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D-Art & The MAC Subindex

 D-Art vs. the Bathhouse

& Other Dallas
Art Organization Stories

from Texas Arts Revue #9
Summer / Fall 1982

Interview with D-Art Founder Mary Ward below
Another Ward quote
concludes the article.


Much like the icebergs floating on the walls of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the business of Dallas art is only partially visible, its appearance is deceptively warm, and directionless movement is often obscured by incremental progress.

What distinguishes art business from other business is that art business can work and never show a profit. A well-run art business not only works, however, but it is mutually beneficial to artists, patrons and administration. How well this is achieved depends on whom you ask.

In an attempt to compare privately funded D-Art with the publicly funded Bath House Cultural Center, it became apparent that what goes on in both cases is probably more peculiar to Dallas art business in general than to either establishment. Marlis Schmidt, a former D-Art volunteer, put it succinctly: "Both are alternatives. Both are strangled by red tape. Neither have defined themselves very well... Neither have met their potential."

Dallas' growing pains and the influx of new people and ideas have not spared the art community. Some Dallas artists are seeing a need for a united political front. Such a need stems from the artist's attempts to get public funding and to establish legal precedents for protecting their ideas and property.

The consensus is that there is a lack of centralized voice in the artistic community and that the artists are not well represented by Dallas art institutions.

Despite its goal to be an alternative to those institutions, D-Art has been criticized on the same grounds for not having artists on its board. The organization has also come under fire for using volunteers in positions that require professional expertise and for lumping professionals with leisure-time artists.

By virtue of its relatively low profile, the Bath House has escaped much of the criticism D-Art has endured. It does, however, suffer from a Red-Tape Worm contracted from Public Money in the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. Due to a case of Limited Budget, programming efforts are left to the responsibility of community artists.

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Private Money vs Public Money is no freshly opened can of worms, nor is the hope that "volunteerism" can assume professional commitment. Texas is known as an art haven of private support, despite its reluctance, or ignorance, in soliciting money from such federal sources as the National Endowment for the Arts.

"Texas was slow to get on the national funding bandwagon with the East and West coasts," acknowledges Patrician Meadows, programming director of D-Art. "We are considered provincial because we just started taking advantage of NEA funding the past six or seven years. The private sector has always felt the need to support the arts... [ for D-Art ] to go with them was a natural step."

Gerald Burns drawing of D-Art  ©1982

Although D-Art has a variety of 'personal problems,' it maintains a cheerful, if not paranoid, front. Much of D-Art occurs on the telephone from a removed, voice-from-nowhere source. It has openings almost every Monday ('Come drink free wine! } and pursues a policy of actively filling every square inch of its 20,000-square-foot interior.

Meadows has been BUSY rounding up all sorts of aesthetic experiences ranging from a show of policeman's art ( May 3-7 ) to an exhibition titled Derangements, that will be comprised of the works of 30 Texas artists.

D-Art offers its artist members 'a gathering place' and a newsletter for an annual fee of $35. Exhibition space, workshops, classes and storage are available for additional fees. Although no private studios exist, they are included in long-range plans.

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The building, at 2917 Swiss Avenue, has all the atmosphere of a federally subsidized clinic. maybe it's the yellow brick, the white walls or the creaky little old ladies who come to sign the register. maybe it's the oil-painted still life propped at the entry on an easel.

"D-Art is not as fru-fru as it sounds," chirped Meadows. "It's not like OBJECT D'art or anything. We like to think of it as a place where Dallas artists can exhibit and work and really be around each other."

Doubtless, all would like to think of it that way. But many do not. Dallas artists involved with The Red Horse Flying Show, ( January 4-30, 1982 ), said they found D-Art painfully unsupportive, uncooperative and unprofessional... "in the end it seemed like they were just women who wanted to hang out with artists," said one contributor.

Among the myriad problems encountered by Pegasus organizers Alison Kraft and Robert Trammell, an uninsured wooden sculpture by Wayne Amerine was damaged by an animated visitor. D-Art had taken out insurance on the show, but it expired before the show was opened. D-Art is taking no responsibility for damages beyond offering the artist $500 for a work valued at $2,500, Kraft said.

Mary Ward at home, portrait ©1982 by John Walker 

Mary Ward, formerly D-Art's executive director, and the person most responsible for its establishment, adopts a diplomatic stance. An eloquent speaker on anything, Ward gestures often, slim fingers often curled around a Winston Light. her glamourous blue gaze and sheet of dark hair bring to mind a 20th Century Cleopatra.

