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The final pieces have been installed and exhibitors sip on champagne in their booths as the first of their prospective collectors walk in past waiters serving canapés and a band playing indistinct jazz. It’s a scene that could be the opening night of an art fair anywhere in the world, if it weren’t for the friendlier than usual greetings and the occasional cowboy boot peeking out from under a suit trouser. This is Texas and the launch night of the fourth annual Dallas Art Fair.

“In many respects, the concept of the American dream is still alive and well in Dallas,” says John Sughrue, who founded the fair with Chris Byrne. “We wanted to go to an art fair here and we found ourselves in the position to create one.” While outside perceptions of the city may be tied to the big hair and glitz of the eponymous 1980s tv show, Dallas has transformed over the past two decades into one of the most buoyant cultural cities in the US. Beginning in 1984 with the opening of the Dallas Museum of Art, the city’s Arts District has revitalised its downtown, bringing architects such as I.M. Pei and Renzo Piano to design concert halls, galleries and performing arts centres that have provided the foundation for a more widespread cultural boom. Now home to some of America’s leading contemporary art spaces, Dallas is also a hotbed for younger generation collectors, following in the footsteps of local families such as the Roses, Rachofskys and Hoffmans who have been important players in the global art market for years.

“It would have been hard to have the conversation about an art fair before the Dallas Arts District,” says Byrne. “That and the lead of certain collector families here have changed the stereotypes and attitude of Dallas collections and institutions.” The attitude at the fair mimics that of the city – friendly, intimate and unpretentious. This year, the art fair attracted 71 exhibitors from not only around the US but also Europe. “There’s a great art scene here,” says André Schlechtriem, who runs Dittrich & Schlechtriem in Berlin and is exhibiting at the fair for the first time. “The museums are very important and there are also a lot of local collectors here who like it when you visit their city. It’s a relaxed fair and they treat you well, even if you’re not a major gallery. The collectors in Dallas are more open than many other places.”

A solo show from Dan Rees at London-based Jonathan Viner Gallery’s booth is down the corridor from outsider art pieces by Texan artists represented by Webb Gallery from the rural town of Waxahachie, which lies about 40 miles south of Dallas. Two easily navigable floors of exhibitors and a constant stream of servers pushing trolleys of coffee and iced tea around the booths make this a more relaxed fair than most.

“We do Basel, Miami Basel and the New York Armory but you’re not necessarily seeing new people at each of those fairs,” explains Chris D’Amelio, who runs his eponymous gallery in Chelsea, New York, and is showing in Dallas for the third year. “The fair might look local to some people but coming here on a regular basis means you’re hitting a collecting base in America that you may not see at shows like Frieze. The collectors here are major and as they start coming from cities like Houston, Des Moines and San Francisco, this becomes a very important part of the country. Dallas wants to be a major cultural centre in the US and they’re outpacing basically everybody else. Even New York looks a little bit sleepy sometimes compared to the energy here.”

And, although the art fair may have an international attendance, the code of conduct is still firmly Texan. Manners and familiarity are important in this part of the United States. D’Amelio emphasises that the Dallas art community is more supportive than most but investing time with them is important. “You can’t just call them up and do business straight away. You need to make a commitment here, then they’ll host dinners for you and introduce you to collectors that you don’t yet know.”

A cooperative approach within the Dallas art scene can be seen from the institutions down to individual collectors. “There’s a truly cohesive community here that’s pulling in the same direction,” says Jeremy Strick, the director of the Nasher Sculpture Center, one of the few institutions in America focused solely on modern and contemporary sculpture. “There’s a great sense of optimism as we’re all part of something that is growing.” Before moving to Dallas in 2009 to run the Nasher, Strick was the director of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art (moca) and says that Dallas today reminds him of what the Californian city used to be like. “I grew up in LA and witnessed it change from having a considerable artistic tradition to being one of the best creative capitals in the world. There’s the same enormous potential for Dallas.”

“It’s a story that’s been told over and over again but Dallas is very different from other cities in that there’s a trust here between collectors, as well as the institutions,” says Marguerite Hoffman, who along with her late husband built up one of Dallas’s most important private collections, ranging from paintings by Gerhard Richter to sculptural pieces by Martin Kippenberger.

