Soon after Stephen Lapthisophon moved from Chicago to Dallas in 2007, he noticed two things. First, there was a society photographer at a museum event. “I thought, ‘This would never happen in Chicago,’ ” Lapthisophon says. Then he went to an artist lecture on a Wednesday night, and it was packed. “And I thought, ‘This would also never happen in Chicago.’ ”
Lapthisophon saw that divide in the city as well. On the one hand, there was the multimillion-dollar Arts District, but just a few miles away, there were vacant lots and odd warehouses. “Dallas has this weird landscape,” he says. “It has this image of all of the flash and glitter, and that is definitely there. But there is also an odd mystery to it. I liked the opportunity that some of those spaces offered. It is good for artists.”
Over the past decade, Lapthisophon, a professor at UTA, has been one of a number of artists and art professors in Dallas who have helped a younger generation of artists exploit that gap. He encourages his students to look to artists in places like Berlin and São Paulo and to use Dallas’ available space to their advantage. Outside the glow of New York, Chicago has always fostered a DIY art culture of pop-up spaces and apartment galleries. Lapthisophon thinks a similar attitude and energy can exist here.
“There’s always going to be a kind of old guard who defines the scene,” he says. “But the other way is to hustle and scrape and do something of substance. You sink or swim based on whether it is good enough.”
In the past few years, Dallas’ underground artist culture has flourished precisely by following this dictate, with some of the best exhibitions staged by artists who take over vacant storefronts and warehouses. It has transformed how this city’s art scene functions. Lapthisophon believes that change is irreversible.
“There are ways in which Dallas is the same scene that happens everywhere,” he says. “But I think that certain channels, once they get opened, they don’t close up. It is not that some things are sustainable. When you change the language of the discussion, it makes thinking different.”