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500X Turns 35 But Refuses To Act Its Age

500x exterioreditThe gallery at 500 Exposition Avenue, between Deep Ellum and Fair Parl. Photo by Jerome Weeks

The Dallas gallery 500X is the granddaddy of North Texas’ artist collectives, the group efforts that find visual artists banding together to share studio space or create an alternative to commercial art galleries. KERA’s Jerome Weeks says 500X is still going strong at 35 years old. But its legacy is more than what’s on the walls.

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Tom Orr is at Love Field for the unveiling of his sizable new sculpture, Intersected Passage, a retro-ish jungle gym of abstract aluminum squares and rectangles that spans the airport’s pedestrian entrance. Orr is a long-established artist in Dallas: He’s won awards in Japan, his works have been shown in museums, he has public art installations all over Texas.

But 35 years ago, Orr was just another young artist who couldn’t get a gallery even to look at him.

“Back then,” he says, “there were, like, three galleries in town. And you know, they wouldn’t take younger artists. So 500 was really, really a great opportunity for people in the situation like I was in: You’re young, you’re working, you’re out of art school, what do you do?”

tom orreditWhat Orr did was help establish the area’s first for-profit, artist-run gallery – certainly the first to last this long. Artists Will Hipps and Richard Childers had bought a red-brick warehouse between Deep Ellum and Fair Park. They gutted it, and a loose-knit group of their artist friends rented it and set about wiring it and putting up walls.

But they also had to work out, democratically, the nuts-and-bolts of how they would run the place: how much were the monthly dues, how would shows be handled, who would hold down which leadership jobs.

“We really didn’t know what the heck we were doing,” Orr recalls. “I mean, we’d work and work, and everybody had these other jobs, and we had these meetings every Sunday that would start like at three in the afternoon and go on until three in the morning, and it was just horrible.

“But somehow, it worked.”

Walking up the gallery’s squeaky staircase, Leslie Murrell notes the two-story building was once a Firestone tire warehouse — the rough, wooden staircase came later, after the art gallery opened in 1978. Murrell is a former member of 500X and also the curator for Creative Differences, the new show of 500X alumni opening Saturday. Murrell is one of the few members who wasn’t an artist. She’s a Fort Worth art historian.

Leslie Murreledit“I was always so impressed with what the gallery did for up-and-coming artists,” she says. “It’s a place to learn the ropes, but there’s not a space for an up-and-coming curator to learn those same ropes. So I applied, thinking at the very least they would have a good laugh. And they ended up liking the idea.”

Murrell guided members in putting their works in the best light. She didn’t dictate styles. In fact, 500X has never had a house style. As a result, the group shows have been wildly uneven. But the point of the gallery is letting young artists experiment and fail and learn.

Over the years, 500X’s membership has waxed and waned from eight people to more than 20. The average member seems to stay for two-three years. So while the group has repeatedly turned over and re-invented itself, there’s also been continuity. Every few years, a couple members drop out while the majority remain — and dozens of people apply for the open spots, for that chance to experiment, fail and learn.

“I think a lot of what you learn are people skills,” says Murrell. “You learn that you can’t just say, well, I showed up and patched my walls. You really do have to put the gallery before your own interests.”

500X has been important in the North Texas art scene not just because it’s lasted. And not even because it’s been a steppingstone for notable artists like Tom Orr, painter Vincent Falsetta, sculptor Frances Bagley and photographer Nic Nicosia. Its local influence has been much wider. Alumni have opened their own galleries — like Vance Wingate at Gray Matters. They’ve become important educators, like Greg Metz at UTD.

And recently, North Texas has seen a mini-explosion of collectives. Collective efforts like this are more common in theater or music. In those arts, people have to work together for the art even to reach the stage. Working together is part of the basic training. Painters and sculptors, meanwhile, are more like novelists: Their work is often solitary. Even so, a surprising number of groups have sprung up the past few years, such as Fort Worth’s Homecoming! Committee, the Art Foundation and SCAB (Socialized Contemporary Artists Bureau) in Dallas, which is holding the Progressive Dinner bus tour this weekend, as part of MAP 2013.

Several of these groups were directly inspired by 500X. “The knowledge of how things work here has definitely influenced other collectives,” Murrell says, citing members of 500X who also belong to Homecoming! “So it’s interesting how many ways 500X members have become ingrained in the art community.”

Creative Differences runs at 500X through Jan. 5.