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DMA Strives for Acclaimed Media Arts Collection

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Dallas artist Nic Nicosia had been a photographer for two decades before he began making films six years ago.

Nic Nicosia, Photographer and Filmmaker: Doing a still photograph became a simple process and it wasn't very rewarding. And anyone who knows anything about making motion pictures knows it's never an easy process.

Sprague: Nicosia's 1997 film "Middletown" is part of the Dallas Museum of Art's permanent collection. It's a 15-minute unedited feature shot in Nicosia's North Dallas neighborhood.

[Clip of soundtrack from "Middletown"]

Sprague: There's no dialog, but something like surreal carnival music plays in the background as actors portray the banal and yet edgy life of suburbia. The film was shot entirely from the front seat of Nicosia's car as he drove through the winding roads of his neighborhood.

Nicosia: There's just something about how we view, I mean in Dallas and other driving cities we basically see everything from the car. Why I wanted to make it last 15 minutes or why I wanted to make it unedited, that was sort of an interesting project.

Sprague: "Middletown" was part of a retrospective of Nicosia's work at the DMA earlier this year and is now being shown in Austin. Nicosia has also been included twice in the famed Biennial Exhibition of contemporary art at New York's Whitney Museum. Still, the filmmaker says he's found some museums reluctant to purchase the kind of pieces he makes.

Nicosia: I don't think it's to the extent that photography was in the early ?80s, where it really was one of the most exciting things in art as far as writers and curators and galleries were concerned.

Sprague: However, contemporary curators at the Dallas Museum of Art feel very differently. Charlie Wylie and Suzanne Weaver are excited about collecting cutting-edge media-based art.

Suzanne Weaver, Curator, Dallas Museum of Art: It's very creative and imaginative, and it's an exciting way of expressing our time, our culture, what's happening now at the moment.

Charlie Wylie, Curator, Dallas Museum of Art: It's also a language that people understand and respond to because they see it in their lives every day, but in a different context.

Sprague: The DMA has purchased eight media-based works in the last four years, ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. Dallas Video Festival Director Bart Weiss says the Museum has a good variety of well-known artists, like Bill Viola, who is often considered the country's leading media artist, and more esoteric work.

Bart Weiss, Director, Dallas Video Festival: I think the Museum is picking some good pieces, which I think is really good. Obviously, they have a long way to catch up because there are people who have been collecting for a long time, and it's not a museum like the CAM in Houston, which can be more cutting edge because they are only a contemporary arts museum.

Sprague: Weiss can remember when the DMA first became interested in media arts - back in the 1980s - and curators had to run electric cords from the bathrooms to the galleries to power the installations. Then, the Museum was only temporarily showing these works, not buying them. Now, several of its galleries are entirely consumed by one or two media installations. Take Doug Akin's "These Restless Minds" as an example. It's sort of a video installation in the round. Three televisions are placed in a circle, each with different images on them. Visitors sit on specially-built risers to watch the televisions. They may recognize Akin's work, which includes producing music videos for funk star Fat Boy Slim and industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails.

Weaver: And in this piece he filmed auctioneers in the Midwest. Different auctioneers. But he didn't do them in their normal role like at a cattle auction. He did it at, like, a truck stop or the side of a pool at a motel, the highway.

[Soundtrack of auctioneers from the videotape]

Sprague: So there's a cinematic shot of a prairie on one TV, while a woman auctioneer glides down an empty escalator, calling out cattle prices, on another TV set.

Weaver: The auctioneers, as you watch it and listen to it, the auctioneers start getting faster and faster, and they almost blend in with the landscape. And it becomes one thing.

Sprague: The point? To convey the madness of our rapidly changing landscape. But you might not "get" that at first. Joan Davidow, Director Emeritus of the Arlington Museum of Art, admits even she sometimes has trouble understanding this type of art.

Joan Davidow, Director Emeritus of the Arlington Museum of Art: Oh, I think there is a younger audience for this art form because they are that much more in tune with this kind of imagery. And it's the same old problem. It's not in frames. And contemporary art isn't. So it's one more art form that's not art in frames.

Sprague: The DMA may have a few advantages over other museums that collect media-based art. First, Dallas is slightly younger than most other urban areas in the United States. Second, there are several important local private collectors of contemporary art. And third, as Bart Weiss explains, there are also a lot of people here who work with technology in their daily lives.

Weiss: That is sort of their basic experience in life, and when they come to a museum and see a very 17th- or 18th-century approach to art, as opposed a 21st-century approach to art, it doesn't resonate with them as well. So, that being, these people are generators of the new economy, it certainly makes economic sense for a museum who wants to keep its contributor base moving, to have work that represents media where they feel comfortable.

Sprague: But the DMA still lags behind museums like the Walker in Minneapolis or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in its collection of media arts. And the DMA doesn't have a curator devoted solely to this medium, either, as some other major museums do. However, advocates of contemporary art, like Joan Davidow, say the DMA's eight pieces are forming an important cultural niche in the city.

Davidow: It gives us an edge to keep us up to the minute and to be distinctive; rather than to have one of this and one of this, we have a cluster of something that's important and that's happening right now.

Sprague: DMA curators say they plan to continue collecting media-based art. And while their current pieces may often take up a whole gallery, you can imagine the video installation of the future being quite different. With flat screen televisions, you may soon be more likely to find even cutting-edge media installations in a frame on the wall. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.