Feature: Wednesday, July 30, 2003
What The Hell

You can lead a cowboy to art, but you can,t make him buy it.

By Anthony Mariani Photos by Kes Gilhome

“... I saw the image of a swan flying over to the site, bringing something to this place. The swan would bring something that gives birth to something larger than itself.”

— Tadao Ando, architect of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Easily the biggest, most unabashed middle finger to the pseudo-cultural, canned environment of downtown can be found next to the front entrance of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, on Darnell Street. It is “Vortex,” sculptor Richard Serra’s economic 67-foot steel poem to rust. You can take the piece as it is — a simple though utterly high-minded masterstroke in which a phenomenon as chaotic as decay is essentially corralled, organized, and given structure. The California artist, whose latter-day, large-scale work would crown any museum’s collection — or at least any museum’s assemblage of outdoor pieces — said that with “Vortex” he wanted to provide a drastic contrast to the Modern’s ethereal horizontality, for the sake of balance. The conceptual result, when taken in from Darnell, is a double-headed reminder to passersby that a city as in love with cheap entertainment as Cowtown is may not be as backward as it seems. “Vortex,” in its context, implies upward thinking, as if the piece were funneling the hopes of the museum skyward, to a level of reality where everyone not only accepted modern and contemporary and, consequently, challenging art but understood it. Fort Worth’s convoluted, confused, ugly skyscrapers, in the background, look on in envy. The implicit meaning in “Vortex” and its location next to Tadao Ando’s beautiful box — that conservatism doesn’t necessarily hinder free thinking — might prove strong enough to alter the immediate arts landscape. Some day, just not now.

What exists in Fort Worth is a disconnect between the fine visual arts community and Joe Public. This disconnect is a weird, shapeless microverse where artists and art lovers mostly talk only to other artists and art lovers, in their language and on their turf, while the folks who regularly tool around Sundance Square mostly keep to themselves and remain oblivious if not downright hostile toward anything visually stimulating (on canvas, not in tight jeans). That Fort Worth is a place where a person can go from world-class rodeo to three centrally located world-class museums — the visual arts community’s philosophical headquarters, the Modern, plus the Kimbell Art Museum and the Amon Carter Museum — makes this disconnect even more pronounced than what you’d find in any other American city. A Warhol or Rothko looks even more intimidating than normal when figuratively set against the backdrop of a honkytonk. Similarly, a Tommy Alverson or Bob Wills song sounds just that much more country when figuratively heard throughout the Modern’s cold confines. The result is that what gives Fort Worth its unique flavor, its ability to accommodate great visual art and great barbecue, is also what splits the city’s personality. Schizophrenic could be the word we’re looking for here.

And this disconnect doesn’t just appear to be wide — it is wide.

The visual art hanging in Fort Worth’s museums and the art coming out of Fort Worth’s neighborhoods is indisputably of supreme quality. We all hear the stories of friends and neighbors who warm their boot tops by the idea that, by God, there’s tangible culture in Cowtown. But we never really see any of these folks, especially young and respectably financial ones, actually looking at art or, worse for artists, buying it. Unlike New Yorkers and Angelenos, who have bought art for years (sometimes merely out of a sense of obligation), most Fort Worthians seem to have had their art-collecting gene excised.

Equally beyond these folks’ consideration is becoming acquainted with a painting or sculpture. Like the fine visual art in any city, the art here, in the outsider’s opinon, swings its opulent baggage around like a Hollywood pin-up in a four-star hotel — the suggestion is that not only must you have read the Art 101 textbook before entering the gallery or museum, you must know and assume the appropriate pose (e.g., dress urban retro, avoid eye contact, reference Derrida randomly).

