Nine, a group of Texas artists devoted to the promotion of Southwest regionalism. In 1942, artist Jerry Bywaters, chief propagandist of the Dallas Nine, became director of the Dallas Fine Arts Museum. During his 20-year tenure, the museum began to form the core of its collection, focusing primarily on regional art. Although it also acquired some blue-chip examples of post-World War II American art, such acquisitions were quite controversial; throughout the ’50s, abstract art at the DMA provoked charges of communists in die woodpile. Needless to say, European modernism was out of the question. As historian T.R. Fehrenbach notes, Texans did not begin to “consume culture” until the ’60s; by then, cities in the East had a seven-decade head start. Many of the museum s follies can be explained as the machinations of a city trying to make up the difference in a hurry.
“I think we bad a little bit of indigestion over the building,” says Rachofsky. “And quite frankly, a lot of money was raised to build buildings and not collections. But there’s been a program in the last year to really enhance the exhibition schedule. And I think we’re evolving into a situation where it’s likely that future an people will say the genesis of their interest was the DMA and not the MOMA or the Met or going to the Cezanne exhibition in Philadelphia.”
In the long term, that may not be quite as unrealistic as it sounds. A number of outstanding collections could land at the DMA in the next 10 to 15 years. Though Margaret McDermott refuses to say where her Impressionist collection will wind up, given her long-standing commitment to die DMA, few believe it will go elsewhere.
The fate of Ray Nasher’s collection has been somewhat less clear; at various times it has been rumored to be headed for the National Gallery, the Guggenheim and the DMA. A deep throat familiar with Nasher’s negotiations with various institutions cites his “sphinx-like reticence” on the subject, but says: “My own view is that Ray would like to establish a formal relationship between the DMA and the National Gallery, to share the collection. As I understand it. he would like to keep it in place in Dallas and then, ultimately, share it.”
“Yeah, ” agrees Ray Nasher, pausing a few seconds before he decides to hedge a bit. “Well, I mean that’s one of the options…. We’re trying to think of the educational parts and the potential of partnerships. Because it would be very important for Dallas to have the ability to get exhibitions and to do things with the National Gallery or the Met or MOM A.” Nasher confirms that he is in the process of establishing a “sculpture research center” in Dallas, which may be housed at the DMA.
“It may well be in the museum and have its own staff, etc. and bring in curators from around the world and scholars and fellowships.” Nasher has recently named former DMA trustee Elliot Cattarulla as executive director of the Nasher Foundation, which will implement these plans “within the next couple of years,” he says.
There are signs that Dallas is increasingly eager to learn about an. Many art world types viewed the fine arts auction at this year’s Beaux Arts Ball as a test of this willingness-and to the surprise of more than a few, Dallas passed. Howard Rachofsky, who co-chaired this year’s auction, used his connections to persuade top New York dealers to donate examples of, in his words, “what was really happening in the world of contemporary art.” Mindful of the difficulty and unfamiliar-ity of many of the pieces, they enlisted a curator and a freelance writer to write vignettes for each piece, “a little road map for getting into the work,” in Rachofsky’s words. As a result, the auction raised over $110,000-more than twice the amount raised the year before.
The problem, of course, is repeating that learning experience in the museum itself.
“You know,” says Deedie Rose, herself the owner of a remarkable contemporary collection, “contemporary art didn’t just come out of nowhere. It had to come from somewhere-from a whole history of an that came before.”
Unfortunately, most of that history is simply absent from the DMA. And neither can it afford to buy that history. The obvious answer is exhibitions-but those are something of a Catch-22.
“There arc four things you’ve got to have to be a significant player in the world of special exhibitions,” says Jay Gates. “You’ve got to have market size. You’ve got to have facilities. Three, you’ve got to have the brain trust to make it possible. And, four, you’ve got to have the available financial resources to make that happen.”
Dallas has the first two, and Gates has spent much of his three-year tenure working on the third. Recent curatorial hires besides Charles Wylie include the much-touted Dorothy Kosinski, a curator of European painting. Gates clearly expects great things of both.
But the fourth sine qua non is the old bugaboo: money. Exhibitions come out of the DMAs operating budget, which today is approximately $10 million-exactly the same as the operating budget 10 years ago.
“Out of all the areas we think we’ve got a handle on, exhibitions are the very toughest,” says Rose. “For all museums, but particularly for ones that are not well-endowed.” Not only do exhibitions travel to fewer venues than they once did, but their costs have skyrocketed. A “blockbuster” usually costs SI million to $1.5 million; the fee for the Barnes exhibition alone was estimated at $3 million.
In addition, until very recently the DMA has been primarily focused on paying for the new wing. “I felt like we had really drained people dry,” says Rose. “With the old supporters of the museum, we had to go back and say, ’can’t you come up with a little bit more?’ ” And so, when the museum’s new development office proposed a new fund-raising drive last September, suggesting the museum find 10 people willing to give $100,000 a year for exhibitions, Rose recalls her reaction.
“I thought, what are they smoking? How can you get blood from a turnip?” she says, smiling in amazement. This April, the Chairman’s Circle campaign proposed last September was closed; it had raised $3.1 million just to fund exhibitions.
But don’t expect to see any Old Masters exhibitions soon. Because there is a fifth element, which the DMA still lacks: paintings.
“Oh, absolutely,” agrees Gates. “That’s a given. You’ve got to have the paintings that go into the show. There are museums that manage to be kind of exhibition centers, but there are not very many of those. There is a reason why the Monet show went to Chicago and Paris; they happen to have superb Monet collections.”
But Gates and his staff insist they have solutions. “We have to establish ourselves as a principal place where exhibitions don’t just come because somebody likes the color of our eyes, but because we have a seat at the table; where we send exhibitions to others. Then Dallas becomes a place where exhibitions are sent.”
Gates cites one such upcoming exhibition, which Dorothy Kosinski is organizing, focusing on “a generation of artists from Gauguin to Munch” who publicly condemned photography but privately used it as first work for some of their most important images. “So we take the major work of art-Degas, Gauguin, Rodin, Vallotton, Vuillard-and show the photograph,” Gates says. That exhibition, organized by the DMA and scheduled for the fall of 1998, is “being pursued by museum names I can’t tell you.”
And Charles Wylie, the new contemporary curator, dreams his own big dreams. “I mean, this is wildly ambitious, but…I would love to do some kind of international survey exhibition that would bring together 12, 15 artists. And have that-oh, I don’t know-around the turn of the century. And we’re thinking about some smaller thematic shows, about signposts of 20th-century art. Someone like Marchel Duchamp, someone like Joseph Beuys.”
But these shows are years away. In the near future, the exhibition drought will continue. And, of course, the larger question remains: Is the DMA a museum that Dallas can love?
“Gosh, I hope so,” responds Gates. ” ’Cause I’ve made a huge mistake if it isn’t.”