An Uncertain Future

Tucked in the armpit between I-30 and Dallas’s Fair Park, right outside the border of the development process seeping through Deep Ellum, a former assistant of the iconic Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, an Ecuadorian theorist who cofounded a curatorial network between global port cities, and an Italian philosopher with an infectious laugh live within 300 feet of each other. It’s not a mad lib; it’s the reality of CentralTrak, the UTD-run artist residency in Deep Ellum.

In the grand tradition of essentialization, it seems descriptions like this have become the only way Dallasites know how to describe CentralTrak, if they even describe it at all. The program, in all its intricacies, is flattened to a plane of identities and bodies, and made to serve larger narratives about development, diversity, and its neighborhood. This disservice to the program underscores, perhaps, the reason such a resounding silence has met the news that CentralTrak will lose its lease in July.

Moreover, those pieces of writing that have emerged in the last few months attempt not only to participate in a conversation about CentralTrak that truly never started, but additionally seem committed to espousing a simplistic and manichean view of the program, one in which “the University” and “the Artists” are diametrically opposed, in an affront to the true nuance of the situation. I seek to question, dismantle, and retell the simplistic discourses that have surrounded CentralTrak in recent months by first explicating on the program’s history and genealogy, in the hopes that more elaborate, involved, and engaged conversations emerge from the UTD community and beyond on the fate of this vital program.

As we begin to look at its history, we find that the program precedes its name. Its ancestor, a residency at Southside-on-Lamar, boasted almost 90 artists from across the globe, brought to Dallas to live, work, create, install, and teach. Management of this highly experimental program was eventually turned over to the University of Texas at Dallas, a process masterminded by Richard Brettell, a longstanding upper echelon pillar of the Dallas art scene. The UT Dallas-Southside Artist Residency, as it was newly christened, was called “Dallas’s first advanced urban laboratory for the arts.”

The artists, beyond the work they created in the space, played an important role in changing a neighborhood that was, at the time, understood as so dangerous, violent, and decrepit that, as longtime UTD Professor and CentralTrak ally Greg Metz remembers, “only Canadians were crazy enough to own property there,” into one that now houses the Dallas Police Headquarters, its own boutique hotel, and a flood of unaccompanied high schoolers on a cocktail of party drugs every other weekend. Karen Weiner’s on-site management and round-the-clock commitment to the program was essential to its development at this time. The heavyweight talent that Weiner brought in for the first round of residents lived the artist’s dream. Their only expenses were parking, internet connections, telephone and utility bills, and supplies as they experimented in the kind of petri dish that can only form when open minds and open doors are thrown together.

Eventually, however, the program’s success seemed to be its curse, as gentrification entered the next phase of its pathological rampage, pricing artists out of their spaces while simultaneously using their presence as a marketing tool, ultimately remodeling the spaces for young urban professionals. The program’s end in 2005 seemed to close a chapter in Dallas’ artistic community. The lack of an experimental space was felt by many, and the ground was ripe for something new.

After this hiatus, UTD generously reinvigorated the program in 2008, opening a new space in Exposition Park. Through a collaboration with developer David Gibson, the space was renovated to provide live-work lofts to six mid-career artists and a gallery for exhibitions, performances, lectures, talks, DJ sets, zine fairs, and everything in between. When newly recruited scholar and curator Charissa Terranova inaugurated the space and the new program with a provocative show entitled “States of Exception,” bridging the worlds of emergent design criticism and canonic works in philosophical inquiry, the program ushered in a new era in Dallas’ artistic environment. In a D Magazine interview from the time, Terranova declares that CentralTrak seeks to “educate the public in a sophisticated way because Dallas has such sophisticated things.” To Terranova, and to many others, the explicit position that art history, theory, criticism, and other forms of intellectual inquiry have in art is essential, and CentralTrak brought all that and more to the main stage. Through this time, a faculty advisory board made the bulk of administrative decisions for the program. Made up of actors, painters, theorists, and others who cared, these faculty provided a backbone that informed choices in residents, strategic plans, and attempted to bridge the 18 miles between Expo Park and Richardson.

In early 2010, Kate Sheerin took over from Terranova, who stepped back to continue her scholarly work at the university. Sheerin, though entering with less formal scholarly stature than Terranova, had an incredible acumen for fundraising. The tradeoff during this epoch, however, was a more hands-off approach to management. Artists were left to their own devices and were checked in on only occasionally. The program chugged along without a hitch, though some argue its vibrance was noticeably absent.

Then, as the endless tide of turnover ebbed back into frame, CentralTrak’s progress was shifted once more when Sheerin stepped down and then-resident Heyd Fontenot was named director. It was through this unexpected and untimely change, however, that CentralTrak found its apex. Under Fontenot’s direction the program took on an entirely new energetic quality. With Fontenot as den-mother, the space, in its entirety, became seemingly public. Community members felt inspired, engaged, and, most importantly, welcomed in the gallery, and residents’ creativities were reinvigorated by the pulsing energy that only supportive and sustained connections can create. Sally Glass, a two-year resident and UTD graduate student during Fontenot’s tenure remembers “you could go at anytime and somebody would be there, somebody would hang out — there were experimental music performances, lectures, shows, anything and everything we wanted.” It was also during this time that CentralTrak seemed to best realize its goals of bridging intelligent academic and artistic inquiry. Glass is also one of the best examples of this spirit in action.