"It's very difficult to separate the concept that began a couple of years ago when D'ART evolved into ... a a group of people who all have very strong opinions of what an art center should be... It is a mistake to look at D-Art and criticize it, because you can stand back and say, 'D-Art is what it is and no more and no less, and it serves part of the community.'

"The error is when you say D-Art serves all needs to all people. it doesn't. No institution does. My concern is how to find out, if that didn't work, ( which it didn't for me ), what is it that does work?"

Mary Ward spoke reluctantly of her controversial departure from the administration at D-Art in early March. "If I expressed my sincere feelings about why I left, I could very well jeopardize [ my ] future future activities in this town. And that's just being very blunt.

"To describe the conditions of my departure would be to bring into focus the very subject that prevents me from saying exactly how I feel about it. I am sorry to be that convoluted about it... Whatever the circumstances were that surrounded my leaving, I think it's best to leave it to the fact that it was a process that was imminent. I had certainly perceived of myself as leaving D-Art... just because of my inability to do the same thing over and over again, day after day, year after year.

"My role had ultimately reached a point where I was taking care of a lot of things that were not my forte in terms of dealing with mundane administrative things. I saw myself as more of an idea person... It was a difficult decision. I don't want to be cagey, but I hope whatever I do, I correct the mistakes I made before."

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The Bath House may not be everyone's answer, but it was designed to provide new alternatives, especially for residents of Lakewood and Lake Highlands. Unlike many City projects, it was not conceived as a recreation center.

"We are not here to initiate programs, and we are somewhat selective... This is not the place for the Dallas Bridge club," quipped Jay Trimble, who is primarily concerned with the performance aspects of the facility.

Original Manager Jayne Hickey, who spent three years ( 1976-79 ) at Art Park in upstate New York, emphasizes the Bath House's potential for outdoor events in its surrounding park on the lake. Art Park's reputation was built on out-door environmental extravaganzas.

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Gerald Burns drawing of The Bath House

The Bath House appears over the last rise of North Cliff Drive like a sudden mirage on glittering White rock Lake. Its massive bleached concrete blocks have had their ground since the mid-20s. The original orange railings and elegant black iron lamp posts stand firmly despite frequent flooding and years of neglect. Some say an attempt to raze the stately structure proved too great a task, even for bulldozers.

Although little recorded history exists about the facility or its architect John Carsey, some Dallas old timers remember the Bath House's popularity in the 30s and 40s when thousands of bathers flocked there each day to trade high heels and wingtips for shower shoes and bathing suits to take a cool plunge.

It closed in 1958 after a long drought that almost dried up White Rock Lake.*

The Bath House survived 20 empty years and was resurrected by the city of Dallas in 1980 as the Bath House Cultural Center through the City Arts Program division of the Parks and Recreation Department.

Two identical wings of the building, which originally served as men's and women's dressing rooms, have been transformed into a theater on one side and a workshop/exhibition space on the other. Rental fees are arranged on an hourly or weekly basis and range from $4 to $24.

The theater is small, intimate. Plushy orange velveteen armchairs are arranged to seat about 90 people in front of the stage. Gray walls spotted with track lights surround the room. The natural acoustics are perfect for readings and performances without amplification.

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The white, skylit exhibition rooms are accessed by an incomplete darkroom and fiber/wood/metal sculpture workshop. Underneath the structure, which was at one time a shower area, dozens of resident cats share space with possibilities of a raku kiln and foundry.

Despite being vulnerable to constant public scrutiny, it seems blissfully removed from the fuss except in observing City policy. Sale of liquor is forbidden, and work is subject to censorship.

"When I say 'censorship,' I'm not talking about drawings of nudes," Hickey explained. "I mean violent, sexist, racist trends not suitable for public consumption. The City has an obligation to be non-partisan."

She has avoided what she calls "The Big Bang Theory,' i.e, staging an initial hoopla and letting it slide the rest of the year. The CETA Arts Festival last summer was the first rattle out of the Bath House box and community response has been trickling in since fliers were sent out in January. The momentum is building a widely varied spring/summer schedule. It is difficult, however, to fairly assess a facility put to such relatively little use.

By way of conclusion, it may be most appropriate to quote Mary Ward: "I have no tolerance for a civilization that won't accept criticism or sarcasm. It's a very dull world when everyone agrees on everything. [ In Dallas ] there is very little tolerance for difference of opinion. We desperately need a publication to accurately reflect what is happening here."

[We are trying.]

Julia Frazier was an information gatherer,
for Belo Computer Information Services,
a freelance writer and a recent graduate,
of NTSU's Journalism school.

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