DMA Insight

Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art

From its establishment in 1903 as the Dallas Art Association, one of the Museum’s missions has been to collect and exhibit the work of living artists. A review of this history of activity reveals, however, that in the nearly fifty years before the gift of Jackson Pollock's 1947 work Cathedral in 1950 (1950.87), there was hardly a major work of new art collected and scarcely an exhibition mounted of a living artist of high stature in the history of modernism. Pollock's Cathedral is, literally, the founding object in the Dallas Museum of Art’s contemporary collection. One of the first of Jackson Pollock paintings to enter any museum collection in the world was Cathedral, 1947. New York based collector Bernard Reis gifted the work to the then-Dallas Museum of Fine Arts on the appeal of board member (later president) Stanley Marcus. He encouraged his friend Reis to do so in order to fuel his vision for a world class collection in Dallas. Marcus suggested that Reis “gift the Museum an important work by a younger artist” Cathedral was chosen since Reis felt it necessary to place an example of “the most progressive and important new art in the heart of the United States, outside the traditional eastern corridor of culture.” In 1950, the Museum, (then called the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts), the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts were the first public institutions to acquire a classic-period work by Pollock. When DMA trustee Stanley Marcus orchestrated the donation of Cathedral to Dallas from a New York friend, there was virtually no context for the painting either in the Museum or the city.

Although a few individuals such as Marcus and Elizabeth Blake encouraged the Museum’s interest in ambitious new art, the taste of the institution was quite conservative. The politics, too, of the city were conservative: in 1955, in the heart of the red scare years, civic pressure that was both politically reactionary and aesthetically antimodernist was successfully applied to the Museum’s board of trustees to disallow the exhibition or acquisition of work by artists who were known to be communists or communist sympathizers. This state of affairs lasted less than a year before thoughtful and responsible members of the board, with counsel from the American Federation of Arts in New York, were able to reverse a policy so patently at odds with the principle of freedom of expression, but the position of the museum as a place where new art was welcome had been undermined.

In 1956, a splinter group of arts leaders founded the Society for Contemporary Arts (renamed in 1957 the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts), and in 1959 this small but ambitious organization, under the leadership of Elizabeth Blake, appointed a professional director, Douglas MacAgy, who began a brief run presenting a lively and substantive exhibition program. Philosophically, culturally, and artistically driven, the exhibitions included the first René Magritte retrospective in America, a group exhibition organized by Katherine Kuh, the well-known contemporary art curator from Chicago; a collaboration with MOMA and the San Francisco Museum of Art on The Art of Assemblage; and MacAgy’s own shows, American Genius in Review: I; and 1961, a survey of the work of thirty-six abstract expressionist and early pop artists. Presented in 1962, it featured Claes Oldenburg’s Store and the first museum-sponsored staging of one of Oldenburg’s raucous performance pieces or happenings.

By late 1962, the DMCA had lost its rent-free quarters and MacAgy’s contract had been terminated by the board. Margaret McDermott, the president of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, with the support of trustees from the Museum and from the DMCA, led a controversial effort to merge the two museums, amid general concern that there was insufficient support in the city for more than one to flourish. The legacy of the union is an institution in which the dynamic tensions of two agendas, one contemporary and one traditional, still survive.

After the merger of the DMCA and DMFA in 1963, the Museum's collecting activity grew significantly with more than fifteen gifts of abstract expressionist masterpieces by Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and many others, all from Mr. and Mrs. Algur H. Meadows and the Meadows Foundation, Incorporated. At the same time, James A. Clark was building his extraordinary collection of European abstraction, highlighted by works of Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, and Constantin Brancusi, but also including younger artists such as Bridget Riley; much of this collection would come to the DMA by bequest in 1982. During the late 1960s, exhibitions of the work of Mondrian, Jean Dubuffet, William Baziotes, Mark Tobey, and David Smith were presented; and from 1970 the Museum did exhibitions of George Rickey, Burgoyne Diller, James Brooks, Sam Francis, and Max Ernst.

