Dallas — For artists in Dallas, anticipation has been building for the Aug. 9 meeting with Dallas County Fire Marshal and Building Code Inspectors. Those who expected a clear solution left the meeting with a Samuel Beckett sensibility of the world. More questions were raised than answers, artists vented frustrations, and important contacts were shared.
Roughly 70 people attended the meeting at the Dallas Public Library’s Central Branch Auditorium at 12:30 p.m. (The event was live streamed and can be viewed on Art&Seek’s website). Far more representatives from the Visual Arts community attended, with only a handful of theatermakers scattered on the side sections.
The first PowerPoint slide presented the theme of the meeting “Artists and the City of Dallas: Working Together.” OCA Director Jennifer Scripps opened the meeting with enthusiasm saying, “Our goal today is to help people navigate the city successfully, steer people to the right resources to there is a successful outcome for artists in Dallas.” The presentations offered key points of contact in the city, people who could help facilitate the process for Certificate of Occupancy and obtaining proper building Codes.
Chief Martinez presented an overview of the Fire Marshal’s responsibilities, how many locations they inspect, and safety concerns. He explained why art galleries and theaters have been visited by “night detail,” operating between the hours of 4 p.m. and 2 a.m. To refute the notion that the arts are being targeted, Chief Martinez displayed a graphic that showed only 2 percent of the night detail visits were to “art” locations. From their point of view, the arts are only a tiny part of their overall operation.
If the artists had presented a graphic illuminating the percentage of art spaces affected by the Fire Marshal shutdowns in Deep Ellum, the Design District, and Trinity Groves…maybe they would understand why it feels like a “witch hunt,” as one artist mentioned. (There are conspiracy theories, one of which is mentioned in this Dallas Morning News report.)
The shutdowns of theatrical performances go back to at least April 23, when PrismCo’s Animal vs. Machine at the Green Warehouse in Trinity Groves was shuttered on opening night, shortly after the performance and during an after-party. The production was moved to the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park. This trend followed in various spaces used for productions by House Party Theatre, Kitchen Dog Theater, Therefore/Acoustic Nerves, and Art Conspiracy. Some of those moved to other spaces—Kitchen Dog moved its New Works Festival to Undermain Theatre after having issues at the Green Zone in the Design District, and will do its next season at the Trinity River Arts Center; and Therefore/Acoustic Nerves, which received city funding specifically for this performance in the Ice House in Trinity Groves, moved to the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff. But it’s not so simple for numerous arts galleries that have been shut down.
From the Fire Marshal and Building Inspector’s point of view, there are specific rules and regulations to be followed to ensure safety and the expected use of each building in Dallas. Chief Martinez noted the difference in General Business and Assembly Codes, and that more people equals more risk and therefore more stringent code requirements.
And this is where part of the tangled web of this issue starts to wrap in and around itself. While they have clear guidelines, the city building codes are complex and do not clearly fit the needs of small art spaces. Some positive outcomes were expressed, because art gallery owners were in contact with a few key people: Tommy Ludwig, Jennifer Scripps, Chief Martinez, and Ann Hamilton. With this meeting, it seems that there has been some action in motion fairly recently to address the problem, on a case-by-case basis.
However, the questions keep piling up:
- If I have a CO listed as an Art Gallery, but underneath it is listed as “Office/Showroom/Warehouse” – do I actually have an Art Gallery at all?
- Will I be able to pay the bills if I’m shut down for four months?
- What if I am in a lease with a landlord but my CO does not fit within the correct version of an “art gallery”?
- What if I’m in a Zone that does not have my code? But I’ve been in business for over a decade?
- Whose responsibility is it to get a Certificate of Occupancy if I am renting this space?
- What if I’m listed as a General Business or an Office but I have an event every once in a while? Do I need a new CO every time I have one of those events?
- Why is this all of a sudden happening now?
These won’t be resolved in a community meeting, but individual consultations—and again, starting that line of communication was the point of the meeting from the City’s point of view. Artists still demonstrated disillusionment with the power of bureaucracy, as many gallery owners are stuck in limbo over a piece of paper.
What became most apparent at the meeting was a clear disconnect between the operations of small, local artists and the City. One example that was discussed in depth was the question of what happens at an art gallery opening? Chief Martinez showed photos of tragedies in night clubs, newspaper headlines from disasters “that could have been prevented with communication.”
One slide had a photo of a local underground dance party with firecrackers next to a photo of a presumably deceased person in a stretcher. The hyperbole was not taken well with local art gallery owners who questioned, “Do you even know what happens at a gallery opening?” Again, a vast majority of the people who attended the meeting were visual artists, not underground party or dance club people.
