The first thing to say is that in evaluating Dallas’s arts scene, we have conspicuously ignored Fort Worth, which seems appropriate, since Dallasites do the same thing all the time. Hence, we have ignored The Kimball, the Modern Art Museum, the Amon Carter, the Fort Worth Opera, and the Van Cliburn competition. What’s left when you take away those internationally renowned Metroplex gems? Good question.
Although none of its institutions has the billion-dollar endowment of, say, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the problem with Dallas culture isn’t really lack of money. (Lack of money is never the problem in Dallas.) Rather, its arts institutions are like its women: glossy, high-maintenance, and label-obsessed. Every cultural entity must have a brand-name architect attached, no matter how shoddy the result—witness Thom Mayne’s embarrassing new edifice for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
And even when Dallas gets it right, as it did with Renzo Piano’s justly celebrated Nasher Sculpture Center, it somehow finds a way to screw things up. The Nasher’s priceless collection is currently under threat from the adjacent 42-story Museum Tower and its mirrored windows, whose reflected light and heat now penetrate Piano’s minimalist exhibition spaces. As if that weren’t bad enough, the tower also partially blocks the view from the James Turrell Skyspace inside the Nasher Sculpture Center. As such, the Skyspace is currently closed, a sign outside it announcing that Turrell has “declared the work destroyed.”
There are a few oases in Dallas’s cultural desert. The Dallas Museum of Art offers a perfectly adequate survey of art from around the world, and attracts blockbuster exhibitions like the recent Cindy Sherman show. The AT&T Performing Arts Center provides a much needed home for the city’s opera, ballet, and theater. And the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, led by the Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, is better funded and arguably more ambitious than its Houston counterpart.
But we’ll give the final word to Rick Brettell, a professor of art history at the University of Texas at Dallas, writing in the Dallas Morning News a few years ago. “We can go down the line—theater to theater, public university to public university, science museum to science museum, Holocaust museum to Holocaust museum, opera to opera, contemporary museum to contemporary museum, etc.—all the numbers tell us that our great rival city in Texas doesn’t simply rival us, it conclusively beats us as an international cultural and educational capital.”