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How the Arts Are Transforming Dallas

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Photo: Martha Camarillo

Dallas is texas at its most american, so rich in archetypes and stereotypes—oil tycoons, the grassy knoll, the Dallas Cowboys, Southfork—that it has become a psychic destination, hardwired into the national collective unconsciousness. This month Dallas embraces two of its most beloved icons. The downtown flagship store of Neiman Marcus, inviolable symbol of both the city and the American retail industry, is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a gala and a monthlong series of art-meets-fashion installations. A few miles away, everyone in the city, the fashion-aware and the fashion-oblivious, will muster in Fair Park for the 121-year-old State Fair of Texas—the biggest, of course, in the country. Three million fairgoers will gape at the 52-foot-tall mechanical cowboy Big Tex, catch a livestock show, cheer the Longhorns or the Sooners at the annual Texas vs. Oklahoma game, and eat ungodly fried food. Even the fanciest socialites in Dallas—ordinarily given to $90 tasting menus of neo-Southwestern fare amid the sleek splendors of the restaurant Stephan Pyles—rhapsodize about the abandonment to be found in fried Coke batter.

Dallas has a gift for entertaining two contradictory notions at once, such as its rowdy state fair and the delicately beautiful National Historic Landmark where it is held: Fair Park contains the largest collection of Art Deco exposition-style architecture in the country. The Dallas Opera, famed for having presented the United States debuts of Joan Sutherland and Plácido Domingo, stages its opening-night galas here in the Hall of State. A rococo riot of All-Hail-Texas iconography, with masterly WPA-era murals of happy cotton-pickers on the walls and mosaic armadillos scampering along the marble floors, the Hall of State inspires awe. It also proves that Dallas should be more like Texas, not less.

The high end of American life now being nearly as franchised as the low end, Dallas—which has the inevitable outpost of Nobu—is as threatened as any other American city whose singular character is being squashed by the careful good taste of corporate branding. On the other hand, Dallas believes in redemption through real estate: I. M. Pei's Dallas City Hall began in 1965 as a stab at civic rebirth, and Philip Johnson's John F. Kennedy Memorial is a luminous declaration of architecture's power. Design is built into Dallas's DNA, and it's once again making news. Along with the highly publicized $400 million–plus gift of art and money to the Dallas Museum of Art from an unusual consortium of local collectors, a staggering array of marquee designers is reimagining downtown. The Arts District alone, whose cornerstone is the DMA, will shortly have buildings by four Pritzker Prize–winning architects fronting one street: first was I. M. Pei's Meyerson Symphony Center; then came Renzo Piano's Nasher Sculpture Center; and 2009 will see the completion of Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster's contributions to the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. Santiago Calatrava—the ultimate architectural hired gun—is designing three epic bridges for the troubled Trinity River Corridor Project, which may finally give Dallas the kind of grand central public space that draws people to San Antonio and Austin. One span is 40 stories tall and intended to be the local equivalent of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, an outsize beacon for the reach of the New Dallas. As the city's current marketing slogan goes, Live large, think big.

For newcomers, the first glimpse of the skyline brings a jolt of the familiar, thanks to the TV brain slap of Dallas. The reproduction of the original jaunty Pegasus sign atop the Magnolia Hotel, the former headquarters of Magnolia Petroleum Company (later Mobil Oil), is ablaze in all its neon glory. And there's something wonderfully reassuring about the revolving geodesic dome crowning the 50-story Reunion Tower, a grand folly that can be seen from anywhere in the city; in the evenings, the dome is lit up like a radioactive sea anemone, a beautiful exuberance straight out of Las Vegas.

I immediately felt at home in Dallas. It made sense to me. Like Miami, where I grew up and still live, it's a brash, muscular, and immodest metropolis that believes in putting on a show—and exhibits all the usual insecurities of show people. It also chafes under the yoke of its civic clichés but doesn't quite know what would be left if they were all shaken off. My earlier experience of the city included a chance meeting in a raucous New Orleans dive many years ago. For no apparent reason, a petite middle-aged woman in a cowgirl hat suddenly jumped on top of a table and announced, "I'm from Dallas, Texas, and I'll kick the ass of any damn man in this bar."

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