The Dallas Arts Scene Is Ready for Its Close-Up
As the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination approaches, the eyes of the world will be upon the city, and its cultural leaders are prepared for the attention.
In November 1963, in anticipation of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Texas, a group of Fort Worth cultural leaders hatched a plan, to both honor the president and upend their city’s reputation as a sleepy, unsophisticated backwater. They brought together a collection of locally-owned artwork and mounted a mini-exhibit inside the president’s suite at the Hotel Texas in downtown Fort Worth, where he spent the night on Nov. 21, 1963.
Thomas Eakins’ “Swimming” and Pablo Picasso’s “Angry Owl” were among the pieces President Kennedy saw before he was killed the next afternoon.
When Olivier Meslay, the French-born associate director of curatorial affairs at the Dallas Museum of Art, first learned of this historical footnote, he sensed a unique opportunity for a new exhibit. He would re-assemble the Hotel Texas artwork to commemorate next year’s 50th anniversary of the assassination — an exhibit “not about death, but art.” But when he first proposed the idea to Deedie Potter Rose, the chairman of the museum’s board, he was met with what he called “polite silence.”
“I think there was the feeling that the city of Dallas didn’t want to deal again with this feeling that they are guilty,” Mr. Meslay said during an interview last month.
The show will indeed go on. On May 26, 2013, “Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibit for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy” is set to open at the Dallas Museum of Art, before traveling west to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, where it will be on display until Jan. 12, 2014.
Mr. Mesley’s ultimate argument to Ms. Rose proved both simple and eminently persuasive. “I told her, ‘If we do nothing, what do you think the rest of the country will think?’” he said. “It took her a tenth of a second, and then she understood the point.”
Ms. Rose downplayed those issues. “Our conversation was less about possible board concerns than his strong professional desire as a curator to find an artistic way of appropriately commemorating the event,” she said in an e-mail, “while also acknowledging that as a European, he may view this differently.”
Yet Mr. Meslay’s struggles to mount the show also speak to the larger complexities faced by Dallas cultural and educational organizations as they look ahead to the anniversary. How do you explore Dallas’ troubled history without rubbing salt in old wounds? How do you honor and commemorate tragedy without turning it into a potentially ghoulish tourist experience?
Any initial concerns that the city would not do enough to address the anniversary do not seem to be coming to pass. Earlier this year, Mayor Mike Rawlings of Dallas commissioned a panel of the city’s arts leaders to sensitively commemorate the event. In addition to the Hotel Texas exhibit, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra commissioned a new piece, titled “The World Is Very Different Now,” by Conrad Tao, an 18-year-old American composer. It will be performed as part of a Kennedy Memorial program, Nov. 21 to 24, 2013, along with Darius Milhaud’s “Murder of a Great Chief of State,” which was composed right after the assassination, and pieces by Beethoven and Sibelius.
The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, is planning a series of exhibits and panel discussions throughout the next year, including a symposium tentatively titled “The Politics of Memory,” organized in part with Southern Methodist University.
Certainly the question of tastefulness has been on everyone’s mind.
Mr. Meslay expects that at least 13 and possibly as many as 15 of the 16 pieces that were originally in Kennedy’s suite, will be included in this new exhibit. But he said there will be no Madame Tussaud’s-like replica of how the president’s suite looked that night, only the paintings and sculptures accompanied by photographs of how they were originally displayed at the Hotel Texas.
For its part, the Dallas Symphony was drawn to the idea of commissioning work from a young composer, born decades after the assassination, who might bring a fresh artistic perspective to the historical event. But the organization also did not want to seem somehow glib or lacking gravitas in opting for someone so young.
“Conrad has a deep philosophical outlook on matters and when he visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, it was clear that despite his age his vision is very mature,” said Aldert Vermeulen, the symphony’s director of artistic planning.
Whether all of these events will aid in Dallas’s decades-long process of healing remains an open question. So does the matter of whether cultural and educational organizations will create so many Kennedy-related events that it comes off as exploitative or crass.
“There is potentially a danger of doing too much, but the way you avoid that is commemorating the way they commemorate D-Day or Pearl Harbor, with a quiet, dignified sort of reflection on that time,” said Dr. Dennis Simon, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, who has also served as an advisor to the Sixth Floor Museum.
And, of course, even if the city does manage to strike that careful balance, there is no controlling the news media and pop cultural carnival — books and movies and television specials and the like — that invariably accompanies the round-number anniversary.
“I don’t know what to anticipate once national attention turns to Dallas,” Dr. Simon said.