When George W. Bush was outed as an artist, after a computer hacker uncovered his nude self-portraits, jaws dropped around the world. Could Cowboy George, a man whom even Kim Jong-il’s cronies dubbed a philistine, actually be a closet aesthete? This spring, at the first exhibition of his works in Dallas, he confessed: ‘There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body.’ It shouldn’t come as such a surprise. Bush’s hometown of Dallas may be stereotyped as a cultural wasteland, synonymous with big oil, big hair and Wild West machismo, but it, too, has an artistic side the world is only now discovering.
Take the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Rather than marking it with a ghoulish spectacle, Dallas and its twin city, Fort Worth, held a joint art exhibition. Comprising masterpieces that hung in the Kennedys’ hotel suite on the president’s last night alive, the 2013 show included Monets, Picassos and Van Goghs. Back in the day, local private collectors lent those works to the hotel in an attempt to prove Texas was no cultural backwater; today, they wouldn’t need to try so hard.
The Dallas Museum of Art, a grey modernist behemoth, has the largest collection of Mondrians in the US, and, rather surprisingly, among its Manets and Renoirs, several watercolours by Winston Churchill; these were donated by Wendy Reves, a Texan socialite with whom Churchill was besotted.
The museum is at the heart of the 19-block Arts District, the largest of its kind in America (‘bigger and better’ is something of a mantra in Dallas), and ground zero for April’s Dallas Art Fair, a high-culture hoedown that the city hopes will become a fixture on a par with Miami’s Art Basel. Certainly the district’s starchitecture can hold its own: there’s a ruby-red opera house in the shape of a drum by Norman Foster; a theatre by Rem Koolhaas that resembles a giant box wrapped in string and, further downtown, Santiago Calatrava’s dazzling, web-like bridge. The subtlest of all the new statement buildings is Renzo Piano’s Nasher Sculpture Center. Set in a lush walled garden, it’s a sanctuary from the skyscrapers, where pieces by Rodin, Moore and Hepworth are dotted among waterfalls and weeping willows.
The architectural spectacles help make up for the flat, featureless landscape — as a former mayor once remarked of the city, ‘The skies are our ocean’, to which a local journalist added, ‘and the freeways are our rivers’. But even one of those freeways has gone all arty: built on top of a disused motorway bridge, Klyde Warren Park is the city’s attempt to emulate Brooklyn’s hip High Line park. Its contemporary landscaping may seem austere, but the place is buzzing: crowds queue at gourmet food trucks for cajun alligator burgers and architecture-themed ice-cream sandwiches (‘Frank Behry, Mies Vanilla Rohe’), which speaks volumes about the cultural rebranding of Dallas.
Take the nouvelle Tex Mex cuisine at fashionable restaurants such as Stampede 66, where diners drink margaritas with avocado ice cream and eat coffee-cured short ribs, amid avant-garde sculptures of longhorn cattle. When I ate there, ‘Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?’ was playing in the background, an apt lyric.
At first glance, all the cowboys seem to have gone to Fort Worth, 30 miles to the west. It has an Old West stockyard district worthy of a John Wayne film, with wooden sidewalks and saloon bars. At night, punters wearing Stetsons line-dance at Billy Bob’s Honky Tonk.
But even in Fort Worth, the Mark Rothkos are now as big a draw as the rodeos. Its Modern Art Museum is the second biggest in America after the MoMa, but its ethereal setting tops Manhattan. Designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, it’s a vast glass Zen temple in a sea of reflecting pools. Inside, the roll call of modern greats contains names you never thought you’d see in Cowtown: Richter, Emin, Warhol, Pollock and Hodgkin. Next door are two more fantastic monstrous carbuncles: the Kimbell Art Museum, a masterpiece by the modernist guru Louis Kahn that contains Michelangelo’s first painting; and Philip Johnson’s Amon Carter Museum, a medley of American masters.
Dallas was not this sophisticated in 1963, when it was branded ‘the city of hate’ after the Kennedy assassination. The city’s ‘fascist urges’ and ‘atmosphere of fanaticism beckoned to chaotic and suggestible individuals’, according to the Pulitzer-winning Dallas author Lawrence Wright. But the tragedy sparked a cultural revolution. In an effort to banish its extremist image, Erik Jonsson, the then mayor, launched a program of regeneration in 1964 that eventually spawned a new city hall (I.M. Pei’s 1977 inverted pyramid) and several arts venues. ‘The assassination was a tragedy, but it was a critical corrective for a political culture that was out of control,’ wrote Wright. ‘It ennobled the city and… made it a more tolerant place.’
The city of hate now has a western-themed gay bar, the Round-Up Saloon, where cowboys do the two-step together in a scene out of Brokeback Mountain. Its lesbian equivalent is called Sue Ellen’s, after JR’s alcoholic housewife in the city’s eponymous 1980s soap opera; there’s even a hipster dive bar called Lee Harvey’s, another sign that Texans can do irony. Oak Cliff, the once blue-collar neighbourhood where Oswald rented a room, is now a bohemian enclave: the Texas Theatre, where he was arrested, has become an arts cinema, and the Belmont, a 1940s motel, has morphed into a vintage boutique hotel where the cool kids drink on a terrace looking over Dallas’s Emerald City skyline.
Across town, in the east end, is another retro thrill: Fair Park, site of the 1936 World’s Fair, is a shrine to art deco architecture; off season, it’s eerily deserted, resembling Miami Beach after a plague, but in October it’s all hot dogs, brass bands and cheerleaders at the annual Texas state fair. The buildings downtown are mostly corporate clones — Koolhaas once called Dallas ‘the epicentre of the generic’ — but Beaux Arts and Romanesque gems do crop up. One of the latter is the infamous Texas Book Depository, now the Sixth Floor Museum, a gripping crash course on the assassination, where Oswald’s perch is respectfully glassed off. The ghoulish JFK Assassination Trolley Tour, which retraces the route of the motorcade, is less tasteful — it departs near the grassy knoll, a freak show of conspiracy theorists hawking their grisly wares — but is compelling nonetheless.
After all, there’s only so much high culture you can take in Texas before you start to crave a glimpse of the brash, boorish Cowtown of yore. And Southfork Ranch, JR Ewing’s fictional home, is just the ticket. Now open to tourists, it has wonderfully ostentatious decor, and there are classic video clips of JR berating Sue Ellen in all his villainous glory (‘There’s nothing uglier than a woman who can’t hold her liquor’). But you can bet if JR Ewing were alive today, he’d be a kinder, gentler kind of Dallas cowboy: instead of scheming at the oil barons’ ball, he’d be schmoozing in some art gallery.