Fort Worth Arts Moves Forward

Among the many changes to the inside of the midcentury visual and performing arts center at 1300 Gendy Street in Fort Worth is that management finally tore out the carpet, a final blow to the carpet lobby’s dominance in the Cultural District. (The neighboring Amon Carter Museum of American Art did the deed during their 2019 transformation.)

After a winter storm caused significant damage to the already water-stained ceilings, the staff got to work in December replacing the floors, ceilings and shrinking the number of galleries from nine to seven and an outdoor gallery. The walls have fresh coats of paint and the concrete floors have been restored. What were formerly cramped, awkward vanity galleries have opened up, allowing the viewer and art to breathe.

The aesthetic changes give the former site of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth a fresher, confident feel, doing justice to the space. And it’s deserved. Sitting across Lancaster Avenue, where the city’s three renowned art museums, the Carter, Kimbell and Modern, were designed by renowned architects, the building has not fit in since its predecessor moved.

The refresh of the gallery and performance venue, formerly the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, is among the many changes pursued by newly-rebranded Arts Fort Worth. Founded in 1963 and formerly known as the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, the rebranding reflects what outgoing Arts Fort Worth President and CEO Karen Wiley said fits its mission of helping artists while consolidating multiple entities under a single umbrella. Wiley announced she would retire at the end of June.

It’s not the first time the building’s been upgraded. It originally opened in 1954 as the home of the Fort Worth Art Center, which later became The Modern. Herbert Bayer, an Austrian-trained architect who became best known for his quirky graphic designs, conceived the first building. In 1966, local architect Joseph Pelich designed the William Edrington Scott Theater next door, a 468-seat thrust stage, and a third addition came in 1974, designed by the legendary Texas firm O’Neill Ford and Associates.

The Arts Council was established as a financial organization for the city’s biggest visual and performing arts organizations, including the so-called Big Three (Modern, Kimbell and Carter museums) and the Big Four (symphony, ballet and opera and, later, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition). They then included the burgeoning smaller arts organizations, said Wiley, who joined Arts Fort Worth in 2015. In 2001, the city allocated funds for a public art program, giving management responsibilities to the organization with the City Art Commission advising.

When the Modern moved into their Tadao Ando-designed building in 2002, the city, which owns the Gendy property, was presented with an opportunity to create a cultural or heritage center. After mulling the site’s future, the city offered daily management to the organization.

That opened up opportunities for the community, creating a physical presence for artists, arts organizations and the council itself. Since then, they added the Hardy and Betty Sanders Theater, a black box theater used by Stage West, Stolen Shakespeare Guild and other organizations. Other arts organizations rented space in the facility. A restaurant even opened in the front gallery.

Then the restaurant closed. Stage West moved into its own theater. The carpet remained stained.

The council itself and Scott Theater remained the better-known entities than the center, with the successful youth performing arts groups KWC Performing Arts, formerly Kids Who Care, and Imagination Celebration.

Meanwhile, the center remained a novelty and inaccessible, especially after the city began to charge for parking.

Wiley is trained as an artist. When she became president and CEO in 2015, she saw problems and opportunities from a manager’s and artist’s perspective. The community, including artists, dismissed the center as a theater with galleries, instead of a full-fledged arts center.

“When I got here, all of our galleries were basically vanity galleries, where artists can come and pay to exhibit. And I have never felt that that is the best use of space. Because artists need to be represented,” she said. “I’ve always had galleries in the facilities that I’ve managed, and finding ways to support your operational expenses, and for staffing, but also for paint on the walls and white balls in the gallery and, you know, in the cleaning and the promotion, and  it takes a lot, but I feel that artists need to have representation and that they need to have a chance to present their work in the best possible way.”

The review process changed, and focused, Wiley said, on quality, not quantity.

Wiley and her team asked, “Should every gallery be occupied? How are shows selected? How do we make up the losses?”

Arts Fort Worth also expanded its offerings, offering artist residencies, including the new Emerging Artist Residency program and a residency for an arts collective.

The Emerging Artist Residency program aims to help practicing creatives offset the cost of living by providing free studio space for up to 10 months with a stipend for materials and a solo exhibition at the end of the residency.

They also established an in-house Original Works Series of plays and weekly talks with artists, curators and educators. The pandemic moved those events online.

Last year, in tandem with new media/video projecting organization Aurora, they presented New Stories, New Futures. Spanning two evenings and in tandem with the relighting of the Will Rogers Memorial Center Tower across the street, regional artists presented projection-based artists onto the tower, inside the galleries and in an adjacent parking garage.

But Arts Fort Worth’s physical home may move. Efforts are underway to establish an African American museum in the city. 1300 Gendy is one of those possible locations. Discussions are still underway.

But, as Communications Manager Elena Greer said, they still have a contract with the city and continue their programming.

“As we understand, there are several options. We’re excited about their mission,” she said. “We’re working with and meeting them soon.”

As long as the museum keeps out the carpet.