Only a handful of Fort Worthians, those who populate the openings and take part in the art-specific goings-on in town, have braved the initiation rituals to become certified members of the Fort Worth Arty Army. Unfortunately, part of their job, it seems, is to keep outsiders out. Get crazy and spend a couple of weeks cruising the serious-art galleries and museums and behaving according to code, and you’ll eventually learn most of these soldiers’ faces. The Arty Army may be small, but it’s mighty mighty. It’s kept interlopers out this long; it must be doing something “right.”

The communication breakdown between the arts community and Joe Public poses problems for both: If the Heartland America epitomized by Sundance Square and the Stockyards is going to thrive, its constituents must support the arts, especially fine visual art, which is what is most bountiful here — or watch businesses relocate to cities where there’s better “quality of life.” And if fine visual art is going to not only thrive but survive, its constituents must find new audiences, especially audiences of potential lifelong appreciators and collectors. Hint: They’re not hanging out at the Coffee Haus. Try the Railhead or City Streets.

But some bridges are being built. The architects of these cultural connectors are local artists of various “schools” and skill levels, gallery owners and curators, museums (kinda), and an unlikely participant — local government.

And it’s about time. Compared to the funding that the arts receive in other comparably sized cities, local government support for the arts here “falls down,” according to Flora Maria Garcia, director of the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, which recently studied the problem. Local apparatchiks, working with the people behind local visual arts institutions, seem to have finally realized the importance of investing long-term in the visual arts, primarily by helping museums and, indirectly, galleries generate new audiences. Perhaps city officials read the recent report by the Dallas Business Committee for the Arts that estimated the economic impact of the non-profit and commercial arts in Fort Worth at more than $200 million annually over the past three years. Talk about cash.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport knows art’s financial clout — the airport’s International Terminal D Art Program, in which a minimum of 27 grand, human, and environmental public art works, primarily by local artists, will be installed over the next few months, wasn’t created merely to beautify space and spread the art gospel but to make travelers want to spend more time — and money — in International Terminal D. Same with the Arlington Museum of Art — its director and curators know that if their wonderful gallery-as-museum is going to compete with galleries and museums to the east and west, it’s going to have to get bigger and better, hence the museum’s current facelift.

Here in Fort Worth, city officials, while maybe not so carefree with a checkbook, are somewhat receptive to the types of new ideas that will strengthen the visual arts on an institutional level, with the hope that a trickle-down effect will strengthen the grassroots visual arts community likewise, because the institutional and grassroots arts communities feed off each other. The city has encouraged the completion of the new Modern, the expansion of the Amon Carter, and the transformation of Our Lady of Victory Catholic School building into the Victory Arts Center. The city has also allowed the arts council to manage the city-owned old Modern building and turn part of this Cultural District structure into a community gallery space, all of it going under the name The Fort Worth Community Arts Center. (Since the arts council moved in last fall, it has watched 14 other local arts organizations, as renters, move in behind it.) And the city is getting involved financially — it helped fund the Victory Arts Center transformation, and a few months ago the council agreed to set aside 2 percent of all future capital improvement bond issue funds for public art, to be administered by a public art commission. (Art in public places pleases those who already appreciate it, makes the city a hipper place in which to live and work, and exposes art to those who might not otherwise see it.) There’s a long history of philanthropic arts support in this city, said Joe Paniagua, assistant city manager. The city has just now “recognized that we can do some other things to enhance the quality of life in this community.”

Another talked-about city program — whose potential impact should be significant, though less immediate — is the redesign of the Cultural District, where Fort Worth’s three world-class museums are located. The goal is to turn the ramshackle areas along Camp Bowie and University into a pedestrian-friendly mini-city, with trees and old-fashioned street lamps on the sidewalks, old-world façades on the storefronts, grassy public spaces everywhere, and information kiosks designed by local artists in high-traffic locales. The thinking is that the Cultural District is still a little grungy and that it’s going to need a makeover if the district’s institutional inhabitants, like the museums, are ever going to seem welcoming to new crowds, from children to senior citizens to ... art-leery, moneyed Joe Publics in 10-gallon lids.

