Connemara is a lovely piece of nearly virgin real estate north of Dallas. No big developers have desecrated it. No condos. No apartments. No housing developments. yet.
The Williams family, owners of the 72-acre site, want to keep it that way. They won't even let people park on it. To see the culture, you have to get out and walk. Or take a bus that drives in, lets you out, then leaves in a huff of blue diesel.
The Williams inherited the estate. When their kids were growing up it was a fun retreat. Now it' vastly valuable. Metropolitan Dallas is growing up around it. But its owners have plenty of money, and they don't need to develop this land to make even more.
Meanwhile, the land is attracting enormous taxes. Rather than selling it-and paying an enormous capital gains tax-the Williams, especially Frances and daughter Amy Monier, are turning Connemara into a non profit "art and music combine."
If they can legitimize it as such, theirs is a major tax advantage.
Talented sculptors are lured to Connemara with promises of cash and publicity. The first year, artists got only a few hundred dollars. Now they are promised $1,000 to install an original outdoor art piece. But it's not all up-front.
When they deliver the piece, they get $500. The other half is paid when, and if, the piece is removed six weeks later. This split payment policy has come as a rude surprise to several hopefuls.
When one of the artists discovered that his piece might be taken or destroyed if it weren't removed exactly on time, he immediately dismantled it and carted it home, before the show was even over.
Occasionally, the Williams have also made noises about getting materials donated or introducing sculptors to megabuck art collectors. Rich friends who buy art, they intimate, will buy yours. Their failure to come through on these promises is yet another surprise to the unwary artist.
The publicity promise, at least, has finally
come true. Nothing came out the first year, even though some outstanding
work was created for the grounds. More recently, Connemara has
garnered substantial publicity in the regional and local press.
Several stories lauding the Williams' generosity have appeared-usually accompanied by photographs of brave new art growing out of the spacious green hills.
But it's important to consider who benefits the most from this publicity. Is it really the artists? Or are they just a pawn in a self-serving money and power game to enhance a tax shelter for the rich?
Like other artists, sculptors are hungry for PR and anxious to show their work. Having a piece at Connemara may seem quite a coup. But artists are hungry for other things, too. Many live at or below the poverty level. And $1,000 isn't very much when you consider expensive materials, pouring concrete bases or moving massive, heavy and/or complex pieces from the studio to the ranch and back.
You can't just throw big pieces into the back of a borrowed pickup. And if you're a prepared, professional sculptor with a big truck, winch and other necessary gear, you probably don't need the publicity or the token cash.
Materials alone can easily cost twice the payment. Add transport charges, and it can be a lost proposition. And if-as has happened more than once-the sculpture doesn't get moved off the lovely rolling hills promptly at then end of the show, Connemara has confiscated and/or destroyed the piece.
Several artists reported having "no trouble at all." But those who, for whatever reason, miss the deadline, simply have no recourse. They can't pass Go; they can't collect the other $500, and they don't get their art back. All they have left is a nasty aftertaste for patronizing patrons.
I met Frances Williams walking on the grounds the first and only time I visited Connemara. She had just discovered an unauthorized piece of sculpture back by the fence around the property. She was open and friendly but visibly concerned about what she should do about the offending piece.
Her first thought was to destroy it. I recoiled at that suggestion, saying, "Oh no, don't do that!" The primitive pile of colored sticks was, I told her, really nice.
Later, I tried to find out who had done it, but nobody's own up. Near as I could tell, it was some kids who had helped SMU sculpture prof Bill Verhelst put up his similar but much larger, authorized work.
I liked the kids' piece better, but the Williams didn't know how to deal with art when it just happened on them. All they could think was to eradicate it.
One of the first pieces created for Connemara was confiscated and/or destroyed when the artist was unable to pick up the disassembled and neatly piled-up pieces until a day after the Williams' deadline. The summer before last, someone badly damaged another piece, left in the Williams' care before the grounds opened for the spring sculpture show. Last year another piece was threatened with being bulldozed.
In these tawdry circumstances, artists find themselves the victim in a situation that just doesn't pay off. And, because Connemara's crew has direct connections with the museum and wields so much power in the Dallas art world, the stepped-on artists feel they can't even publicly complain.
As a result of this overwhelming fear, none of the artists have been willing to be quoted or have their names mentioned. Several wouldn't even talk with me.
About all we can do is warn other artists from being similarly abused by insensitive "patrons." As one disgruntled Connemara alumnus told me, "I didn't think anybody else got screwed but me."
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