Unpacking the Dallas Scene’s Disproportionate Art World Influence
The Coasts may often scoff at Dallas’s higher-the-hair attitude, labeling its tendencies as money-flashing at its most conspicuous. But, against those odds, the city has recently become an American arts destination—and one that looks fresher and more fortified than many of the culture capitals flanking Ol’ Glory’s oceans.
That’s not to say Dallas is a stranger to contemporary art. Insiders have long whispered about its red-hot market, well-funded institutions, and surreptitious yet far-reaching influence. A triumvirate of Dallas collectors were, for many years, the only names associated with the city: the Rachofskys, the Roses, and the Hoffmans. But, while Howard and Cindy, Deedie and Rusty, and Marguerite (continuing on without her late husband, Robert) are still crucial to the scene—Gutai would never have known the Guggenheim, nor Sigmar Polke the MoMA, nor even Gerhard Richter his soaring prices without them—the art world in the Big D has grown so substantially in recent years, it needn’t rely just on its Big Three.
“What seems unusual about the collectors in Dallas is that they work together as one group to make the Dallas art scene a better place,” says Kenny Goss, a mega-force in the communal collecting collective, who spearheads MTV Re:Define, a charitable arts-and-music endeavor that, now in its third year, is a crucial component to what’s now referred to as Dallas Arts Week, an intermingling of arts events, which sum up the city’s scene. There’s the seventh edition of the Dallas Art Fair, which hosts 90 international and local galleries and a slew of philanthropic galas, plus exhibitions timed to be unveiled synchronously at the city’s premiere institutions. The short-list of those includes the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA), the Nasher Sculpture Center, Southern Methodist University (SMU)’s Meadows Museum, and Dallas Contemporary.
At the helm of the DMA stands much-discussed director Maxwell Anderson, a Harvard scholar with a flair for retooling how a museum is managed (something which has run him into trouble and out of New York; though his successes in Dallas have certainly quieted the haters). He notes that “Dallas is very fortunate to have such a concentration of arts institutions and arts talent, and any city would be grateful for a comparable pool of organizations and people.” Beyond the museum walls, there are the private foundations. Forget not that Dallas is a town where philanthropy is sport, and arts patronage is deeply ingrained within the upper echelons of society. Deedie Rose oversees The Pump House, a converted water station housing her acquisitions that opens up for social soirees. Howard Rachofsky created The Warehouse for the public display of his over 9,000-work-strong collection of Arte Povera, Gutai, and Minimalism. And younger collector Alden Pinnell has his Power Station, a contemporary outpost for edgier artists.
“We’re beginning to see collaboration between foundations and institutions,” continues Goss. “For example, we’re bringing Michael Craig-Martin to Dallas and working with various public and private institutions and the city of Dallas to exhibit his work in unique sites through the year.” The overlap is partnership on all sides. Chris Byrne, who co-founded the Dallas Art Fair, adds: “It’s impossible not to acknowledge the Dallas patrons and institutions that made the fair possible. We are fortunate to have the Ei Arakawa performance at the DMA, the Power Station’s reception for Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, as well as Dallas Contemporary’s opening of David Salle and Nate Lowman.”
"Melvin Edwards: Five Decades" at the Nasher Sculpture Center. Courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center.
In fact, one thing remarked upon by any arts professional working in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is this jointed relationship. Christen Wilson, who along with her husband Derek sits on the DMA and Nasher boards, the International Council of the Tate Modern, and the Met’s Costume Institute, represents this younger wave of Dallas collectors. “Dallas is friendly and caring about their community,” she says. “The older generation of collectors actively mentors the younger generation of collectors. It gives us all a pass-it-on kind of a feeling.” The weaving of patronage and institutional support certainly is the backbone of what has catapulted Dallas into the national consciousness. “We actually have fun here and it is not a competition,” continues Wilson, remarking on a quality readily identified as making Dallas unique. However, the city’s art scene doesn’t begin and end with the robust funnel between patron’s pockets and the museum’s walls.
Any thriving art scene needs one thing to be considered a scene: artists. Dallas may not be Miami or Detroit, where the derelict urban landscapes breed cheap rents and endless experimentation, but it does have a supportive art gallery system, as well as independently working artists and those within residencies, such as CentralTrak, the University of Texas’s consistently excellent program. “People are pretty savvy,” explains Barry Whistler, who for 20 years or so lead the development of the Deep Ellum neighborhood as Dallas’s unofficial gallery district (not to be confused with the city-funded Dallas Arts District, wherein the museums are housed.) “There’s a sophistication level that gets our artists shown here and in places out there. There’s an undercurrent, too, that can link the city to Marfa and Donald Judd.” says Whistler, whose own roster is a mix of Dallas-based artists and others who live on the coasts. With stalwarts like Conduit Gallery and Talley Dunn—who represents local art star David Bates and rising one Jeff Elrod—and alluring project spaces like The Reading Room and The Public Trust, “major dealers around the world began to come to Dallas to both investigate what’s happening here but also to engage in our community seeking exhibition opportunities for their own artists,” chimes in Goss.
It’s not just the galleries promoting local talent. Artists, too, have created their own collectives with project spaces, such as BEEFHAUS, Homeland Security, and Vice Palace, a space created by Arthur Peña, who as the Dallas Observer dubbed “easily runs some of the best shows in Dallas.” Whistler adds, “there’s been an interesting trend of artists coming in and renting a space for, say, two weeks,” citing the star of his own roster, Nathan Green, as being instrumental in the artist community—he is part of the collective Okay Mountain—especially in the neighborhood Trinity Grove, where he shares a studio with four other artists.
It’s also not solely on the creative side that artists are championing each other. When Oliver Francis Gallery (OFG.XXX) relaunched in Deep Ellum, it billed itself as a bit of an enfant terrible of the independent art spaces. Kevin Rubén Jacobs, who overlords the project, touts a distinctly Dallas-Fort Worth-based artist regime, and has ignited and elevated the critical conversation. Another leading local, Michael Mazurek, spearheads the artist-driven and non-profit Dallas Biennial, which for DB14, held last year, hosted a four-month program in over 12 venues across the city. “Don’t forget that this town has grown because we have all worked together,” urges Wilson. “As museums, curators and private project spaces have all increased and improved through private and city investments, the artists coming to show are more acclaimed and have international followings, that has led to an increased base of collectors in Dallas. That in turn has brought more gallery interest. This all feeds on itself.”