The burden of building cross-cultural bridges rests with the visual arts community. The pervading thought here and across the state is that fine visual art, and art in general, is a luxury, not a need. Texas spends 18 cents per citizen on the arts, placing our huge, oddly shaped mini-country last among the country’s 56 states and territories. (The national median for state funding is $1.44 per citizen.) If not for the myriad philanthropists who’ve long supported the arts in this neck of the woods, the visual arts landscape would probably look pretty post-apocalyptic — not that Joe Public would notice.

One thing’s for sure: Don’t expect Fort Worth’s fine art museums to follow the leads of other world-class visual arts institutions and go populist. The Modern, for one, would probably have to collapse before chief curator Michael Auping allowed its space to be occupied by motorcycles or a large benefactor’s clothing designs. “We’re a contemporary art museum,” said Auping. “We do things with artists in mind. It’s natural to the art community. All we show is new and weird, and the natural audience for new and weird is artists.” The benefit of getting new audiences, for the Big Three, doesn’t seem enough to justify compromising quality or taste. Entertaining and educating people is important; showing art in contemplative spaces is simply more important.

The fine art museums are relying on other, more subtle ways of attracting new faces and keeping old faces smiling. The Modern regularly watches its doors swing open to the hungry masses who go to eat at its white-tablecloth restaurant. A film series, an extensive book store, art camps for children and adults, and the museum’s relatively popular Tuesday night lectures have also kept those doors a-swinging. Standing by its long-time free-admission policy, said Auping, has been key in keeping foot traffic in the building high.

The Amon Carter — the most sincerely populist of the Big Three, since it focuses on friendly, accessible regional art — seems to have been made for young people and children. A concerted push to mine this demographic is what’s behind the museum’s intense education department. Stepping firmly into the internet age, the museum recently built a web page that elaborated on an Eliot Porter exhibit; another web page was constructed to allow for expansion on a recent Erwin E. Smith show. The Amon Carter also probably has the best working relationship with area teachers — the museum’s teacher-teaching programs, “Evenings for Educators,” get educators in the door while its Teaching Resource Center, a mini-multi-purpose library, keeps them there.

Surprisingly, the Kimbell, while not trading its integrity for a coin, seems a little more adventurous than the Modern and the Amon Carter in trying to attract newbies. In addition to the museum’s art camps, restaurant, book store, “Artist’s Eye” series, in which local artists give tours of the permanent collection, and the museum’s “Artful Readings” book club, the Kimbell is assembling a show, “Stubbs and the Horse,” on artist George Stubbs’ paintings of horses, to coincide with the 2004 Stock Show and Rodeo. “We never get folks from the Stock Show,” said Mindy Riesenberg, Kimbell marketing and media relations coordinator. “And it’s right next door.” The museum will also begin incorporating musical performances, specific to certain shows, into regular programming.

Populism is what the Community Arts Center is for. Instead of a curator or two, a group of curators, comprising local artists and art appreciators, selects and arranges exhibits. The Arts Advisory Committee’s first effort, “The 39 Hour Show,” was the result of invitations sent to 150 Metroplex artists to submit moderately sized works. Nearly 550 artists responded — a rate any pollster would kill for. The few hundred people who viewed the show throughout its opening on Spring Gallery Night were also treated to a less adventurous though no less earnest exhibit one door down. One of the artists who rents space from the center piggybacked on the curated exhibit and opened his doors to the “39 Hour” fans who might be interested in his still lifes. Like the work in “The 39 Hour Show,” his sweet-natured paintings are still there. His doors are still open, and they’ll likely stay open for as long as he pays the rent. That’s populism at work.

Even more than the museums, the arts council desperately wants to create new, younger audiences. This is why director Garcia recently started writing a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts. If funded as proposed — at $2 million over two years, matched by another $2 million to be raised by the arts council — the grant will make money available to local arts organizations for programs aimed at attracting different age, ethnic, and social groups. The time is ripe: Two weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the addition of $10 million to the $117 million already budgeted for the NEA. A little bit of that stash is all Garcia is asking for.

