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Texas, A Concept

The cliché of Texas is that it is a wonderful destination for art. Texas is a place you go for a thrilling museum or concert hall experience, in between a shopping trip for a shiny pair of cowboy boots and then perhaps a restaurant outing for authentic barbecue or Mexicancarnitas. You stay in a boutique hotel that seems incredibly under-priced. Once you’ve purchased souvenirs, however, you return to safer, less remote American territory. Texas is not a place you want to live. Texas has a bad reputation: folks carry guns, religious fundamentalism prevails, and oil companies exploit the state’s natural resources for personal profit.

Texas, however, might be one of the last places in America where truly American art and performance is still being created, work that seems to emerge from a dramatic if not severe landscape and a concomitant lingering pioneer mentality. European traditions are peripheral to the broader taste of Texans. There is an extraordinary amount of money spent on art and performance here, and wealthy patrons take more of a personal involvement in the organizations they support.

Ask most people outside Texas what they know about Waco, for example, and they will likely say it’s the place where U.S Attorney General Janet Reno authorized the FBI raid and assault on David Koresh and his followers, the Branch Davidians. Texans, however, will tell you that it is the place where a young Robert Wilson day-dreamed on the expansive limestone flats, later becoming perhaps the most influential designer and theater director of the late 20th and early 21stcentury.

Texas has an overwhelming respect for modernity and primitivism, largely due to the influence of John de Menil and Dominique Schlumberger, Houstonians who collected more than 16,000 pieces in these categories. It is bad form in Houston, at least, to show off your wealth. The tasteful Menil collection buildings in the Houston museum district rarely show more than a few pieces at a time. An entire building is dedicated to painter Cy Twombly, while another (a former grocery store) holds only four pieces by Dan Flavin, one of them on the exterior of the building and which can only be seen at night. This clean, austere presentation of work sets the tone in Houston, but not necessarily throughout the state.

A significant rivalry exists between the larger cities of Texas. Houstonians consider the people in Dallas vulgar, but Dallas has its own peculiar rivalry with Ft. Worth. Austin thinks of itself as far more hip than Houston, and everyone thinks San Antonio is a bit old-fashioned. Not much goes on in the border town of El Paso, but at least it’s close to Marfa, an extraordinary and quite remote Mecca for contemporary work. And then there are more rural places like Huntsville, where the prison museum prevails, even if it’s also a place where an unusually brilliant dance company, NobleMotion, just started operations.

All of this said, people within Texas feel a certain sense of inferiority when compared with other cultural centers in the United States. It will be the aim of TEXAS, A CONCEPT to document and explore the performing and visual arts in the state and to dispel this unfounded inferiority complex. Texas is much more than an art destination.

an ArtsJournal blog