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?

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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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