The council also plans on constructing classrooms in the basement of the building (once the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History removes the artifacts it stores there), while continuing to host those swanky cocktail parties for which the organization has been derided and attempting to devise programming around citywide events, like Day of the Dead and the Stock Show. The arts council will undertake all of this while spearheading the public art initiative, Fort Worth’s first, and, if the NEA grant comes through, providing cash to local arts groups interested in generating new crowds.

As long as the museums continue upholding the merits of Art-with-a-capital-A, and the Big Three probably will, a little populism won’t hurt. It’s actually what’s expected from a place like the arts council, a nonprofit agency that is partially funded by local government. City bigwigs want some sort of return on their investment. Telling them that the citizenry is becoming more sophisticated through frequent brushes with serious art won’t cut it. The primary language government understands is one of dollars and cents. Getting people in the museum or theater doors is all city officials really care about. There’s a certain wisdom that says that people, especially young folks, don’t want to dress up for arts events and don’t want to see or hear the same stuff their grandparents saw and heard. Leave it to at least one non-profit, arts-loving group like the arts council to reach these people by gently twisting art’s inherent insider-ness into something accessible.

You really don’t want every group taking this approach. Once art goes pop, it loses what makes it art in the first place, its ability to make viewers contemplate Big Ideas. It becomes entertainment, like what comes from radio or tv or the internet. Being entertained or educated or “edutained” truly isn’t why people go to galleries or museums — it’s (hopefully) to be enlightened, on intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual levels. There’s nothing wrong with being elitist or anti-pop about art. The beauty of being an art snob today is that everyone can be one. It’s not just the province of rich or aristocratic folks. All that’s required is an interest in and willingness to fall in love with something. Look at a Dallas Cowboys fan: He expects excellence. The standards he holds his favorite football team to closely resemble the standards snobs hold art to. To demand high quality is wonderfully elitist; turning your nose up at “mongrel” or “non-certified” forms is just mean.

Some grassroots artists have let the poor economic climate sap them of their strength; others have been inventive in finding new ways to appeal to not only different, new crowds but just crowds. Showing in non-traditional spaces, like coffee houses, bars, and on the sides of buildings, in mural form, is what a few workaday artists have been doing these past couple of years, just to get their names out. Teaching, always good for keeping an artist’s frenetic hands occupied, is another avenue some local artists have been taking, all the way to a place where some kind of appreciation of their work exists. The main objective of the artist as teacher isn’t just to turn scribblers into Picassos; it’s to create among students an ability to think creatively and develop an awareness of art. The void left by cuts in arts education spending actually looks like a boon to local arts groups, institutions, and artists — think of all the untrained eyes out there that need to be whipped into shape. And who better to teach Johnny how to paint or how to look at a painting than a professional, working artist?

In terms of sheer mass, Gallery Night is still the grassroots artist’s best friend and the most significant introduction to fine visual arts that Fort Worth’s civilian population has. The event has grown from an annual get-together among patrons and friends of a handful of art-friendly spaces, most located on the West Side, to one of Fort Worth’s strongest retail events, according to William Campbell, owner of William Campbell Contemporary Art and president of the Fort Worth Art Dealers Association, a nonprofit group that has organized Gallery Night annually for the last 25 years. No one who gives a damn about proper socializing goes a spring or fall season without swilling boxed wine throughout the 20-plus art-friendly spaces that usually participate. Campbell said that an accurate headcount of attendees is nearly impossible, given the drop-in nature of the event and the fact that many people, as intended, hit a number of galleries. So let’s be presumptuous and say that anyone who’s lived in Fort Worth for more than two years and whose idea of a good time doesn’t involve chugging beer from a keg while doing a headstand has probably attended one or two Gallery Nights. That’s a lot of eyeballs.