The story she refers to is of the endowment that the Hoffmans made along with Cindy and Howard Rachofsky and Deedie and Rusty Rose – all friends and important collectors of contemporary art – to the Dallas Museum of Art in 2005. The three families pledged that, upon their deaths, their collections will go to the museum. For the Rachofskys, this also means the endowment of their Richard Meier house, which already houses a private collection open to visitors. The families have since bought a number of pieces together, knowing that one day, they would all end up in the same place. Such collaboration is unprecedented. “It’s not competitive. It doesn’t matter where the goodness comes from as long as it stays in the community,” Hoffman says.

Civic duty and patronage run through Dallas’s diverse contemporary art scene. From Raymond D. Nasher’s founding of the sculpture centre in 2003 to the establishment of the Goss-Michael Foundation for contemporary British art in 2007 by musician George Michael and his partner, Kenny Goss. Most recently, local collector Alden Pinnell opened The Power Station, a non-profit organisation committed to site-specific shows and installations from artists around the world in his renovated industrial building. “What we’re doing is unusual for Dallas,” says Pinnell. “Firstly, there aren’t many old buildings in Dallas as they get torn down. Secondly, alternative art spaces are still quite rare and the landscape outside of the big institutions is limited. We’re exposing the Dallas community to internationally renowned artists that they may not find elsewhere.” Located outside of downtown, The Power Station’s community is broad, engaging schools, artist collectives and residents to participate in exhibitions.

The most recent opening at The Power Station – for American artist Jacob Kassay – took place the night before the Dallas Art Fair opened. The night after the launch saw events at the Goss-Michael for Adam McEwen and at the Dallas Contemporary for the institution’s first, and only, biennale. Alongside the calendar of events that take place around the two x two auction, hosted by the Rachofskys each October to benefit the Dallas Museum and AmFar, the Dallas Art Fair in April has formed the basis for another nascent art week in the city, focusing the eyes of the art world on Dallas biannually. “We all coordinate our openings so that nothing overlaps and because the community is small, it’s easy to communicate,” says Pinnell.

Peter Doroshenko – who was appointed executive director of the Dallas Contemporary in 2010 – explains that, similar to the city’s collectors, Dallas’s institutions see no need for competition. “We’re all contemporary but we’re all examining different types of contemporary. The point is that each of us is engaging different audiences.”

Passing the baton on is the next step for Dallas’s art community. While events like the art fair have been successful in encouraging younger generations of collectors, there is now a focus on transforming the city from a consuming community to one that also fosters creativity. Barry Whistler opened his Dallas gallery in 1985 and has become a stalwart of the local gallery scene. For him, the growth in local galleries, institutions and collectors gives local artists more opportunities to seek representation at home rather than outside Dallas. If the next decade proves to be as collaborative as the last, Dallas-based artists have something to look forward to. “What’s exciting about the city at the moment is that we’re all involved together in an active discussion to develop the university art schools, independent alternative spaces and artist housing,” says Jeremy Strick. “The community has chosen to make itself into an artistic capital for production and I think that’s a remarkable thing.”

Back at the fair, John Sughrue explains why there’s always been room in Dallas for artistic endeavour. The key, he says, is the city’s optimism. “There’s a lot less baggage here than in other places where society or business interests have been fossilised by generations of those who came before. Dallas has a Texan frontier spirit. It’s a city of doers that has doubled in size over the past 20 years and will continue to grow because there’s opportunity here. The common bond between city leaders and institutions is the desire to empower the next generation.”

Top galleries

  1. Dallas Museum of Art and The Nasher Sculpture Center:

These neighbouring institutions provide the fulcrum for the city’s Arts District. The museum is housed in a beautiful building by Edward Larrabee Barnes while Renzo Piano’s sculpture centre opens onto a sculpture garden.

  1. The Power Station:

Located outside of the main art drag, Alden Pinnell’s Power Station is a lofty three-floor industrial space that offers site-specific work by artists.

  1. Dallas Contemporary:

The Contemporary is one of the only kunsthalles in the US, dedicated to exhibitions by emerging talent. It likes to push boundaries as seen in its commission of large wall murals around the city from Shepard Fairey.

Key collectors

Howard and Cindy Rachofsky whose collection contains an impressive chunk of art pauvre. They are now focusing on a lot of Japanese post-war work.

The Rose Family – Deedie and Rusty Rose are important patrons of contemporary art, especially from Latin American artists.

Marguerite Hoffman – Along with her late husband, Robert, Marguerite has collected pieces by Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter. She is now building up a collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts.

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