Sunday, May 26, 2024 May 26, 2024
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Willard Spiegelman and a Red Balloon Burst the Nasher’s Bubble

A condo developer and an art museum wrestle over a prime piece of real estate: the wide blue yonder.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

At the northern end of the noble allée of trees in the Nasher Sculpture Center’s lovely garden sits a work of art that is in peril. It is James Turrell’s little berm of a site-specific piece called Tending, (Blue). This is less a sculpture than a small pair of rooms built into a hill. It is nature and art together, at once climate controlled and open to the elements, one of a group of works called “skyspaces” that Turrell began making in the 1970s.

You pass through a subtly illuminated, air-conditioned, ritual antechamber to the inner room, where you can sit on the stone benches that line three of its sides. You watch the sky as though it were both a painting—framed by the square knife-edge aperture in the roof—and also a three-dimensional but shifting object. Turrell has programmed artificial light to respond to changing overhead conditions of shadow, sun, and cloud. The weather contributes to the art. Movement and stillness cooperate. It is an intimate place of contemplation.

Outside of the garden, between the Nasher and the Meyerson Symphony Center, sits an unprepossessing plot of vacant ground. For years it has merely added its naked asphalt to the available parking lots along the road. But if all goes as  planned, a 42-story luxury condominium building called Museum Tower will, in the near future, occupy that empty asphalt between the Meyerson and the Nasher.

Ought we to take this as a cause for rejoicing? Not entirely. It is the Museum Tower that threatens Tending, (Blue).

When Raymond Nasher was designing his museum, he knew that developers John Sughrue and Lyle Burgin of Brook Partners were planning a residential building on the vacant lot across the street. According to Steven Nash, the first director of the Nasher Center, who was involved in the building project from the very start, almost a decade ago, Beck Architecture—Museum Tower’s designers—promised that the structure would not rise more than 18 stories. That was then.

Ray Nasher has been dead for more than two years. The fortunes of Museum Tower have fluctuated with those of the Dallas economy, but if things proceed on schedule, we shall have something that would make the shopping-center developer, art collector, and philanthropist turn over in his grave.

What effect will a 42-story edifice have on Turrell’s enchanting indoor-outdoor room, his contemplation chamber snugly hugging the wall and the ground at the end of the garden? Will the condos blot out the sky? The question was posed to the Nasher’s acting chief curator, Jed Morse. His response: “We don’t know.”

So on a hot, muggy late spring afternoon, the Friday before Memorial Day, I—mild-mannered college professor masquerading as intrepid muckraker—set out with two colleagues from D Magazine to find the answer. For details of the caper, you are invited to click here, but here is the short version: figuring 10 feet per floor, my colleagues flew a 5-foot red balloon 420 feet directly over Museum Tower’s site, while I repaired to the air-conditioned comfort of Tending, (Blue). There were complications, but after 45 minutes, the balloon hove into view. Floating almost stock-still, it occupied the dead center of the aperture in the open roof.

The answer, then: at the very least, Museum Tower will block a large part of the sky as seen from inside Turrell’s installation. I say “at the very least” because after we conducted our research, we learned that Museum Tower will actually rise to 560 feet. The building might perhaps obliterate the entire sky. The experience of sitting in Turrell’s open room would not be the same. Whether this experience, and consequently Turrell’s work, will be ruined irreparably, or merely changed, remains to be known.

According to Lyle Burgin of Brook Partners, the edge of the tower closest to the Nasher will be pushed back toward the Meyerson, and we’d flown the balloon closer to the Nasher than we should have (though we’d undershot the tower’s height by 140 feet). Burgin says his building will have a relatively small footprint of 9,000 square feet. The company commissioned a study to see what effect the building’s shadow will have on the Nasher and decided that it will be negligible. The Nasher opens at 10 in the morning, when the sun is relatively high.

photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Shadows are one thing; an immobile, looming skyscraper is another. When the tower goes up (“if the banks ever get moving,” Burgin says), it will alter the Turrell piece. Solid sculptures made from durable bronze, steel, and marble, as well as those constructed of other, more fragile materials, deteriorate, eventually falling prey to pollution, acid rain, and all the other depredations of time. Tending, (Blue) turns meteorological change into part of its complicated effect. Now, commerce alone will affect it.

What happens to and with site-specific work? What happens when sites themselves change? Hiram Butler, Turrell’s art dealer in Houston, told me that the artist has written into all his contracts a clause that specifies that if something modifies a site, or impinges on his work on the site, the work will be closed unless or until the problem is rectified.

After we presented our findings to the parties involved, a series of discussions ensued between the developers, the artist, and the museum. A solution, of sorts, has been proposed. According to Nasher director Jeremy Strick, who assumed his position last March and who probably doesn’t need this particular problem to add to a director’s headaches, Turrell has “graciously” agreed to modify the piece’s aperture in order to “remove Museum Tower from a viewer’s field of vision.” Even a passing familiarity with geometry makes one wonder exactly how that will be possible, and Strick admits that the specifics remain to be worked out. He says officials at Museum Tower “are committed to finding funds in order to ensure a satisfactory solution.” We must remain hopeful, even if somewhat skeptical. Turrell will visit Dallas sometime soon to make drawings, which will be in place, to be used when necessary, i.e., as the tower begins its inevitable ascent.

In the ongoing annals of the relationship between art and commerce—a relationship sometimes cooperative, sometimes contentious—we in Dallas, especially the keepers of our artistic treasures, are confronting a dilemma. We brag that the arts encourage people and corporations to move to Dallas and that great art makes a great city, but when we get down to swinging the hammers, business always calls the shots. Money trumps beauty every day.

These matters have precedents, and historical analogues, both in Dallas and elsewhere. A Richard Serra sculpture, Tilted Arc, was removed from its position in the Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan in 1989 after complaints from disgruntled workers.

Closer to home, in fact only several hundred yards from the Nasher, the Dallas Museum of Art has dismantled Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s giant Stake Hitch, commissioned for the opening of the new DMA in 1984. It made a nice symbolic gesture about rooting great art in Texas soil. It also got in the way of everything else and made the space inhospitable for the display of other art. In 2002, in preparation for a show of work by Sigmar Polke, the museum unhitched the Oldenburg and put it in storage.   

Two last questions. First, will Dallas have egg on its face if two pieces, not just one, by important contemporary artists are first commissioned and then put in mothballs, eliminated, or transformed?

And, second: is another luxury condo project for the very rich what downtown Dallas needs, in this space and at this time? When will someone decide to build a mixed-use complex, like West Village but with better architecture, that will encourage downtown street life and allow the vibrant middle classes, not just the wealthy, to move in? Why not housing for the families of the kids who attend Booker T.? It would become a real neighborhood school.

Museum Tower, however attractive its design, will have an unknown effect on a site-specific work of art and force changes to it. More damaging, perhaps, the tower will add nothing to the real urban vitality (as opposed to an ersatz “lifestyle”) that everyone has been talking about for decades, but that no one is helping to make a reality. Downtown Dallas now has an Arts District. It needs, even more, ordinary life.

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