Dallas: Embracing art as new city icon

walkingtothesky2Think, “Downtown Dallas,” and what pops into your mind? Opulent shopping at Neiman Marcus, the Dallas Cowboys? With a revitalized, 19-square-block Art District, Dallas has forged a new image, a new icon, and it’s art with a capital A.

“The Art District is really about the heartbeat of the city. It’s about what’s behind the façade” says Caren Prothro, a member of the Board of Trustees of both SMU and the Dallas Museum of Art. “We’re not just about enterprise and business and politics. We’re about people.”

The Art District had its beginnings in 1984 when the Dallas Museum of Art, founded in 1903, relocated from the State Fair Grounds to the northeast corner of downtown. Then in 1989, the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center, designed by I. M. Pei, debuted a few blocks away. The Crow Collection of Asian Art opened in the Trammell Crow Center in 1998, followed by the Nasher Sculpture Center, designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano, in 2003.

Each art facility represents decades of work by supporters and collectors and has its own unique assemblage of world-class art. With a permanent collection of 23,000 works, the Dallas Museum of Art encompasses the world. In the gallery for Ancient American Art, I’m amazed by the design and vibrant colors of a wool textile from Peru. Red squares embroidered with condor figures cover a wall-sized black tapestry. It would be spectacular in any age, something Neiman Marcus would sell, yet it’s 2,000 years old.

At the Nasher Sculpture Center, the galleries and outside gardens exhibit works by Picasso, Rodin, Jonathan Borofsky, Alexander Calder, Paul Gauguin, Claes Oldenburg, Henry Moore and other world recognized masters. The sculpted images, some realistic, some abstract, reveal hidden dimensions of human nature.In 2009, the 30-year vision of the Arts District reached its culmination with the opening of the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House and the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater Center. The remodeled Annette Strauss Artist Square creates an outdoor performance venue and leisure open space to escape the concrete avenues of the surrounding city. The final member, the City Performance Hall, opens in 2011.

Standing together like standard bearers, the new Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theater continue the tradition of cutting-edge, award-winning architecture. The square, aluminum-clad Wyly Theater and the lipstick-red, oval Opera House complete the complex of iconic, monumental buildings.

As a coda to the 2009 opening of the Opera House and Wyly Theater, the Sheraton Dallas Hotel, bordering the Arts District, completed a $90 million renovation and re-launched under Starwood Hotels and Resorts brand.

“We’re the largest hotel in Texas with 1,840 guest rooms, but we want to be known as the friendliest hotel in Texas,” Ray Hammer, the general manager, said.

Unlike most luxury hotels, the Sheraton Dallas offers free WiFi and computer use in the Link, a special work-entertainment area in the lobby with 20 computer stations and TV viewing areas. The guest rooms have 37-inch flat screens with multimedia computer connections and iPod docking stations.

“We try to give people what they miss most from home, Hammer says. “The interior design, and even the restaurant menu, creates an at-home feeling. The top-selling dish is meat loaf.”

After sampling the gourmet entrees in the hotel’s Kitchen Table and the finger food in the Draft Media Sports bar, that trend puzzles me. Even Peets coffee and sandwiches in the lobby and Chills frozen yogurt dessert bar stand out from the typical franchise eateries.

Besides art, downtown Dallas has always been known for its eclectic dining. After a day in the galleries, we don’t have to walk far from the Sheraton to find burgers, seafood, Tex-Mex, Italian, BBQ and even Mediterranean. For Italian, the concierge recommends the Ravenna Urban Italian Restaurant. We skip the pizza and go straight for the authentic dishes. The chicken senatori is the best Italian I’ve had this side of South Philly.

The historic Neiman Marcus store is also on the edge of the Arts District. In 1907, Herbert Marcus and his sister Carrie Marcus Neiman decided to open a luxury department store instead of investing in a “sugary soda pop business” called Coca-Cola. The downtown store dates back to 1914 and, besides $900 cotton blouses and $3,500 leather vests, sells a chocolate chip cookie so good it has its own urban legend.

Art and Neiman Marcus have always been synonymous. The first branch store opened in 1950 with an Alexander Calder mobile as the centerpiece. Neimans once borrowed 20 Gauguin paintings from collectors around the world to inspire a new line of fashions. The success of Neiman’s epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit of Dallas that made the $354 million Arts District possible.

“The Arts District is a gift to the city,” Linda Pitts Custard, a businesswoman and benefactor for the arts, said. “Ninety-five percent of the money came from private individuals, corporations and foundations. Cities rise and fall, armies annihilate each other, but art survives because it’s a reflection of man’s spirit and will.”

Charles Wyly, who with his wife donated $20 million for the Wyly Theater, sums up the city’s commitment to art. “Art stimulates creativity and helps bring out our highest aspirations. Art is essential for an open and free society.” 

George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and frequent contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.

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