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Will a ‘reimagined’ Dallas Museum of Art truly embrace diversity?

The DMA hopes an architectural competition will do just that. Critic Mark Lamster isn’t so sure.

Austere. Severe. Reserved. These are not words typically associated with this unabashedly swaggering city but they have accurately described the limestone-clad home of the Dallas Museum of Art from the moment it opened its doors in January 1984.

That will soon change. The museum recently announced a competition for an architect to “reimagine” its decidedly restrained Arts District campus. “The DMA’s 1984 building by Edward Larrabee Barnes was designed for a different Dallas, a different time, and a different society,” according to the 52-page competition prospectus. “It is time for our building to evolve to meet the current and future needs of our diverse and expansive collections and communities,” the museum’s director, Agustín Arteaga, said in a prepared statement.

The museum is calling its search an international competition, but it is really more of a request for qualifications to establish a pool from which it will select five finalists, and on an exceedingly tight deadline. Applications are due on March 15, the finalists announced in April and a final decision made in August. Though the competition model appears to open the door to younger, innovative firms, the scoring system places a premium on experience, putting those firms at a significant disadvantage.

A more conventional process would have the museum’s building committee visit a select group of architects, and then choose finalists after careful review of their work. Does it matter? The shotgun approach suggests the museum is not quite sure what it’s looking for — a concerning proposition when commissioning a major work of architecture. Also of concern is the lack of representation on the jury of any architect, from Dallas or elsewhere, with a record for distinguished museum building.

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“The DMA’s 1984 building by Edward Larrabee Barnes was designed for a different Dallas, a different time, and a different society,” according to the 52-page competition prospectus.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

The primary impetus for the competition is a need to accommodate the so-called Fast Forward bequest of 2005, which will eventually — and just when is still undetermined — mean the arrival of more than 1,000 artworks, most of them contemporary, from three private collections. As it stands, the museum’s 26,500-plus work collection has outgrown its footprint.

The requirements specified in the competition brief include an addition or additions to house all of those works; the reorganization of its present galleries with an emphasis on improved navigation; an overhaul of the museum’s aging infrastructure; improved connection and visibility to Klyde Warren Park, Flora Street, the Arts District and busy Ross Avenue; and the embrace of “cutting edge sustainability.”

Above all, the selected architects will be responsible for reversing the defensive reticence of the Barnes design. “The campus needs to be, either literally or metaphorically, transparent in showing what is going on inside, and welcoming and accessible to all,” the prospectus states.

That’s a lot to ask for, even with a budget the museum puts at $150 million to $175 million to be drawn from both public and private sources. That budget does not even begin to factor future costs for staffing and maintaining an expanded footprint.

Arteaga and the museum’s trustees may think their building is out of step with the times, but when it opened, it was considered au courant. The museum’s then director, Harry Parker, had envisioned the $52.4 million building as Dallas’ “living room.”

In Barnes, Parker had an architect with shared values and an estimable track record. Among his museum projects was the recently completed Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, which opened to wide acclaim. Barnes was modern, conservative, blue-blooded and reliable, which made him appealing to corporations (IBM was a client) and nervous museum boards. Philip Johnson, a rival since their graduate school days at Harvard, described the unthreatening Barnes as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”

Architect Edward Larrabee Barnes displays a model of the new Dallas Museum of Art.(CLINT GRANT/Staff Photographer)

At the apex moment of postmodern historicism (see: the Crescent), the building Barnes gave the museum was decidedly modern, defined by an inclined internal street and a barrel-vaulted gallery then dedicated to contemporary art. Galleries stepped gradually from one to the next, in orderly progression. “There must be a sense of entrance, of logical sequence, of climax and return,” Barnes said of his design philosophy.

Critics approved. In The New York Times, Paul Goldberger wrote that it bespoke a dignified “self-assurance” that put it in contrast to the “altogether dreadful” state of building in downtown Dallas. David Dillon, in The Dallas Morning News, called it “a comfortably old-fashioned sort of building” and praised its “logic, craftsmanship, and genuinely welcoming interior spaces.”

The logic of its plan was compromised by the 1993 Hamon wing, a $30 million, 140,000-square-foot addition tacked onto the north end of the building, facing what was then a highway but is now Klyde Warren Park. The design, also by Barnes, was visually seamless with the original structure, but made it more challenging to navigate. Rick Brettell, who succeeded Parker as director, tried to kill the project he inherited, calling it “a stupid thing to do,” but he was too late to stop it. The product was a new museum whole that was less than the sum of its parts; the architectural equivalent of 2 + 2 = 3.

And yet there is still much to love about the DMA in its current state. For the most part, it is exceptionally good at its principal function: displaying art. Its spaces are warm and well (but not over) lighted, and its rooms (mostly) appropriately scaled. The confusing internal navigation that museum administrators are keen to rectify can also be seen as a feature, forcing visitors to remove themselves into the world of the museum where they can make new and unexpected discoveries.

Another joy is the sculpture garden, a composition of stepped spaces, water courses and fountains designed by the revered landscape architect Dan Kiley. It is, however, in deplorable condition, and its restoration should be a principal focus of the museum’s planning. An expansion onto the museum’s Ross Avenue plaza would be an opportunity to make new connections to this adjacent space.

Better connection to Klyde Warren Park is also an imperative, and it is called for in the museum’s prospectus. The 2016 introduction of the Eagle Family Plaza was an attempt to remedy this space, but only a marginal improvement. Instead of a half measure, it needs a wholesale transformation that opens up to the park and prioritizes pedestrians instead of cars.

Dallasites will be on the hook for a considerable chunk of the budget for expanding the city-owned building and should be careful that the museum’s stated goal of increasing equity, diversity and transparency is more than metaphorical; that this endeavor will do more than provide for the aggrandizement (and tax benefits) of the wealthy patrons who will inevitably have their names on it.

"There is still much to love about the DMA in its current state," writes Lamster. "For the most part, it is exceptionally good at its principal function: displaying art. Its spaces are warm and well (but not over) lighted, and its rooms (mostly) appropriately scaled."(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

The brief makes clear, for example, that the museum expects any addition to be on its Arts District campus, and not a satellite location, where a different community might be directly engaged. The adaptive reuse of an industrial building in, for instance, the Cedars would be a far less costly and resource intensive means of expansion, and open the museum to new audiences close to downtown.

Also among the programmatic requirements is flexible event space capable of seating more than 600 guests. A cynic might see that as a room specifically intended as a venue for the museum’s annual art gala, which it hosts in a tent on its Ross Avenue plaza. Spending millions in public money so the wealthiest among us can have a nice place for a fancy party is a quintessentially Dallas way of increasing equity.

If the museum is truly interested in diversity, the selection of an architect (or, more accurately, a team of architects, landscape architects, engineers and other design professionals) would be a good place to start. Every cultural building in the Arts District was designed by a white male, with the exception of the Meyerson Symphony Center by Chinese American I.M. Pei.

To its credit, the museum is mostly saying the right things. It will be up to the architects, and to the public, to ensure those declarations are more than lip service — and that the changes live up to both civic aspirations and the museum’s distinguished history.