Friday, February 23, 2024 Feb 23, 2024
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The Fire Marshal Wants to Shut Down Our Party

The arts community is feeling the heat as the city cracks down on illicit gatherings.
By Peter Simek |

Dallas had planned one hell of a New Year’s Eve. All throughout the city, in loft apartments, repurposed storefronts, and empty warehouses—the kind of neglected, forgotten places with which this city virtually teems—a new cohort of young, entrepreneurial cultural organizers was planning parties that mixed art and music, performance and spectacle. Well before the clock struck midnight, however, all of these parties were shut down, victims of an amped-up code enforcement effort spearheaded by the Dallas fire marshal.

It was only the beginning. Over the past five years or so, Dallas had begun to foster a new kind of cultural identity for itself, as artists and cultural promoters took advantage of reclaimed or temporary spaces, rethinking the roles of traditional galleries, and staging events that deliberately cross-pollinated the worlds of music, art, and theater. But in the months following the New Year’s Eve crackdown, the fire marshal’s office continued to shut down these kinds of events, eventually expanding its enforcement efforts toward established art galleries, acclaimed theater groups, and even patron-run art spaces.

Why had the fire marshal embarked on what felt like a vigilante mission against the city’s art scene? And would Dallas’ recently revived cultural gusto survive the ordeal?

While the events of New Year’s Eve came to symbolize the beginning of the great code crackdown of 2016, it all began months earlier, in spring 2015, when the fire marshal busted an illegal rooftop gathering in the Design District after receiving a complaint from a neighbor. Over the next few weeks and months, more tips came in. Dallas Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal Christopher Martinez says his department began to recognize a trend in galleries and other art spaces staging events that violated the terms of their certificates of occupancy, or COs. A few new staff members became intrepid sleuths in the hunt for these illicit gatherings, using social media and following members of the local press to track events, then sending out code compliance officers to double-check the galleries’ permits.

Arts organizers were caught off guard. Erin Cluley was told she needed to add a second bathroom if she wanted to host receptions in her eponymous West Dallas gallery. Kitchen Dog Theater moved its New Works Festival to the Undermain Theatre after code issues emerged with its Design District home. What made the situation confusing was that the stepped-up enforcement came after years in which the city had otherwise turned a blind eye to the arts community’s activity. Thomas Riccio, a theater director, producer, and professor of performance and aesthetic studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, says that he staged productions in abandoned West Dallas warehouses for years without any real interference from the fire marshal or city building inspectors.

“When the fire marshal came to visit us and saw we had a plan for exits and got illuminated exit signs, they were happy,” Riccio says. “And it was like a ‘come see the show’ type of thing.”

When Jordan Roth opened his Ro2 Gallery on Akard Street in 2011, he was told that the downtown zoning didn’t even allow for an art gallery, so he simply held on to the previous tenant’s CO in case an inspector ever came knocking. That never happened, but soon after moving to The Cedars this past year, Roth showed up one morning to find a code compliance officer waiting to inspect the space. That kick-started a few weeks of bureaucratic headaches, as Roth dug through city archives looking for old permits, received conflicting information from city officials, feared shutdown because of his lack of a second bathroom, and eventually found his way to a city staff member who could issue Roth the proper CO for his use.

Roth’s experience is illustrative of some of the complications that art spaces face in Dallas. The way the code is written, it can be confusing to figure out exactly what kind of zoning fits the function of a commercial gallery. And temporary permits are not designed for artists looking to adapt and reuse vacant spaces—plus, they can take a long time to obtain and carry hidden costs.

One solution is to change the way city ordinances are written, says Mark Housewright, a zoning consultant and former Dallas city councilman. Housewright has been engaged by the owners of Trinity Groves to look at how the city could improve permitting for temporary art events, and he likens the situation to the one faced by local brewers a few years ago. The city’s code was designed for major industrial brewers, which made it difficult for mom-and-pop shops to operate. Once the city changed the code, Dallas experienced a small-brewery renaissance.

Housewright isn’t the only one looking for ways to make the city’s ordinances support the arts community. Since taking over as executive director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs in May, Jennifer Scripps has served as a mediator between city staff and the arts community, hosting public information meetings, connecting gallery owners with the right staff members to navigate code compliance, and working with arts groups on special events permits. Scripps says the biggest challenge is education. To that end, she has created a new position at the OCA, a staff member who will be able to advise and advocate for artists and arts groups.

“I have seen all of the silos evaporated,” Scripps says of the city’s response to increased enforcement. “And I have had meetings with code, building inspection, the OCA, the fire department—all working on this. Everyone is trying to make government work for the arts.”

Some artists, who were afraid to speak on the record for fear of drawing attention to their organizing efforts, see it differently. They point out that for a number of years, the fire marshal chose not to chase down pop-up art events. That policy seemed to be a reflection of a general attitude that valued the arts community over the need to enforce the letter of the law. Riccio compares the situation to jaywalking. Even though there are jaywalking laws on the books, their enforcement is usually left to the discretion of the officer.

“It’s a matter of how you read the law and how you want to enforce it,” Riccio says.

Scripps says that after looking into the fire marshal’s reports, she believes he isn’t targeting the arts. Churches, gyms, and other spaces have also found themselves under increased scrutiny this past year. Ultimately, the whole issue boils down to safety. Moving forward, Scripps believes that a streamlined permitting process and improved communication between the arts community and the city will strengthen a vibrant—and safer—cultural scene.

Still, there is little question that a year of increased enforcement has had its effect. There have been fewer pop-up exhibitions, house galleries have closed, and parties have moved into established music venues or further underground. This could be part of the natural cycle of the art scene, or the enforcement could simply be part of the growing pains of Dallas’ increasingly vibrant cultural landscape.

But Arthur Peña, an artist and SMU visiting lecturer who has hosted numerous parties in empty warehouses all over Dallas, wonders what Dallas would look like if it hadn’t enjoyed the honeymoon of its “dangerous” years, during which the city’s burgeoning art scene stayed beneath the fire marshal’s radar.

“What is scary to think about is that Oliver Francis Gallery couldn’t have happened, the Dallas Biennial couldn’t have happened,” Peña says. “When people ask, ‘What does DIY mean?’ I say, ‘Dallas is yours.’ This is not just about losing spaces. There is a sort of disruption in the agency over creative output that artists had—that they have lost or has been altered.”

As we head into 2017, the question is: can they ever get it back?

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