When the floor was open for comments and questions, a visual artist said, “I’d like to know why we’re we using examples of danger that are not related to our galleries. You are showing examples of night clubs, dark places—places where fire is being lit. Art galleries don’t want anything fuming inside. And when you talk about fairness and you are asking us to state what we do in detail I would ask you to come to come join our gallery and see what our work is about… to see our own safety requirements when we do an opening.”
The only art opening that I have ever heard of displaying any chaotic human behavior was at the (orchestrated) 2015 opening of Loris Gréaud’s The Unplayed Notes Museum at the Dallas Contemporary. The destruction of the art was a part of the unveiling…but that typically does not happen. It’s usually a smaller gathering, where people casually chat and look at the art on display. No one is throwing firecrackers, running around, or breaking things.
There were a few more moments of dissonance in communication where as Scripps says, “The wires got crossed.” One of these contained a cringe-worthy moment where the Lieutenant Fire Marshal discussed how the severity of what they see on a daily basis: “We’re not just doing a crackdown or anti-art at this point in time. [We don’t want to have] these types of situations where we’re bringing bodies out and having to try to justify this. Who’s gonna be on the news? It’s gonna be us. Where’s the art then? It burned up.” The unsettling part of this statement was not the words, but gesturing quotation marks as he said the word “art.” That resulted in an uproar of “Are you kidding? Did you just use quotation marks for art? We make the same livelihood as you do.”
Clearly there must be more communication on both sides, and a general meeting is not going to fix all of those problems. There are a myriad of specific issues ranging from an individual business owner to the schematics of the complicated (and may I suggest outdated) code system. These smaller businesses in the arts simply cannot afford to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on spaces to get them up to the new code standards.
That’s another part of this complex problem. Artists are using spaces that were primarily abandoned—old light manufacturers, an ice warehouse, etc. So let’s say you’re a theatermaker and you want to use a warehouse as a pop-up performance space. But there’s no code for interior pop-up performance spaces in Dallas. So you have to get a new certificate of occupancy and the code use of the building has to change—from a Warehouse space to an Assembly. You’re changing the use of the building, essentially. That’s how you have to do it legally at the moment. Even if you’re only going to occupy the building for two months or a weekend.
But changing that building’s use means that you have to abide by not what the code requirements were for that building when it was built (say an Ice Factory in the 1920s), but current code requirements for the new usage of that structure (for example, the code requirements for the Wyly Theatre today).
While there are some things that artists can easily do, like adding a sign for a fire exit, keeping doors open, clearing pathways, and adding fire extinguishers, some things are next to impossible for small, DIY companies. Example: a complex sprinkler system.
On top of that layer, zoning issues blanket the whole mess. So you can have the building inspected, you can get the certificate of occupancy, it can say you are a gallery…but are you in a zone where that is allowed? Emil Cerullo, who runs an art gallery in the Design District, offered an example of this as he brought his certificate of occupancy to the meeting and showed it to the fire marshal. But this CO is a “unicorn” as he said, art galleries do not exist in the Design District’s zoning.
The frustration boils over as some owners have actively tried to get their buildings inspected, but have been led to various buildings and departments that offer conflicting information. One video production company owner said that “Two people in the municipal office yelling at each other about forms. ‘He needs this one! No, he needs that one!’ They sat across from each other in cubicles but they don’t know the same rules.” Hopefully, headaches like these will be alleviated as the city has designated specific people to handle this issue specifically for the arts community.
Gallery owner Lara Lenhoff summed up her frustrations with an impassioned plea, “It really feels like you’re on some kind of a crusade and you’re targeting us. And I just won’t stand for it. So work with us. Let’s get things done together. Don’t shut us down. Let us make a living. Don’t do your job at the expense of ours.”
I have sympathy for these artists trying to enrich Dallas culture. After all, what would we be without local artists, performers, and entrepreneurs starting up businesses from scratch? We’d be just another town with endless Targets, Starbucks, and McDonald’s where standardization is everywhere. In some ways, we have a real danger of becoming that, particularly with the slow process of addressing the code violation issue. These issues could have been addressed several years ago, before the arts really flourished.
While companies have been operating under the radar for years, the shock of the alleged crackdown has disheartened many artists. Many of them profess that they have done their due diligence, but have previously been given incorrect information or have their hands tied to a space that is no longer suitable to the correct code. If this problem is not alleviated soon, expect more artists to flock away from Dallas—to cities that have found solutions for small art businesses and temporary art spaces. The people who are passionate enough to start their galleries and create performances are not all of a sudden going to remain here and find another line of work. They will move to where opportunity takes them, which is why up until now this city has become a growing destination for artists.
It’s a scary and exciting time to be a part of Dallas arts, because it is starting to define more of its cultural identity. But will the future contain a friendly and workable relationship for the arts? The partnerships and decisions made in these next few months will determine that. I expect one of two things: a flourishing community or a mass exodus.