Dallas Museum of Art: the collection

When planning my Churchill Fellowship trip to the US, Dallas was a must. I’d read so much about the amazing audience development research at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) and I knew that I wanted to see the education programmes in action and meet the staff. Over the past few days I have spent many happy hours at DMA and have absolutely loved my time there. A single blog post would go on for days, so I’m going to break this up into more manageable chunks, starting with the building and collection itself, to give a bit of context.

In advance of my visit, I’d been so focussed on the education programmes that I hadn’t really thought about the collections I was going to see, which was a bit daft because the place blew my mind. The building is absolutely stunning – all cream marble and clean modernist lines. The largest gallery has the volume of a cathedral, and the cafe is equally impressive in a space that measures the full height of the building, with a spectacular Rauschenberg on one wall and a Chihuly installation on the other.

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This long passageway runs the length of the museum
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DMA cafe

Each of the four floors is calm and inviting; high horizontal windows and internal courtyards flood the galleries with natural light, and there is easy access to the other floors as broad staircases link one space to another. A large passageway runs the length of the building, sloping downhill because the street level at one end of the building is much higher than street level at the other (the museum runs the length of an entire block).

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The Arts of Africa gallery

Level 1 shows modern and contemporary practice in the main gallery, and four smaller galleries branching off it have temporary displays. Unfortunately, my visit fell between exhibitions, but you would usually see exhibitions on Level 1 too. The Center for Creative Connections is also on Level 1, located in the heart of the building and highly visible to all passing visitors; this is the education centre and I’ll be returning to it in detail in another blog post.

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Modern and Contemporary art displays, Level 1

Level 2 shows Greek and Roman art, and 17th-20th century European art, including a nice collection of Impressionist, Symbolist, Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist work.

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Head of a Youth, Roman, Antonine period c.AD 160-170

Level 3 shows African, Asian and Pacific Island art, as well as 17th-19th century decorative arts. These galleries have some incredible objects; I particularly enjoyed the African and Pacific Island displays as there were so many varied and rich examples, quite different from the sparse smatterings we tend to get in UK collections. There was a small room of Japanese enamel and cloissonné which was phenomenal – so, so, so beautiful!

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Memorial figure (uli), Papua New Guinea, early 20th century
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Meiji period vases, enamel with silver, late 19th century

Level 3 also displays the Wendy & Emery Reves collection, recreating some of the rooms in their Villa La Pausa home on the French Riviera. The house had previously been owned by Coco Chanel and the Reves filled it with their collection of fine art, Chinese export ware ceramics, carpets, period furniture and – Emery’s particular passion – ornate gold frames. The re-creation of Wendy Reves’ bedroom has to be seen to be believed. Winston Churchill was a friend of the Reves and there is a small display of paintings he made while he was staying with them, alongside his paintbox and a box of his cigars.

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Wendy and Emery Reves Collection
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Re-creation of Wendy Reves’ bedroom

Level 4 shows art of the Ancient Americas (indigenous peoples of Pre-Colombian cultures) as well as colonial art, decorative art and 20th century American art. I’ve visited both Mexico and Peru and I’m totally fixated with the art of this region so these galleries were my favourites. I like the Moche pots and the small ceramics figures. There was an extraordinary depiction of Xipe Totec, a cult priest who wears the skin of a sacrificed human – you can see the gash across his fleshy shirt where the heart had been taken out and it doesn’t quite ‘button up’ at the back. The second ‘face’ is roped onto the head. Disgusting and awesome.

I was really struck by the quality of the curation across the whole museum – objects are well spaced and beautifully presented. Each object has room to breathe and you get the impression that only the best works are on display; there’s no filler here. Not surprisingly, the visitor experience team is well trained and I enjoyed brief, friendly chats with a number of the invigilation staff who clearly take pride in their museum. Who knows if or when I’ll ever have the opportunity to return, but at least I have the catalogue to remind me of everything I’ve seen.

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Dog with Human Mask, Mexico, state of Colima, c.BC 100 – AD 200

Header image: Banquete chair with pandas, designed 2006, by Fernando Campana

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