I am very happy now that the Dallas Museum of Art has instituted free general admission to its public galleries. There is a qualitative difference when paying ten bucks to get into a museum as there is when it is gratis. It you shell out the bucks, you feel you have an obligation to get your money’s worth – to see and do and cram as much as possible into the experience. You are under pressure to enjoy yourself. With free admission you can wander in and out and have a relaxed and interested time.
When the museum first opened in downtown (moving from Fair Park) in 1983 I was working in the old (now long blown up to make room for the First Baptist Church’s Parking Garage) Cotton Exchange building, only a couple blocks from the museum. What I loved to do was to carve out an hour or so, maybe over lunch, maybe before I went home, and simply go to the museum and look at one single work of art. I’d plan it out ahead of time, choose a painting or sculpture, and then go stare at the crazy thing, and nothing else, for an hour. It was an amazing way to get to know a work – a lot different than a casual stroll through a gallery.
That’s not something you can do with a ten buck admission price.
So we were down there and I was interested in looking at the Rothko piece, Orange, Red and Red. I really enjoyed the play Red at the Wyly in February and wanted to see one of his paintings in the flesh, so to speak. During the play, the actors playing Rothko and his assistant actually splashed paint, the undercolor, covering a huge canvas. The people producing the play worked hard on getting the details right and partnered with the DMA – which made me thirst to lay my eyes on the real deal.
The problem was, I didn’t know where the Rothko was. It might have been up on the third level with the American paintings, but I didn’t see it there – it was too modern and abstract for that gallery anyway.
Later, we walked into a modern gallery off the Ross Avenue side of the museum and I thought for sure it would be in there – it fit in. But I couldn’t spot the thing so I walked up to a guard.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “Do you know where the Rothko is?”
“The Ronco?” he said.
“No, the Rothko… It’s a painting by Mark Rothko, they did a play… it’s an important… He was a painter in New York in like the fifties and sixties.”
The guard looked at me with a blank, confused look. “Maybe it’s in the American section.”
“I looked there and didn’t see it, but maybe I missed it.”
“Oh, and these paintings down here, in this gallery, they are all by female artists.”
He gave me a big, proud smile… he had found something he knew that I didn’t. I thanked him for his help and as I turned I looked over his shoulder and there, right there, behind and past him and out the entrance to the gallery, hanging on the wall of the big main spine corridor, was the Rothko. I couldn’t miss it.
So I took some time and stood there, not an hour… but at least a few minutes and looked at it. I could imagine the artist throwing down those rectangular fields of color and then staring at the work as it progressed… just like the guy in the play did.
It was pretty cool. And it was free.