It’s largely understood that Gallery Night isn’t particularly a time to buy or sell — what with all the conversations that need attending to and connections that need reinforcing, who has time to actually settle in one gallery long enough to write a check? Gallery Night is more like a time to call up your favorite girl or guy, enjoy a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant, and then mingle, baby. Gallery Night revelers who want to make a purchase usually return within the week after the event, said Campbell. Usually, he doesn’t see the rest of the revelers until the next year.

The work on display, while almost always exceptional and almost always local, is typically pretty conservative. Appealing to insiders and outsiders demands accessible work, naturally. What happens during the rest of the year is a better indication of the bounty of grassroots visual art here — there’s everything from portraits of puppies to sculptures made of junkyard scrap. Mainstream and experimental work both have the potential to reach new audiences — albeit different new audiences. Mainstream or “smooth art,” the visual equivalent of smooth jazz, presents an idealized image of what immature art appreciators consider “real” art, landscapes filled with bluebonnets or neon-tinged prints of James Dean standing in front of a diner, stuff that’s easily digestible. (Frankly, it’s scary, the number of smooth art galleries in town.) Experimental art, especially the kind that spins the effluvium of pop culture into golden tapestries, like the work of Bill Haveron or Benito Huerta, can speak clearly in the type of vernacular that a pop-culture saturated viewer can readily understand, possibly forcing him to reflect on or reconfigure his cultural priorities. These two types of art can help introduce immature art appreciators to what is historically thought as serious, “good” work, which, let it be said, can be either beautifully poppish, like Haveron’s or Huerta’s, or beautifully academic, like Dennis Blagg’s or Vernon Fisher’s. We all hope that once potential collectors’ eyes mature, these folks will want to patronize the museums and the galleries where serious art hangs.

Where exactly these potential collectors are going to go is a good question. The number of serious galleries has remained steady at about seven for the past 10 years. The city’s growing population, seen in relation to the small number of visual arts venues here, seems to suggest that this town can accommodate more viewing spaces. Forget the idea that the Big Three cover that territory well enough to do away with the need for new galleries: Museum art isn’t for sale. Thus Fort Worth’s nonprofit galleries, like Four Walls, Gallery 414, and the Community Arts Center, should be commended for helping keep interest in grassroots visual arts strong and, certainly, for providing professional spaces for serious artists to try new things — “research and development,” according to Jim Malone, artist and co-curator with Janet Tyson of Four Walls. Without these spaces, a world of James Dean prints would be the serious art appreciator’s fate, and a more lackluster grassroots art market than even thought possible would announce itself.

Geography could also have something to do with the dearth of grassroots galleries here. There’s no centralized locale where artists and galleries can coexist peacefully, like in New York City’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Everything here is spread out (this being Texas and all). Working on an island, like the good folks at Four Walls, among the largely deserted warehouses of North Main, has got to be discouraging. Big shout-out to the indomitable spirit of these artists and art lovers and their kindred souls.

What isn’t discouraging is that the art has never looked better. Artists, gallery owners, and curators attribute the growing amount of quality “local” art to a few things. One is interconnectedness (Auping said, “We all get our copy of Artforum at the same time”), the idea that an artist toiling in Fort Worth can be inspired by or merely follow work happening across the globe, thanks to the internet and the proliferation of art-related magazines. Another possible explanation involves the idea that it’s socially acceptable for adventurous souls to dedicate themselves to a career in the visual arts; rebellion is admirable, and there’s no more rebellious form of behavior than making art.

A final explanation rests on the possibility that visual arts education in Texas has gotten better over the past 10 to 15 years. Teachers have learned not to present something as tactile as visual art to students in an old-fashioned, memorize-then-test way. What works, according to Ric Hernandez, director of the Texas Commission for the Arts, a nonprofit group based in Austin that provides support for public schools and arts groups across the state, isn’t showing videos of artists or artmaking to kids and then asking them what they thought; what works is getting students involved in the artmaking process. “We’ve got to be hands-on,” Hernandez said.

