December 19, 2014
WHITE ROCK Wildlife Theater controversy continues to brew
by Shari Goldstein Stern
Apr 01, 2014 | 1257 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo by Rich Endhoven

Photo of Frances Bagley and Tom Orr's White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater courtesy of the Bath House Cultural Center
Photo by Rich Endhoven Photo of Frances Bagley and Tom Orr's White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater courtesy of the Bath House Cultural Center
Citizens on both sides of a public debate were passionate at last Saturday and Monday nights’ community meetings at the Bath House Cultural Center. The lone agenda item was to discuss the future of the public art exhibit White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater next to the Bath House. The purpose was to enable all interested parties to have a voice in the debate: neighbors, neighborhood associations, White Rock Lake organizations, the art community and advocates were represented.

This discussion followed meetings during the past few months of the City of Dallas Public Art Commission and the Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) Public Art Committee, at which supporters and their opposition expressed their views about whether to restore and maintain the piece or to deaccession it, which means to extract it from its location, removing public access to the art.

Both groups had agreed to table the issue until two public forums could be scheduled, giving all interested parties an opportunity to hear from each other and express their own thoughts. Those meetings were finally held last Saturday and on Monday.

Questions on the table were: “Can we repair the Water Theater?” “How much will it cost, and who is going to pay?” vs. “Should we deaccession the piece?”

Dr. Charissa Terranova is an assistant professor of Aesthetic Studies for the University of Dallas, a freelance curator and art and architecture critic. She said there are three basic considerations: the actual piece and reasons to deaccession it or not; funding for all art maintenance in Dallas; and to address the xenophobia that exists when people don’t understand, and therefore fear art because it’s different, just as they may fear a bug bite.

Terranova said that there’s a tendency in this country to disrespect art, and therefore artists. According to Terranova, art isn’t always appreciated as a business, for which artists go through training much the same as does a banker or a doctor. “Picasso, Bach and Beethoven were artists who made a career of their craft by careful training,” she said.

Terranova sees the community disconnect as a bigger issue than one piece of public art. She commented, along with others about how grateful they were for the opportunity to have the overdue community dialogue afforded by these meetings. “In every way this meeting was wonderful in letting everyone have a stake in the issue,” she said. “It would be an atrocity, not only in our art community, but internationally, to throw away this art. Dallas is working toward recognition as a world class city, rich in all kinds of art. We need to slow down and investigate before we do anything.”

Although public funding for art was cut in 2009, that was a few years ago. Terranova believes that Dallas is in better shape today than other cities, and that it is experiencing positive job growth. “Maybe we can reinstate maintenance through public funding for this piece now,” Terranova said. Architect Gary Cunningham is interested in creating a partnership between the public and private sectors to raise the funding necessary. A number of others at Monday’s meeting spoke out in agreement, including Karen Casey. “I understand it would cost $3,800 to restore all of the educational plates. Who can’t raise $3,800?”

Another attendee said, “The Dallas Museum of Art raised enough to hire two people whose only job is to dust the art,” and an advocate said, “Dallas has a history of rushing to tear down the old and build the new to replace it.” Cultural Affairs Commissioner John Paul Batiste explained that, per the City ordinance, bond money can only be used to pay for permanent art, not temporary, and doesn’t presently pay for maintenance. “This is a much broader question,” Batiste said.

“How do we take care of our public art?”

Dr. Judith Garrett Segura is a writer, artist and scholar on history and archives projects and fine art acquisition and installation, who retired as president and trustee of the Belo Foundation after a 24 year career at Belo Corporation. According to Dr. Segura, the Water Theater has lived up to its expectations. She said that it is irresponsible to acquire art without a plan for maintaining it.

Jed Morse, Chief Curator of the Nasher Sculpture Center, said, “This is an important work of art in the City of Dallas.” He added that the Water Theater works seamlessly with the environment, and that its patina only adds to its beauty. He commented about how striking it is to see the Water Theater with the downtown skyline in the distance. He added that at any given time, there are birds perched on the poles. “It draws you in,” he said.

Architect Gary Cunningham served on the jury that selected Water Theater and commented, “The birds don’t think (the Water Theater) is broken.”

Artist Judy Cohn said at the meeting that in Dallas, works of public art are torn down with no respect as they age, like buildings are, and according to Noah Simblist, Associate Professor of Art at SMU, Dallas lost its public art funding due to a lack of public support of art. He said: “If you don’t take care of art, you don’t value art. In the future, all public art should be temporary.”

Rich Enthoven, President of For the Love of the Lake said: “For the Love of the Lake does not think that the remains of the sculpture shown in the attached photos are a proper part of the Urban Oasis that we strive to preserve and enhance. We don’t want to be involved in a citywide controversy over arts funding. We just want what is best for White Rock Lake. Given the present condition of the Water Theater; the city’s limited budget for arts funding; and the well-documented difficulty of replacing/restoring and maintaining this sculpture in the middle of the water – that the City should be deaccession the art.”

Enthoven told Jerome Weeks for KERA: “Tearing it [Water Theater] out would cost an estimated $11,000 to $22,000, according to three bids the city’s received that do not include disposal of the materials.” Weeks said, “Enthoven says his group would have no trouble raising that money.”

Frances Bagley and Tom Orr are the artists who created the Water Theater. Bagley described how they worked on the piece in concert with wildlife, which fit together seamlessly. “It’s not a treasure. It’s not an eyesore. It is art,” Bagley said. The artist told White Rock Lake Weekly, “Tom and I are both invigorated by this process. It [the Water Theater] doesn’t look that bad to us.”

Maria Muñoz-Blanco, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA), told White Rock Lake Weekly that the next step in the process is for the Cultural Affairs Commission to review the discussions from these public meetings. They will make a recommendation to the OCA staff first, who will perform the necessary research and fact finding, bringing in an expert if necessary. “There’s no precedent for this. Policies give us guidance but don’t articulate one step to the next. The only time we have had to deaccession art was when it was burned in a fire,” she explained.

Kay Kallos, OCA’s public art program manager, said at a previous meeting that restoration would be very problematic, with an estimated $200,000 to $250,000 price tag. Terranova suggested that everyone slow down and take time to investigate all the options. Dallas citizens, from neighborhood associations to artists to scholarly experts, seem to agree this dialogue regarding public art is long overdue and necessary.

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