For a major piece of public art at White Rock Lake, the future is uncertain

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Birds at White Rock Lake Water Theater behind the Bath House Cultural Center. Photo by Hilary Schleier

Update: The Cultural Affairs Commission has delayed a final decision, allowing time to explore other alternatives for the artwork.

Lake users likely have walked, jogged or cycled past it countless times — that series of poles sticking out of the water behind the Bath House Cultural Center, providing a stage for water wildlife at White Rock Lake.

Aptly named the White Rock Lake Water Theater, the longstanding public art piece graced the cover of our March 2013 issue, in which we marveled at all the little things that make our urban oasis special.

But now, the theater’s days may be numbered. As we’ve reported here before, the piece has deteriorated over the years, and maintenance funds have run out. During a 5 p.m. meeting Thursday at the Latino Cultural Center, the Cultural Affairs Commission will discuss its recommendation to remove the piece.

Many in the art community have expressed concerns to the city over the significance of the artwork and are hoping to postpone the final decision to allow more time to explore alternatives.

“Public art is by definition, art for a public and should be treated as such rather than as a commodity that can easily be de-accessioned or destroyed,” said Noah Simblist, an associate art professor at Southern Methodist University, in a email to the city.

Created by neighborhood artists Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, the original piece installed in 2001 featured 43 steel poles, 20 polycarbonate light poles, 15 floating fiberglass disks, 10-cast stone land elements and 12 aluminum educational wildlife charts. At night, 20 of the poles glowed with solar power collected from the previous day. It was meant to be a work of art that also educates lake goers about the surrounding wildlife.

Today, the lights no longer glow, and most of the poles are covered with lake remnants. Eight of the 12 wildlife charts are faded. All of the floating discs came loose during a storm shortly after the installation. That’s according to a report from the Friends of the Bath House Cultural Center.

Restoring the artwork back to or beyond its original state would cost around $250,000, says Kay Kallos, public art manager for the city’s Cultural Affairs Department. The city’s budget for public art maintenance was completely eliminated in October 2009.

“There were significant budget cuts that year, and this was one of them,” Kallos says. As a result, a requirement for any new public art piece is that it need little to no maintenance.

The Water Theater is harder to maintain since the poles each are bolted to an underwater concrete slab. Kallos says that, aside from the complete restoration, general maintenance costs about $25,000.

The removal of public art is not taken lightly, she says. In fact, it’s very hard to do. According to available records, it has only happened once. In 1991, Susan Pogzeba’s sculpture “Family Group” was removed from Reverchon Park after it was “destroyed by fire and vandals,” Kallos reads from the report.

Bagley, one of the artists who created the Water Theater, says she’s not ready to make a statement about the issue just yet but told the Advocate back in March that, “If they want to improve it, we know a lot now that we didn’t know then and have a lot of new technology. We would be happy to help.”

The question is, who will pay for it?


Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that the Friends of the Bath House Cultural Center had been contributing maintenance funds to the artwork. The group only researched the costs and concluded it was unable to contribute.

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  • lake lover

    Please note the art attracts Cormorants which are the birds that poop and make some sections of the lake really stinky and gross. We don’t build honey pots in Yellowstone to attract bears and we shouldn’t build poles in the lake to attract Cormorants. This junk needs to go…

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  • Duke

    On Jan 24, 2014, at 8:51 AM, Duke wrote:
    Re: Bath House Art

    Have your historians recently researched the origin of the less modern poles around which the “art” has been built, and realize their age and original use? Interesting bath house history there with the steps leading down into a fenced off lake area for the public pool.

    Hard, I mean really hard, to imagine that a city the size of Dallas and with the wealth of Dallas can “completely eliminate” the budget for maintaining public art. I don’t get that.
    Also, it’s not necessary that they function like they originally did. The birds still like them. So why not just let them stay? Removing them costs more.

    Or is that too sensible an idea?

  • Bob

    If a work of art is erected and nobody knows it’s art, is it still art? I’ve ridden past that for years and never knew it was there.

  • Allilew

    I think rather than focusing our energy on bashing the people involved (who probably had good intentions) we could come up with a way to improve the situation. I love the photo by Hilary Schleier (above). I would be willing to buy a copy if they were selling them as a fundraiser for the project.

  • muddy slop hole

    This very expensive ($350,000 +) piece of trash by so called artists, was dead on arrival 1 month after installation when the first storm washed away all (dozens) of the fake, plastic lily pads. They were found around the lake for years and I am sure made their way into the Trinity River watershed. immediately thereafter, as the migratory birds arrived, they started defecating on the solar panel blocking sunlight which powered the lights which also failed. Soon after, the wildlife etchings started fading and the light stanchions began to corrode. The so called artists had no idea what they were doing and made it up with materials as they went along. Inasmuch as this never worked from the beginning as was sold to the city, the artists should refund their fee to the citizens of Dallas who were sold a lemon. If you Google the famous phrase “A sucker is born every minute.”, the City of Dallas web site pops up.