Near the Bath House Cultural Center on White Rock Lake, there’s a large semi-circle of poles standing in the water. They’re part of an environmental installation designed as rest stops for birds. It sounds peaceful enough, but artists, lake activists and neighborhood groups are sharply at odds over the bird roosts.
What triggered the dispute? The city’s lack of maintenance of the artwork.
The White Rock Lake Water Theater includes 43 metal poles and 20 light poles that arc across the water near the shore. There are also stone pillars on land with metal plaques detailing the kinds of turtles, cormorants and gulls attracted to the little amphitheater.
But the light poles haven’t worked for years. Neither have the solar panels and batteries that were supposed to power them at night. Floating lily pads, designed for turtles to use, were lost early on. Currently, many poles are rusted, some are leaning over, and some plaques are badly scratched.
These days, people often think the Water Theater is just the remains of an old, collapsed dock. In fact, its solar panel is built on a diving platform that’s a leftover from when the Bath House was really used for swimming.
Rich Enthoven is president of the volunteer group, For the Love of the Lake: “Having dilapidated material, art that’s past its lifespan, something that looks like it’s decaying – we don’t think that’s good for White Rock Lake.”
His board passed a resolution asking the city to either renovate the Water Theater or remove it. Tearing it out would cost an estimated $11,000 to $22,000, according to three bids the city’s received that do not include disposal of the materials. Enthoven says his group would have no trouble raising that money. He spoke at a public meeting Saturday at the Bath House, called by the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs to discuss the artwork’s future. Another meeting was held Monday.
Artwork abandoned — by the city?
Several speakers on Saturday said they were stunned when they learned it was an art work. They thought it was abandoned.
Arts advocates say it has been abandoned – by the city of Dallas. In 2009, budget cuts eliminated the $250,000 used to maintain all of Dallas’ public artworks. Artists Frances Bagley and Tom Orr created the Water Theater in 2001 with an estimated 10-year lifespan. But the last time anyone inspected the work, it was the artists themselves — six years ago.
Bagley says the group, Friends of the Bath House, contacted her last year. They’d received complaints about the Water Theater but found they didn’t have the money to renovate it. So they turned the problem over to the city, which could “de-accession” it — sell it off or dispose of it.
And that’s when Bagley started hearing from fellow artists. “When people came forward with their opposition to the de-accessioning of this artwork,” she says, “it really encouraged us and we realized we really do have something to stand up for.”
Arts advocates say de-accessioning would set a bad precedent. Dallas bought a public artwork and then, through its own policies, neglected it – until it had to destroy it. Not a good impression for a city that has been basking in the glamor of its Arts District. Currently, the city stipulates it will only accept public artworks that need little or no maintenance. But all artworks will need maintenance eventually.
City Council member Philip Kingston attended Saturday’s meeting and spoke briefly, saying that what he’d been hearing was people repeatedly saying they couldn’t believe the city would buy artworks and then not spend the money to maintain them. “Well, believe it,” he said. “Believe it.”
The neglect, he said, was symptomatic of a city-wide pattern of “purposely delayed maintenance,” a problem that’s affected everything from artworks to city streets.
But if de-accessioning the Water Theater would set a bad precedent, could it be repaired and what would that entail? Kay Kallos is the manager of the city’s public art program. She says, “If you’re looking at total replacement of all the component parts, it’s going to be very similar to what it cost to put it in in the first place. So somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 is my best guess.”
But Kallos readily admits there are large unknowns here. If the Water Theater were improved — stainless steel for the poles, new LEDs for the lights — the cost would obviously increase. But Kallos says she can’t estimate even what just the annual maintenance costs might be.
When Dallas cut funding for maintenance, it also cut the staff and funding even to assess the artworks. Any new assessment would require a dive team to inspect the underwater foundations. And dive teams, Kallos says, cost $2,000 a day.
At Saturday’s meeting, people were already talking about a possible solution, a typically Dallas one involving private funding and public cooperation. Officially, the question will now be taken up by the city’s public art commission and the Office of Cultural Affairs. But how any of that might resolve the larger issue of citywide, neglected maintenance wasn’t addressed. A further complication: Enthoven notes that the 2008 White Rock Lake master plan bans creating “animal attractants” — specifically, lights at night.
And then there’s the in-between option: letting the Water Theater deteriorate in a “controlled decay.” Many artworks these days are designed with this in mind. But they generally involve ongoing monitoring, so the degrading artwork doesn’t produce any hazards while the site is eventually returned to its original (“pre-artwork”) state. OK, so who’ll pay for the monitoring?
A place for the birds to perch
Outside the Bath House, Latifa Amdur plays on the grass with her granddaughter and her puppy, who happily chews on a squeak toy. Amdur says the Water Theater performs an important function for picnickers and joggers. By providing perches for birds — allowing people onshore to watch flocks of them dive and feed and fly — all those poles keep the birds perched on the water, away from the land.
“When there’s no place for the birds to perch,” Amdur says, “they’re all over here. And then you’re walking around with your grandkids or your puppies, and it’s full of bird poop. And that’s not really pleasant,” she says with a laugh.
Well, there’s one practical reason both art lovers and lake visitors might want to keep the Water Theater around.