Texas, by a recent census estimate, has 28.9 million people across its 268,581 square miles of land. It is home to the most diverse city in the United States (Houston), some 80 state parks spread from the Gulf of Mexico to the Panhandle, and a few of the best and the worst political actors in our modern nation.
Within all this, there’s a thriving arts community — from El Paso to Texarkana, Brownsville to Amarillo, and everything in between. Yet sometimes Texas doesn’t receive due credit when it comes to celebrating the vibrant institutions and individuals who are defining the arts, not only for Texas, but for the country’s artistic landscape at large.
In this new questionnaire series, taking some inspiration from Proust, we’ll be speaking with Texas artists, arts leaders and professionals of all kinds as a way for them to show us a more personal look into the work they’re doing and the best-of whatever corner of the state they call home.
First up, we’re turning to Dallas. Artists Tamara Johnson and Trey Burns launched their non-profit outdoor sculpture space, Sweet Pass Sculpture Park, in October 2018. Programming features contemporary outdoor format projects from emerging and mid-career artists, set on a rented acre lot on the city’s west side.
To date, Johnson and Burns have worked with over 100 local and international artists, including collaborative projects with local universities like Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, and the University of North Texas, as well as the Dallas Boys & Girls Club and the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce and North Park Center.
Johnson and Burns answered questions together.
Describe the city of Dallas in three words.
Concentric traffic jams.
How would you describe the Dallas arts community?
The arts community in Dallas functions on many levels — incredible private collections, high end contemporary galleries, an art fair, great museums, DIY artist spaces, and projects supported by the Office of Arts and Culture. What’s truly great is when these art spaces can cross-pollinate.
What do you think is the biggest asset of the Dallas arts community?
We find that the majority of Dallasites believe that art = cultural value. This city loves art, people are genuinely curious, and it is nice to be part of it.
What do you think the aim of art should be? And how does Sweet Pass contribute to fulfilling that aim?
Art should be difficult to explain, like a dream or an idiom from another language. We think it’s unfair for art to be asked to solve policy problems when what it’s naturally good at is generating inquiry and revealing new ways of seeing. Sweet Pass is a project that bills itself as a park, which conjures ideas of gathering in a public / democratic space — our position is that art is at its best when it brings people together for shared experiences.
What do you value most about your current work?
We like working with artists to create their vision and we go to great lengths to help in any way we can. We help fabricate, we let people crash at our place, we pick up work from all over the state – it’s a labor of love. We also put just as much work into figuring out ways to help people visiting Sweet Pass find something for themselves in the work. When someone comes out for the first time and then connects to something in the park, it’s very rewarding.
What do you consider the greatest achievement of Sweet Pass, so far?
We started Sweet Pass after a month of moving to Dallas. In order to be part of the West Dallas Art Walk, we put together our first show in 25 days. At one point, we drove down to San Antonio and back with Tamara’s dad’s truck and trailer to pick up some large sculptures from Buster Graybill — it was a long day.
How do you want to see the state-wide Texas arts community evolve?
We would like to see more support for experimental programs and permanent funding for temporary projects. The arts funding should integrate artists more, they are the ones who naturally enrich cities, towns, and neighborhoods (not people who just want to use the arts as a way to fuel development). We also talk quite a bit about the need for alternative forms of art school, things like BHQFU (Bill High Quality Foundation University) in New York or The Mountain School of Arts in Los Angeles. This exigency of the debt model isn’t sustainable and something like this is paramount to ensuring the next generation of artists can find places to learn and grow.
If y’all weren’t doing this, what would you be doing instead?
Commercial real estate? Reality TV Power Couple? No idea — we can’t imagine doing anything else. A good friend of ours once said “I wouldn’t be an artist if I didn’t have to”… that rings true for us. This is what we love and we are always trying to find and build a community of people that feel the same way.
Sweet Pass Sculpture Park is located at 402 Fabrication Street, Dallas, TX 75212. The exhibitions “After World Cam” continues through Feb. 29, and “Echo Stop” runs through Feb. 29 through March 8. sweetpasssculpturepark.com