In 2012, the Dallas-native artist and then-resident started semigloss., a print art zine centered around local artistic creation. “There was just so much work and activity and DIY energy that deserved to be documented, if not for posterity, then for the furthering of our creative culture.” Her publication, produced in the newfound porosity of the space and founded on the stability the program provided her rocked the Dallas art scene. People practically sang its praises through the streets, journalists called the magazine “at once beautifully simple and academic to an obtuse effect,” and I personally was connected to folks who are now my closest friends because of its tangible commitment to events and community gathering.

The magazine is one of many projects spun out of CentralTrak during this time and before that made a lasting mark on the way art is produced, consumed, and understood in North Texas, but consistency and sustainability have long been the enemies of projects like this. Glass now lives in Los Angeles, following the understandable process of burnout many artists experience. The drain this creates can be felt across town as artists trained in north Texas flee when the process of engaging in a consuming battle with oppressive administrative and societal structures that refuse to recognize their importance becomes more and more daunting.

Nonetheless, over the past few years, CentralTrak continued to produce its greatest successes. One of the most venerable of these was a fabulous collaboration with the Nasher Sculpture Center on a show called Chalet Dallas. The Chalet was an orchestrated micro-utopia of luxury weaponized for community, installed in the Nasher Sculpture Center for five months last winter. The social sculpture was positioned as an attempt to extend the artist’s “utopian idea of community building through carefully orchestrated social gatherings.” A cornerstone of this experience was the listener, an individual who sat in the space during open hours, listening — that’s it. The artist hoped to bring this original fixture of the exhibit as it was born in Los Angeles, Maneesh Raj Madahar, to Dallas for the next show, and was afforded this opportunity by the generosity of CentralTrak as it hosted Madahar as an artist-in-residence during his tenure. This collaboration was exactly what it seemed the program needed: a connection between local spaces and visiting artists, facilitated by a public university, in order to serve the greater Dallas community. It seemed that in this moment, CentralTrak’s purpose may have been solidified, and many thought this signaled a new era. But, after ten years of astounding success, the sparkle on campus has faded, the twinkle has perhaps lost its buff, and a campus so committed to demographic growth without strategy has all but forgotten about the residency.

While graduate students in the Arts and Humanities and ATEC programs have continued to be CentralTrak residents, their involvements outside of class lean far more toward the Dallas art community than the UT Dallas one. The faculty body that once provided structure, stability, and representation for the incubator met with less and less regularity until finally new administrative bodies had to be formed to maintain the program’s regular functions. Fontenot summarizes the issue in stating that “the small staff at CentralTrak and the artists housed within had such inspiration and energy, but taking the idea to upper administration generally extinguished it.” Understandably, this waning material support and a lapse in critical conversation about the program’s purpose have put its growth and success on the backburner, while also creating an environment in which its tenuous future is nothing but a footnote.

Fontenot’s contract was not renewed in October of 2016, his position was dissolved, and the lease on the space is ending in June of 2017. William Sarradet, a Dallas-born thinker and creative who was slated to begin a residency in late June reflects on the situation with a sadness that is all too familiar to creatives working in Dallas. Sarradet highlights that “the loss of Heyd Fontenot from residence in our community is a sobering casualty of this situation as well.” In the alchemy of creativity, personality proves the most volatile and potent ingredient.

As CentralTrak sits on the cusp between obsolescence and excellence, it is our duty to reinforce our commitment to the arts, accessible intellectual conversation, and the city of Dallas itself. Frank Dufour, the interim director of the program, is in the process of preparing an end of mission report which he ultimately hopes can provide some form of structure within which the program may continue to exist, but he is also worried. “I can plan whatever I want, but I have no idea what the university will commit,” Dufour emphasizes. Planning a smooth transition to another idea of an artists’ residency is nearly impossible without a solid footing.

Furthermore, it is imperative that we acknowledge the particularities of the larger Dallas art ecology when we consider CentralTrak. Taking into account the enslavement of smaller galleries to a profit-generating art market, the geographic sprawl of Dallas’ population, the malaise with which Texans tend to understand art, and an emergent movement that seeks to restrict free and fair access to space, a public university-sponsored residency for artists in North Texas is of greater necessity than ever before.

From Drag Queens enacting politics with their bodies to artists from across the globe obsessively questioning normalcy via everyday objects, CentralTrak has proven itself essential to Dallas’ evolving artistic networks and its rapidly advancing urban fabric. Walking through the gleaming halls of UTD’s Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building, one would find it hard not to run into a piece of art produced by a CentralTrak resident. While it’s clear that UTD understands the position an academically oriented artistic laboratory has had in these last 15 years and has continued to make an honorable commitment to its survival, it’s essential that we look towards the future with a fresh eye, a generous hand, and an approach that centers on community, sophisticated artistic creation, internationally inspired intellectual inquiry, and the good of our city at large.