The Valley House Gallery and Sculpture Garden — established by pioneering Dallas gallery owner and painter Donald S. Vogel in 1954 — held its first salon last night. The gallery’s current exhibition is America Works: The modern-to-contemporary paintings, photos and drawings featured in it more or less coincide with the history covered in David A. Smith’s book, Money for Art. So the author and Baylor University history lecturer proposed to current gallery owner Kevin Vogel that he hold a public talk about government funding of the visual arts in America.
This first effort drew around 50 people to hear Smith and Maria Munoz-Blanco, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. (Originally CentralTrak director and UTD professor Charissa Terranova was also scheduled to participate but begged off due to illness). Smith presented an abbreviated version of his book’s main thesis — that from the Works Progress Administration in the ’30s to the National Endowment for the Arts in the ’80s and ’90s, artists and policy makers have had fundamentally different ideas about what arts funding is for.
If the government were to establish “a National Endowment for People Named Dave,” Smith said, he’d naturally expect to see some money for himself come out of it. But political leaders don’t see the NEA as an agency for art or artists. For them, the NEA exists to serve the public — through art and artists.
As long as artists and arts supporters try to do battle over the issue of artistic content (as in the NEA culture wars in the ’9os with the controversial Mapplethorpe and Serrano photos), they’ll lose, Smith contended. They’ll lose because the original idealistic purpose of the NEA — as far as policymakers was concerned — was to unify and uplift the public through art. And arguments over obscenity only divide people, which means the NEA loses public and political support.
If, Smith argued, Rocco Landesman, the new head of the NEA, follows the modest, more pragmatic approach of the previous NEA director, Dana Gioia, and he pushes non-controversial arts education programs and tours of Shakespeare, then the endowment will continue to grow and earn the goodwill of Congressional leaders.
For her part, Munoz-Blanco offered an overview of what the OCA does — including managing and maintaining dozens of facilities in the city, everything from the neon Pegasus on top of the Magnolia Building to Fair Park to WRR-FM. And yes, that list will grow considerably with the arrival this fall of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts.
As one audience member pointed out — with something like a note of wonder – he could not think of any ‘artistic content’ controversy about Dallas government-funded artworks since the ’70s (when he first moved here).
That may well be due to the commonsensical work of the OCA. And, well, it may be partly due to the fact that Dallas groups once had a long history of trying to suppress artworks – and maybe we’ve grown gun-shy, as it were. These suppressions were sometimes for anti-foreign, anti-Semitic reasons, but most infamously in the mid-’50s, a woman’s group called the Public Affairs Luncheon protested a new traveling exhibition, “The Sport of Art,” and protested as well the emphasis by the Dallas Museum of Fine Art (as the DMA was then known) on “all phases of futuristic, modernistic and non-objective work” and works by Communist or “Communist- front” artists. These included such artists as George Grosz (who was never a Communist by any stretch) and Pablo Picasso. The intense and ever-expanding protest included calls for the Parks Board to cut the museum’s budget and for rich donors to pull all their money. It became national news — until the museum declared that it would ban no pictures and there was no evidence of Communist infiltration (although the exhibition’s tour got canceled anyway). It was something of a public relations disaster for the city, especially when seen through the lens of the later Kennedy assassination and the way that colored Dallas as a haven for right-wing anger and suspicion. The city, it would seem, has tended to shun controversy ever since.
In the end, as Smith pointed out, typically these days, the ordinary, practical handling of arts funding on the munincipal level contrasts sharply with the history of federal arts funding.