DALLAS — Dallas. It’s a city, it’s a vintage television soap opera, and it’s the home of Bush 43. But it’s also a hub of contemporary art? Though this Texas-sized city has a reputation for big hair, football, barbecue, and twang, it also has a long history of support for the visual arts. From the Dallas Museum of Art to the Nasher Sculpture Centre, the Dallas Contemporary, and their rival Fort Worth (which boasts the Amon Carter Museum, the Fort Worth Modern and the internationally renowned Kimbell Museum), the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex has it all. The area’s artistic holdings feature ancient Greco-Roman antiquities, Michelangelo’s first painting, and major exhibitions by contemporary artists like Olafur Eliasson and Kara Walker. Yet as great as these institutions are, one of the most interesting places to view art in Dallas is in a shopping mall.
You might not initially expect to find major artworks from the 20th and 21st centuries in Northpark Center, a glitzy mall in the upscale Dallas Highland Park / Preston Hollow neighborhood. The center sports luxury retailers from Neiman Marcus to Barney’s Valentino, and Gucci, plus everything in between. Instead of the cellphone case, hand lotion, and self-tanning kiosks that we’re used to seeing nestled in between the high-end stores, however, Northpark instead presents art installations by Anthony Gormley, Andy Warhol, and James Rosenquist.
Opened in 1965 by real estate developer and art collector Raymond Nasher, Northpark was at that time the world’s largest indoor climate-controlled shopping center, and was revamped and expanded in 2006. That renovation doubled the retail floor space to just about 2,000,000 square feet. Rather than the lavish array of stores, gourmet restaurants, and a 15-screen movie theater, what makes the mall remarkable is its art. Nasher, who passed away in 2007, and his wife Patsy were avid art lovers and collectors, and amassed an impressive collection of some of the most sought-after sculptures in the world from Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, and Serra to name a few artists. Those prizes are now housed primarily at the eponymous Nasher Sculpture Center in the Dallas Arts District.
Nasher took his love of art and integrated it into his business and development practices. The collector’s vision to incorporate museum-quality art into the retail environment was groundbreaking — Nasher felt that if the average American shopper was not going to go to an art museum, then he would bring the art museum to the average American shopper. Thus, the Northpark Art Collection was born.
Whereas many museums worldwide are hurting for funding and attendance, some 26 million people view the Northpark Art Collection annually, an enviable audience. Though the art is right under the noses of all who walk into the center, one has to wonder if shoppers know what they’re looking at. The answer is that while some do, most don’t. A soccer mom taking her 16-year-old prom dress shopping may not realize that she is standing next to the two-story “Ad Astra” (2005) by Mark di Suvero, the only public di Suvero sculpture in the world that resides indoors. Does the husband rushing from store to store searching for a last-minute anniversary gift stop to contemplate the Frank Stella hanging on the wall, channeling art theory and history to fully comprehend the composition? Probably not. But then again, does that even matter? Does it matter if they stop and pensively gaze at the work with all the sanctimonious trappings of a museum or gallery goer and come away with the meaning of it all, or is enough to simply be exposed to it?
Though many of the people who pass through the doors of Northpark may be unaware that they are looking at the larger-than-life metal silhouettes of Jonathan Barofsky’s “Five Hammering Men” (1982), it doesn’t stop them from gawking at the sheer height of the installation, nor does it cause pause in the children who gleefully play at the hammering figures’ feet, mimicking the gestures of the immense sculptures. The vital aspect of it, I feel, is that visitors are actively engaging with the art, considering its presence, and taking a moment to look at the work. The 26 million visitors that Northpark receives every year may be unaware of the visual treat that lies in store for them when they arrive, but they will never forget it when they leave.
Northpark Center is located at 8687 North Central Expressway, Dallas, Texas.