By Brittany Davenport
The city of Dallas issued a call for artists to take on new public art initiatives, according to a recent press release, but the simply worded statement hides a controversy on the local arts scene. The city’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) received 257 applications in response to its call for “emerging artists interested in working on new public art commissions.” The OCA narrowed these down to a list of 50 “pre-qualified” applicants, artists who will remain on that list for the next two years. During that time, they will be invited to workshops about project development, budgeting, procedures and working with fabricators. Though this sounds extraordinarily well-planned, there are still questions that need to be asked.
Many controversies have surrounded the problem of Dallas public art. There is somewhat of a “local or nothing” mentality among those who commission the art, and conversely, there are those who feel the city would benefit from artists outside of Dallas bringing in a fresh outlook. Since the initial criteria required artists to live within a 150-mile radius of Dallas, it is reasonable to assume that the latest project falls into the former category. This would not be as much of an issue if Dallas did not have a recent history of floundering in its encouragement of local art.
“The most obvious example, although I’m sure the artists are tired of talking about it, is the White Rock [Lake Wildlife Water] Theater created by Frances Bagley and Tom Orr,” said Lauren Smart, arts and culture editor at the Dallas Observer, who recently wrote on the OCA’s call for artists. “There were months when the city was voting on whether or not to raze it to save on money, which is representative of the city’s trend to commission, install, forget about, and then have to remove pieces of public art.”
According to Drema Chavez, a public art coordinator at the OCA, these concerns can be put aside.
“The maintenance and conservation of all the artwork in the permanent collection is a primary concern,” she said.
It is true that there appears to be a push to plan these upcoming projects better than previous ones. Smart noted that many of the artists on the list were well-known and excellent artists from the area.
“I was greatly impressed by the list of pre-qualified artists compiled by the public art commission. The 50 artists on the list are some of the best in Dallas,” she said. “I’d love to see this used as a way for the artists to gain visibility, not just a way for the city to spruce up an ugly parking meter or water plant.”
This would no doubt involve art designed to complement and integrate the space it is placed within.
“All projects are approached with the purpose of being an essential and complementary element to the site for which it is commissioned,” Chavez said in response.
There are six commissions already on track for 2015. The OCA called for artists who have “little or no experience with public art,” and there is some concern that these artists will be involved in projects they are unprepared to manage. Will the workshops be enough to overcome their inexperience?
“The intention of the meeting we have planned is to inform the artists of the public art process, how a selection is made, how a typical project is managed,” Chavez said. “We hope it will provide some guidance on how to manage their project. The artists will be notified of each initiated project and they will have the opportunity to apply to the project if they are interested. Those applications will be reviewed – and a finalist selected – by an artist selection panel.”
Jeff Gibbons, one of the artists on the list, stated that he does not have any concerns about the program. He has previously focused on video and installation art, and is considering how those interests will translate into public art.
“I’m interested in object-based installations as well, but video would definitely be something I might think about for a public work,” he said. “The work would be born from the space, and that’s a way of working I enjoy.”
“Sociology and psychology are often somewhere in the work, and being able to complete larger-scaled installations that are able to interact with the body in ways that acknowledge one’s position in the world is something I’d enjoy exploring,” Gibbons continued. “Anything that could elicit a connection to the ineffable…I’m necessarily interested in conveying personal opinions or ideals, just to make little openings in existence where some interesting stuff can get through,” he said.
Gibbons added that he is very happy to be on the pre-qualified list.