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 to $225,000. That figure is almost equaled by in-kind support, ranging from the museum’s award-winning graphics to the wine served at openings, and a handful of part-time staffers are complemented by an immense volunteer work force, which saves uncounted thousands. Major fundraisers like the annual Art Auction and Halloween Haunted House have become must-do’s on the Arlington calendar of events.

Davidow’s grab bag of skills acquired in her previous life may have made her uniquely qualified to manage a bootstrap operation, but few observers—including the board that hired her—could have anticipated the fearlessness with which she became the champion of the latest and often most contentious Texas art. Only months after taking charge, Davidow brought in a traveling exhibit, “Texas Dialogues.” At the opening, new corporate sponsors stepped respectfully around a motorized blade embedded in the floor—a commentary on the mechanistic menace of modern dwellings—while watching Houston-based art provocateurs the Art Guys celebrate Arlington’s signature industry by ceremonially burning a baseball bat and ball.

Neither the sponsors nor the spectators ran for the exits. “They continue to come and they continue to learn,” Davidow says. That’s largely because Davidow sees her principal role as educator rather than agitator. “My job is to teach,” she says. “That’s why I do what I do. I have to pull together concepts that make sense to my audience but that also accurately reflect the art that’s being done in Texas.” Davidow has struck that balance with a series of ingeniously crafted theme shows, a format traditionally dismissed as lightweight by most museum professionals, who prefer the kind of rigorous parsing of artists and movements that ensures a reputation for painstaking if often impenetrable scholarship.

Starting with the basic Texas theme, Davidow’s 1991 exhibit “The Land” placed familiar icons alongside modernist conundrums, allowing the uninitiated to explore the common ground between a superrealist painting of a Big Bend landscape and the rocks-covered-with-sod conceptual sculpture lying on the floor nearby. Subsequent shows have focused on subjects as disparate as how contemporary artists recycle everyday objects, artists’ takes on suburbia, and how Asian American photographers portray their own communities. “Traditionally, museums have isolated themselves from the real world,” Davidow says. “I want to show how much we are a part of the real world.”

While the theme shows have allowed neophytes to get comfortable with contemporary art, they have also provided surprises even for insiders. Scouting in artists’ studios, Davidow often runs across trends tangentially related to the theme at hand, providing the material for intriguing sequels. This fall’s “Women’s Work,” a look at how young female artists are ironically revisiting such traditional women’s activities as quilting and dressmaking, will be followed in the spring by “Boys’ Toys” (opening May 23), an equally provocative examination of how young male artists are addressing such stereotypical interests as war, tools, toys, and power. Local critics who roasted “Women’s Work” for turning back the clock on gender equality missed the timeliness of Davidow’s theme in a decidedly post-feminist cultural climate.

As hard as she works to keep up with artists in their studios, Davidow is at equal pains to help her public deal with the shock of the new. Pieces inappropriate for younger viewers often end up in discrete alcoves with warning labels; to defuse the impact of a realism show featuring several naked figures, Davidow hosted a public give-and-take session about issues of censorship and nudity in art. At exhibition openings, the former radio personality wanders the floor with a cordless microphone, doing radio-style interviews with participating artists, bridging the gulf between makers of contemporary art and their often-puzzled and not infrequently intimidated audience. Visitors on any given day are likely to receive similar attention. “If I’m around, I’m going to talk to everyone on the floor—‘Glad you came. Do you have any questions?’”—Davidow says. “Once people get comfortable coming in here, they’ll come back. The problem is how to get them to cross that line.”

While Davidow is keenly aware that contemporary art will always remain a relatively rarefied taste, she hopes that her ambitious education program will get kids across the line well before they have left elementary school. In addition to a popular summer art camp, the AMA hosts a free Saturday afternoon family art encounter during the run of each show. Here, kids are guided through the exhibit with interactive workbooks and given a chance to experiment with the same techniques the artists use. And an assortment of AMA youth programs were cited in a recent national award from the Bravo cable channel, among them an annual exhibition of work by Arlington schoolchildren and a pilot program called Night Shelter, which allowed homeless children to draw and later publish a calendar on their ideas of home, with the proceeds going to their shelter. “Art has been so enriching in my life that I believe it can enrich everybody’s life,” Davidow says. “Good art is about thinking. It’s not about pretty pictures. It can be pretty pictures. But it’s got to be about thinking.”

Success has now brought Davidow and the AMA to a watershed. In November the museum put on display (through January 3) a model and drawings for a museum renovation and expansion by Fort Worth—born, Harvard-educated, and Los Angeles—based architect Neil Denari, whose career has suddenly begun to take off internationally. Denari’s design subtly updates the building’s old-fashioned modernism—the only major structural change is the addition of a four-story glass elevator to bring light down into the gallery and basement classrooms—and promises to add architectural distinction to the AMA’s existing kudos.

But a minimum of $2 million is needed for construction and an operating endowment, and even the intrepid Davidow admits to qualms about raising it. “It’s scary,” she says. “It isn’t easy for me to raise what I need to operate now. I don’t know if I have it in me.” Scarier, Davidow is asked, than running a home and raising two children? The woman who had her children at the tail end of the baby boom and has now transformed herself into the patron saint of Texas’ Generation X artists—many of them younger than her own sons—reflects for a moment before answering. “Are you kidding?” she says. “Being a mother and homemaker is a really scary job.”