Skip to content

Day in Dallas: Exploring the Dallas Arts District

Dallas: our sister to the south, home of both the eponymous soap opera and the largest contiguous urban arts district in the nation.
All photos by Cori Baker

Dallas: our sister to the south, home of both the eponymous soap opera and the largest contiguous urban arts district in the nation. Dallas Arts District spans 17-blocks and 68-acres, bearing the mark of hundreds of artists and it’s all just a short DART ride away. I like art. I like food. I like taking a Wednesday off work to scamper around Dallas in search of art and food. The Dallas Arts District is a natural, even inevitable destination.

Deep Ellum

The Cosmic Journey by Lesli Marshall

There’s something about Deep Ellum in the morning. It might be the only time it’s sedate, no one on the streets other than me and the openers at Deep Ellum’s most famous barbecue joint, Pecan Lodge. I’m touring a famous art project splashed across the face of the city. Ocean has his 11. Deep Ellum has its 42.

Scott Rohrman, owner of 42 Real Estate, helped kick off the 42 Murals project, in which over 200 artists submitted work to be considered for 42 murals spread throughout the neighborhood. These aren’t by any means the only murals to be found in Deep Ellum, so though Dallas Morning News has a mobile 42 Mural tour, I set off without a guide.

Viva Deep Ellum by Jorge Gutierrez, The Cosmic Journey by Lesli Marshall, Mega Zee by Sanah Brown: The list of colorful, Instagram-worthy backdrops is endless. There’s another around every corner; Deep Ellum is basically one giant canvas, or perhaps a hundred different canvases woven together, creating a nearly seamless visual adventure.

By a Fuzzy’s Taco, you’ll find Heartbeats by Brett Dyer and The Urban Oasis, Eric Mancini’s breathtaking, blank-faced twist on Warhol’s iconic Marilyn Prints. undefined, by Emma Miller and Jane Beaird is an inviting collaboration and Night Owl by Joe Skilz has a cosmic, unshakeable echo of Dali. Jeremy Biggers’ Social Worship is an exercise in duality and The Devil and Robert Johnson by Daniel Driensky calls up the ghost of Deep Ellum blues and the myth of the musician who sold his soul to the devil.

I’m stumped by an abstract, blocky mural that’s eaten up an entire side of a building, beside Apples by Carolyn Xu and Cake by Gabe McCool. Color on color, I fall in love with it instantly, but even after extensive googling, I still don’t know what it is or who created it.

Deep Ellum is one of Dallas’ most thriving cultural centers with lots of art and a jazzy streak which made it famous long ago. (For context, Sons of Hermann Hall, a Texas Historic Landmark and dance hall, is almost 100 years old.) Pride runs deep. The murals are a bold and public display of art for the sake of celebrating art, for articulating truth in the light where it is exposed to all the elements.

Bishop Arts District

Oak Cliff's Batgirl
Oak Cliff’s Batgirl by Steve Hunter

It’s nearing 11 a.m. when neighborhoods all around Dallas typically wake up, including Bishop Arts, a piece of Oak Cliff that’s famously alive. It takes only a short jog around, peeking in various alleys, to discover the insta-famous “Merry Christmas You Filthy Animal” sign, the Love Equation Wall, and, my personal favorite, Oak Cliff’s Batgirl. By Steve Hunter, Batgirl is a fabulous tribute to dancer and actress Yvonne Craig who played Batgirl in the ‘60s and, as the wall shouts, was “Oak Cliff Raised!”

Bishop Arts also has great food, so do yourself a favor and grab a snack. I follow my stomach, and the crowds, to Oddfellows. With an open patio that’s already crowded and intimate tables, Oddfellows hits the mark between rustic and trendy. A Bloody Mary garnished with a cheerful olive and a pickled carrot pairs spectacularly with a huge plate of Huevos Rancheros which you will probably finish. Though you’ll be stuffed, you won’t be sorry as you pay your bill and backtrack down Bishop Road to visit some of the galleries.

Ginger Fox Gallery is a contemporary art gallery as well as a working studio for Ginger herself. If you’re lucky, you’ll find her painting there while you browse works of art spanning various themes, mediums and styles, from abstracts to explorations of magical realism. It’s next door to the Artisan’s Collective, a gallery and shop featuring the eclectic work of over 50 Dallas area artisans.

The Kemp House is unmissable. An art project by Eric Mancini, he originally painted it with over 70 cans of spray paint, despite—or perhaps because of—the house’s incoming demolition. Following the July 7 Dallas shootings, he returned to add the heartfelt proclamation “Dallas Strong.”

Finally, there’s nothing better than resting from a long walk in a warm, slightly dim room, surrounded by books and drinking a cortado. For this, there is only one place that will do: Wild Detectives. Take a break and rejuvenate. The Design District is next.