So where are all the collectors? Some are spending their hard-earned dollars on investments whose rewards are instantly gratifying, like jet skis. Others, like collectors for corporations, are simply running out of disposable income. Most are convalescing in the back rows of Bass Performance Hall. Folks upset over the state of the visual arts here tend to blame the scarcity of young and adventurous collectors on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, chiefly for forcing its art “critics” to resist interpreting work in favor of documenting it, not realizing that if a reader is already predisposed to disliking a canvas with red stripes on a black background he’s not going to want to go to a museum to see a canvas with red stripes on a black background without knowing what those red stripes mean.

But the Star-Telegram and national art magazines that ignore Fort Worth — that is, most of them — are only part of the problem. We live in an age in which taking the time to contemplate a piece of art seems luxurious, bourgeois, even burdensome. Innocuous distraction is the native tongue. It’s how we understand relating to members of the opposite sex (shake yo’ ass really well), navigating politics (pay attention to the soundbytes), dealing with problems (follow 12 steps — exactly), and it’s how we understand becoming better human beings (buy numerous self-help books). To a person raised on pop songs, visual art just isn’t where it’s at.

It could be that age and maturity are prerequisites for contemplation. This might explain why most local collectors, a “scattered and secretive” group, according to local artist Daniel Blagg, are over 40. Or maybe the right media aren’t being used to reach young people. Said TCA’s Hernandez: “These kids don’t get their information from the same places we do. They get it from word-of-mouth, posters, little rags, radio.”

The bottom line could be that some locals either don’t know that there’s quality artwork here in their backyard or they don’t care. Everybody wisecracks that folks who belong to Fort Worth’s relatively small group of collectors generally buy art while on vacation in New York or Los Angeles or some other cosmopolis, never right down the street. The belief that “real” art comes from places loaded with artistic history must be strong enough to warp otherwise sturdy brains.

You might also blame the visual arts world itself for the ennui among young folks toward the visual arts. Joe Public, thanks to what’s been shouted at him his entire life, from teachers and critics like me, no longer knows what to make of his art-viewing experiences. He’s been told so often that art is “good” for him that he becomes easily disappointed when his art-viewing experiences don’t resemble the strong ones his friends may have or that I sometimes attempt to describe for you within these pages. That’s where the trouble begins: In trying to promote the intellectual and emotional virtues of art, we art-world types could be unwittingly pushing too hard to get even the slightest reaction from the unwashed. The truth is that there’s more to life than art — of this, I’m about 99 percent certain.

And the museums, stately and nerdy, keep their distance. The Modern is an especially strong source of ire for a small vocal majority of local art lovers — the building looks too aloof, the museum itself is marking the beginning of the end of the Cultural District’s grungy character, the permanent collection doesn’t contain enough minority or Texas artists. Now about the permanent collection, here’s a riff: A museum’s backbone, said Auping, is its permanent collection. The Modern’s backbone delivers a double-headed message: We here at the Modern want you, the viewer, to feel as if you’re in a Fort Worth, Texas-based museum, hence the Dennis Blaggs, the Vernon Fishers, and the Brian Fridges, and we also want you to feel as if you can leave this museum and then go into any museum in the world and not feel intimidated, because you’ve gotten a real taste of quality contemporary and modern artwork.

One day in the Modern not too long ago, Auping stood in front of one of Dennis Blagg’s moody landscapes and began contemplating. He then said, “You need something like this to tell you you’re in Texas. We want things in the gallery that bring you back — this is Texas.” The landscape could have been of someplace in Nevada, for all that was available on the canvas. The title of the piece, “Passover,” wasn’t any help, either. Only one type of person, it seems, would have felt the same elation Auping felt while viewing this piece. A person familiar with the name Dennis Blagg and with the artist’s proclivity for painting hyper-realist works of Texas’ Big Bend area. A person like another local artist.

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