In the early 1980s, the move from Fair Park to the downtown Arts District was planned. Conferring with the architect Edward Larrabee Barnes, director Harry S. Parker III, deputy director and chief curator Steven A. Nash, and Sue Graze commissioned Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Scott Burton, Richard Fleischner, Ellsworth Kelly, and Sol LeWitt to make work to site in the new building and in its exterior courts and sculpture garden. Survey presentations of such well-known artists as William Wiley, Arshile Gorky, Joel Shapiro, Francesco Clemente, and James Surls were accompanied by a very active new series called Concentrations that began in 1981, originally directed by Graze, that featured shows by respected Texas artists (such as Nic Nicosia and Vernon Fisher), projects by nationally and internationally regarded figures (such as Richard Long), and introductions of promising younger artists (such as Jenny Holzer, Mary Lucier, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and Kiki Smith). Concentrations remains an essential element of the DMA’s contemporary art program.

Although several collectors friendly to the DMA were active in the 1980s, notably Rosalie Taubman and Jessie and Charles Price, it was in the 1990s that the wider art world became alert to a great florescence of activity as Howard Rachofsky and Marguerite and Robert Hoffman built their now internationally renowned collections. The Rachofsky House, designed by Richard Meier, was completed in 1996 and assumed a semipublic role in the cultural life of Dallas as a venue for philanthropic and educational events and rotating presentations of the Rachofsky Collection. The Rachofsky Collection, with the collaboration of the collection director Allan Schwartzman, was quite clearly growing far more rapidly and adventurously than the Museum’s own collection and was consciously considered by Rachofsky as a complementary (but not competitive) resource for the community, one that could be, in its nature, more dynamic and edgy than the Museum. To different degrees—depending on whose opinion is being solicited—underlying the situation was a sense, among collectors in Dallas, of pent-up frustration with the limits of the perceived capacity of the Museum to program and collect vigorously in the contemporary art arena.

Dallas had one of the most active and informed communities of private collectors of contemporary art (by this time also prominently including Gayle and Paul Stoffel, Deedie Rose, and Nancy and Tim Hanley), and most of the collectors were supportively aligned with the Dallas Museum of Art and vocally keen for it to work at a level of ambition and vitality commensurate with other well-versed, committed museums across the country. Further, the decision of Raymond Nasher to locate the new home for his renowned modern sculpture collection next door to the DMA’s own significant modern and contemporary collections would, in short order, effect a synergy that would make Dallas an exceptionally interesting international art destination.

In 2001, the Rachofskys donated 19 important works of contemporary art, by far the largest gift of its kind that the Museum had received since the Meadows contributions a couple of decades earlier. Very happily for the institution, their generosity was not singular; the past several years have seen a new and (in Dallas’s history) unprecedented beneficence on the part of the collecting community, which has resulted in the conspicuous enrichment of the Museum’s collection. Contemporary art, encompassing painting, sculpture, works on paper, installation and media-based works, is one of the Museum's major holdings.

The grand, utterly transforming moment came in 2005 when the Hoffmans, Rachofskys, and Roses joined to commit to the Museum by irrevocable bequest their entire collections, amounting to nearly nine hundred works (with future acquisitions to be included, as well). The fortunes of the DMA as a center for postwar and contemporary art were so dramatically improved that the Museum could claim a new, eminent position in the global community of institutions with collections in this field.

Broadly speaking, the interests of the department are American, European, and East Asian art since 1945 with particular expertise in Minimal, post-Minimal and Conceptual art and the practice of drawing within these contexts. The collection also tracks the critical debates surrounding contemporary art and the methodologies utilized in recent art practice, including feminist theory, postcolonial discourse, appropriation, participation, sexuality, and abstraction - and explores historical connections between different regions to reflect a more complex picture of modernism than has been possible in the past. As the collection grows it becomes more international, throwing new light on familiar works, as well as challenging well-known narratives by introducing material from beyond the canon.

Adapted from

  • Gavin Delahunty, "Dallas Museum of Art Contemporary Collection, Contemporary Department Accreditation Draft," 2014.

  • John R. Lane, "Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art," in F__ast forward: contemporary collections for the Dallas Museum of Art, eds. María de Corral and John R. Lane (Dallas Museum of Art ; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 11-22.

  • "Introduction," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Bonnie Pitman (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 10-19.

Web Resources

  • Khan Academy
    Investigate 'A Beginners Guide to Contemporary Art.'

  • Art21
    Read a beginners guide to Contemporary Art.

  • Introduction to Contemporary Art
    Watch a short video from Utah System of Higher Education about basic concepts of Contemporary Art.