Dallas Design District

Fabrication Yard

On the way to the Dallas Design District, however, make a stop at The Fabrication Yard in Trinity Groves, otherwise known as “the free wall.” This is one of the only places in Dallas—if not the only place—where graffiti is legal, not only to reduce illegal graffiti but to encourage creativity and ingenuity. There’s something special about it. Temporality feels particularly potent here because it won’t be there for long. One day, you may see Squidward glowering at you and the next, Cookie Monster has been painted over him, and the next, some girl (me) who hasn’t tagged anything before (me) has painted her name very neatly over his head. It’s created for the joy of creating it, a giant collaborative work. It isn’t valuable because of the materials used or the skill of the artist, but because tomorrow it might be gone, and you are one of the few who will see it today.

After this detour, it’s onto the Design District, where there’s at least one gallery, studio or showroom on every corner. Dragon Street and its neighbors are in the midst of an ever-expanding boom. Real estate prices are rocketing and the district wears its edgy-but-elegant reputation like a well-tailored coat.

One of the most famous landmarks is the Dallas Contemporary Museum, where the Richard Phillips’ controversial Playboy Marfa (2013) proudly towers over the street, relocated there from West Texas where it was not entirely welcome. The Dallas Contemporary museum does not collect, but seeks out exhibitions that offer something new and challenging so that the displays are constantly evolving, maturing and dismantling. Until March 12, the museum features Ross Bleckner, John Houck and Bruce Weber.

I’ll admit it: here, I hit a roadblock. I didn’t check the website beforehand, so I arrive to find that they are between exhibits and currently closed. It’s a shame because the museum has a beautiful, industrial feel, softening and roughening up depending on what’s on the walls. It’s always fresh, always innovative, a reflection of the whole district where change is the only constant. As it expands, it’s only growing a little sleeker, a little bigger and a lot better.

Without further ado, it’s time to turn to the crown jewel: Downtown Dallas.

Downtown Dallas

South side construction FINAL, photographed on Thursday, August 27, 2015.
Courtesy of DMA

Klyde Warren Park sits surrounded by the Nasher, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Crow. The Winspear Opera House, Annette Strauss Square and the Meyerson Symphony Center are across the street. It’s the beating heart of the art scene, the center on which everything else converges. If it were a video game, it would be the boss battle.

The Nasher Sculpture Center is home to one of the finest collections of modern and contemporary sculptures in the world, the Raymond and Patsy Nasher Collection, which has been exhibited globally. Hundreds of masterpieces fill the halls in a space specially designed by world-renowned architects Renzo Piano and Peter Walker to show them off at their best. Even the light streams down through a roof that has been engineered to block harmful direct rays.

I visit in time to see two spectacular exhibits from artists enjoying their first solo presentations in the U.S., Kathryn Andrews: Run for President and Sightings: Michael Dean. Andrews’ work marries pop culture and politics, portraying the authority of political office with a clownish bent. As for Dean, his irreverent exhibition of sculptures struggles to communicate; the tongue, phallic and rebellious, features prominently along with fists and open-faced books thrown carelessly on the floor.

The Dallas Museum of Art has a long and proud history. The masterpieces to be found there span centuries, countries and languages, from the cats of Ancient Egypt to political and social satire, to the art of the cocktail, the Dallas Museum of Art has everything. The permanent collection has over 23,000 works of art such as The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church and fantastic exhibitions such as Divine Felines run for a few months at a time. Keep a lookout for upcoming exhibitions such as Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion and The Keir Collection of Islamic Art Gallery.

It’s particularly nice to take a break halfway through touring the DMA. Take a pause in the Hamon Atrium for a snack at the cafe. Rest your eyes. Eat something before you collapse, unless you’re saving yourself for the Klyde Warren food trucks, such as the Butcher Shop which serves delicacies like VooDoo tatertots and braised beef sliders.

The Trammell & Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art is the most comprehensive museum of Asian art in the nation and it’s on our doorstep. One of the museum’s main purposes is to better understand the values celebrated and explored in Asian art. The flavor of the art is yet again different; exceptionally peaceful, it’s a good venue to move through slowly. I was lucky to arrive just in time to see Abhidnya Ghuge’s Flight of the Canyon, No. 2. Inspired by patterns found in nature, Abhidnya Ghuge recreated them using thousands of tiny woodblock-printed paper plates. A site-responsive installation, it is suspended midair, full of light and visually bold even if it is made up of fragile pieces. I’ve been staring at art, more art and nothing but art all day, but I could have kept staring at Flight of the Canyon for another.

On the foothills of giants Nasher, DMA and Crow are wall murals like portals to other worlds. There are jazz clubs, record stores and the occasional speakeasy. Rooftop bars. Free graffiti walls that make Austin’s graffiti park look like a sellout. Sculptures made out of forks and spoons. There is multiculturalism. Magical realism. Clowns. Tongues. Selfies. Food trucks. Dallas arts and culture.

Originally published in Plano Profile‘s February 2017 issue.