THE RECYCLED FIFTIES STOREFRONTS ON ARLINGTON’S placid Main Street are a quaint reminder of a time before Six Flags Over Texas and Texas Rangers baseball brought the highway-clogging hordes to this bedroom community midway between Dallas and Fort Worth. But one of those discarded storefronts has become a destination as compelling to Texas aficionados of the avant-garde as the Ballpark in Arlington is to local baseball fans: the former JCPenney department store, which now houses the Arlington Museum of Art. The crowds of several hundred—ranging from matronly volunteers to pierced-and-ponytailed art students—that typically show up at the AMA on opening nights to grapple with sculptures crafted of dental floss or hundreds of thousands of plastic creamer cups (to cite a recent offering) may be a trickle by ballpark standards, but they are a measure of the unlikely success of an institution seemingly as out of its element among Arlington’s mainstream tourist attractions as a Picasso hung on the center field fence.
The AMA isn’t entirely an anomaly on a Texas cultural landscape now dotted with forward-thinking little museums that have found acceptance in smaller cities like Longview, Tyler, and Waco. However, none of these pocket museums has so consistently challenged the hometown audience with cutting-edge art while just as aggressively expanding its community support. In seven years of dramatically rising attendance and increasingly enthusiastic corporate support, the AMA has also established itself as an unflinching advocate of emerging Texas artists, shaming the efforts of far more lavishly funded museums in considerably more arts-conscious neighborhoods. But most remarkably, the AMA has done all this under the aegis of a director who, after spending most of her life as a homemaker and a perennial arts volunteer, didn’t land her first entry-level museum job until she was almost fifty years old. Less than a decade later, the AMA’s Joan Davidow has emerged as arguably the most imaginative and irrepressibly adventurous museum director working in Texas.
Davidow was hired as the AMA’s first director in 1991, vested with the hopes of the privately funded Arlington Art Association, which had nurtured the dream of a local museum since the early fifties before finally acquiring the Penney building for a bargain-basement $150,000 in 1988. Although she had a mere two years’ experience in the museum business, running a suburban contemporary art museum turned out to be a job she had spent her life preparing for.
Raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Davidow grew up attending art classes at the local museum and helping out in her father’s auto parts store. After graduating from Jacksonville University in 1962, she became an “itinerant art teacher” in the public school sys tem, traveling from school to school with art supplies in her car. Forced by the unenlightened policies of the time to quit when her first pregnancy began to show, Davidow started on a new career: raising two young sons, doing the bookkeeping for the auto parts business her husband bought from her father, teaching art part time, and volunteering at arts organizations, which led to her producing arts coverage for the Jacksonville PBS station. Told that she didn’t have a broadcast voice, Davidow studied with a voice coach and got on the air. Later she commuted 130 miles a day to complete a master of fine arts degree in painting—and take broadcast courses—at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Davidow took her show on the road when the growing auto parts business brought the family to North Dallas in 1981. Serving as the volunteer coordinator for the art auction at Dallas’ PBS affiliate, Davidow met local artists and realized, she says, that “I was happier out in the art community than I was inside in the studio.” The PBS connection led to a successful audition for the role of Public Radio art critic, and in 1984 Davidow started a highly popular six-year run on North Texas’ KERA-FM, learning in the process “how to talk to an audience that isn’t completely art-knowledgeable.”
With her professional involvement intensifying and her two grown sons out of the nest, Davidow found her thirty-year marriage dissolving. But she resists attempts to interpret her story as a feminist epic of liberation after decades of matrimonial bondage. “I got married and had children at a young age because that’s what we did at my time in history,” she says. “And I’m so glad. I feel fortunate to have had that experience. My plan was not to liberate the person and lose the couple. But I did. And that’s the great loss.”
Meanwhile, one of Davidow’s radio interviewees, Sue Graze, the contemporary art curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, suggested that she apply for a curatorial internship at the museum. Davidow assumed that the museum would want someone much younger, but she applied anyway—and got the position. And when Graze resigned less than a year later, Davidow was named acting assistant curator for contemporary art, organizing and installing several exhibits. “It was home to me,” Davidow says of the museum experience. “Before that it seemed I wasn’t going anywhere. I was just adding skills.”
Still doing her radio critiques on the side (except on matters concerning the DMA), in 1990 Davidow ran across “Woodworks,” the inaugural exhibit of the Arlington Museum of Art—hitherto unknown to her—in its new building. When she learned that the AMA was looking for a director, she showed up on an icy winter night to pitch herself to the board and was quickly offered the job. “If I had known then what I know now,” Davidow says, “I would have said, ‘No way. I can’t do that.’” Confronted with a leaking roof, a basement that periodically flooded, and the lack of basic tools like a fax machine or a computer, Davidow became a fundraising dervish, adding corporate sponsors such as Target, U.S. Trust, and Lockheed Martin and tripling the budget in three years