It’s hard to believe that only a little over 10 years ago the full-block site in the northern part of downtown Dallas, where the Nasher Sculpture Center now stands, was a surface parking lot abutting a major freeway among several other parking lots and empty sites. Seen from the point of view of Dallas Arts District old-timers, such as the Dallas Museum of Art (1983 by Edward Larabee Barnes) or the Meyerson Symphony Center (1989 by I.M. Pei), the Nasher is a newcomer. Yet, in its short life the Sculpture Center has already seen the boom of a younger generation of cultural buildings that includes the Winnspear Opera (Foster + Partners), the Wyly Theater (REX/OMA), and the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (Brad Cloepfil/Allied Works), that all opened before the close of the first decade of the new century. Since 2010, the City Performance Hall (SOM) and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science (Thom Mayne/Morphosis) have opened, and, perhaps more surprisingly, the depressed freeway has been covered and converted to the five-acre Klyde Warren Park (James Burnett). Light rail train tracks have been laid in Olive Street, which borders the Nasher to the east, and on that same side stands the largest and most problematic newcomer, the 42-story residential Museum Tower, which is clad in a highly reflective glass skin that beams afternoon sun back through the brise-soleil that covers Renzo Piano’s glass-roofed exhibition spaces and makes hay out of Peter Walker’s sculpture garden lawn. Otherwise, at its ten-year milestone, the Nasher looks good and the garden has matured and appears lush. Now it is less difficult to imagine that in another ten years the currently under populated streets of the 70-acre Arts District might become lively and full of pedestrians, and the decidedly autonomous buildings of the area might somehow congeal to form a more coherent whole.
To celebrate its tenth anniversary the Nasher has thrown a four-month party for itself, for the District, and for Dallas in the form of XChange, a public sculpture exhibition of ten works by ten artists on ten sites around the city. For the opening, the Nasher extended invitations to visit all of the pieces with the artists and organizers. Some of the participating artists (Lara Almarcegui, Good/Bad Art Collective, Rachel Harrison, Alfredo Jaar, Liz Larner, Charles Long, Rick Lowe, Vicki Meek, Ruben Ochoa, and Ugo Rondinone) are local, while others come from afar. Some are well known while others are less so. Each artist was given a tour of potential sites and was allowed to select one that personally inspired them. The sites are generally located within a 25-mile long, north/south swath of the city that contains a variety of cultural, economic, and physical characteristics of the urban, sub-urban, and non-urban context. They include the hardwood forests of the Trinity River bottomland and the historically African American Paul Quinn College campus to the south, a skyscraper and the Nasher site itself downtown, and a high-end shopping mall and high-tech university building to the north. XChange is obviously meant to create exchanges with and among memory, media, monuments, time, technology, consumerism, charity, community, race, nature, and daily cycles. It is meant to speak to various locations and aspects of the city and help Dallas see itself. Since the works are generally large in scale, many take on an architectural quality, as commissions requiring significant collaboration and execution by teams.
The ten public sculptures are birthday presents, and as with any important gift giving occasion, some will be perfect, others will be gags, and others will be more for the giver than the receiver. XChange is more provocative and revealing when considered as an ensemble. Individual pieces such as Buried House (which is exactly what its title suggests) can be highly cerebral with few tactile, visual, or experiential qualities. Others, such as Trans.lation, have no traditional sculptural presence, but are high-aspiration, long-term social activism as art. Many of the pieces were conceived as ephemeral, lasting only the four months of the exhibition, while others should become a permanent part of the Dallas cityscape. Ideally, XChange would be a thread of change to stitch the city together in diverse manners. For uninitiated passersby, however, some of the pieces will likely not be recognized as works of art.
With the celebration of XChange, the Nasher also offered itself a critique of the museum in general. Artists often want to get out of the museum, and by its very nature public art is not disposed to display within a gallery. In comparison to their freely accessible, public sculptures, the artists spoke of museums as intimidating and catering to an elite public, perpetuating barriers between art and life, and overly mediating the experience of art. Art in a space without guards, they said, is better.
There is a spirit of collaboration among the institutions of the Arts District, and with the opening of XChange the Dallas Museum of Art placed a shipping container outside its south entrance to exhibit three projects responding to the Dallas CityDesign Studio’s Connected City Design Challenge. The projects are by Ricardo Bofill, OMA-AMO, and the team of Stoss and SHoP. The challenge is to reconnect downtown Dallas to a part of the Trinity River located approximately one mile to the west. Ironically, this portion of the river was closer to downtown before and was actually moved by a half mile toward the west in the mid-1800s. The space now contains freeways, railroad tracks, and the like. At a glance, the three projects are surprisingly similar, a bit generic, and emphasize high-rise and low-rise, nature and urbanism, transportation and infrastructure, density and cultural venues, and in some cases willfully impose geometric forms on the urban plan. The projects seem to lack the complexity of the Dallas seen while visiting the public sculptures. The Connected City Design Challenge will be a good opportunity to see if XChange really helps Dallas to see itself.
On a practical note, it makes for a very full, but interesting day to visit all of the XChange public sculptures.