On a bright July morning, Spanish artist Adrian Torres stands in flip-flops on scaffolding in Deep Ellum. He is shirtless, with paint-covered shorts, a backward ball cap, and big black headphones. The wall in front of him, once the side of Brake & Clutch Service, looks as it has for most of the past 80 years—faded, white bricks bearing the marks and scars of old postings, torn-off notices, and billboard paint. Over the next few hours, Torres will slather and spray the wall with paint. After a while, a surrealistic scene emerges from the brick surface: a herd of elephants advancing on this quiet corner at Main Street and Exposition Avenue.
Deep Ellum has a long history of mural painting, but the brain behind this latest project is not a community organizer, but a real estate developer driving Deep Ellum’s latest resurgence, Scott Rohrman. Rohrman began acquiring property in Deep Ellum in 2012. He has since gobbled up around six acres of land with hopes of jump-starting a revitalization of the historic neighborhood. Attracting popular restaurants like Pecan Lodge has helped his investment, but Rohrman says bringing art to the neighborhood is just as important.
“From the day I started focusing of Deep Ellum, art was on the forefront of my mind,” he says. “If I came down here, I had to include art.”
One of the first things Rohrman did after buying property was offer free rent to Kettle Art Gallery, a Deep Ellum mainstay. Then he turned his vacant spaces over to artists, photographers, music video shoots, and community groups. His latest project is to solicit artists of all stripes to create 42 murals to the walls of the historic ’hood. The number was chosen because Rohrman’s company is called 42 Real Estate; it’s indicative of an approach to art that blends branding and community building.
“I think there is some altruism, to give back to the community, there,” Rohrman says. “Is it going to drive traffic to Deep Ellum? I hope so. And I hope when they come to see the mural they’ll buy a hot dog or a beer.”
Dallas real estate investors have long married art to commerce. Stanley Marcus was a pioneer, bringing significant works of art into his upscale Neiman Marcus department stores. When Raymond Nasher developed NorthPark Center, he created a shopping mall that doubled as a kind of public museum. And developer Trammell Crow and his wife, Margaret, put together an impressive collection of Asian art that is now housed in the Trammell Crow Center.
Lucy Billingsley describes herself as “the most practical person on Earth to buy art.” The fact that the lobby of her One Arts Plaza development functions as a rotating gallery has everything to do with that project’s place in downtown Dallas’ Arts District. She paid careful attention to the quality of the art in many of her developments, because she sees it as an important factor that sets her projects apart.
“I think it is a part of our brand,” Billingsley says. “It is what you come to expect and anticipate.”
It is difficult to put a quantitative value on a qualitative amenity like art. But Craig Hall, who turned part of his Frisco Hall Office Park into an outdoor sculpture garden, says art does play a role in attracting and maintaining tenants.
“To me, a building needs to be an environment to help tenants recruit and retain their employees,” he says. “That’s done by creating an overall atmosphere that makes it a place people feel they enjoy spending time. We look at the architecture and the art as part of making that environment pleasing.”
If you dig beneath the surface, art in any building reflects the passion of an individual property owner.
“It is not about art and real estate, it is about art or real estate,” says the Swiss-born Uptown pioneer Gabriel Barbier-Muller. “My accountant will come to me regularly and tell me we are spending too much money on art. So I have to go to real estate to be able to collect more.”
We look at eight real estate projects where art plays a significant role, whether by building a brand, providing a unique amenity, or helping establish a relationship with a community.
Hall Arts and Hall Office Park
At first, Craig Hall looked for spaces in his projects where he could place his ever-expanding collection of art. Then, he started designing his projects around his art. That’s how the Texas Sculpture Garden at the Hall Office Park in Frisco came about: it’s a culmination of Craig Hall’s lifelong love of art.
“We started doing it in Frisco not because we thought it would get us more occupancy or money,” Hall says. “We did it because we wanted to. I wanted to showcase Texas art because I don’t think it gets enough respect.”
What Hall observed, though, was that the art helps attract people to his projects. Which is why, when he was planning his new Hall Arts mixed-use project in the Dallas Arts District, he made sure it also functioned as a kind of outdoor museum, with a sculpture walk breezeway running straight through the development. In Frisco, the garden attracts school buses full of children. In downtown Dallas, Hall hopes the sculpture will attract pedestrians and Arts District visitors.
“I was there last night walking around—people were on our sculpture walk,” Hall says. “People walking dogs, hanging out who did not work in the building. That’s what I was hoping for.”
The Eye, a giant sculpture by Tony Tassett, hovers over Main Street in downtown Dallas, where it has become one of the area’s most popular attractions and an all-too-visible reminder that art lies at the heart of the Headington’s vision for a revitalized downtown.
Directly across the street is the centerpiece of that investment, the Joule Hotel, a 1920s neo-Gothic building that underwent more than a $78 million renovation in 2013. For the new look, Dallas art adviser John Runyon oversaw the installation of the pieces from Headington’s collection throughout the hotel. This is no run-of-the-mill hotel art. Pieces by Andy Warhol, Richard Phillips, Adam Fuss, Ellsworth Kelly, and Tony Cragg would be right at home in any contemporary art museum.
“We feel that art, more than any other asset, provides cultural context,” says Michael Tregoning, president of Headington. “It creates a sense of ‘place,’ and evokes emotional response—which is part of our Main Street DNA.”
The centerpiece of the collection at the Joule, however, may not be one of the numerous brand-name artists on display. Rather, that honor belongs to the mosaics created by the late California artist Millard Sheets. The mosaics were salvaged from the Mercantile Bank complex by Tim Headington, then restored and reinstalled in the Joule, a prized piece of Dallas’ artistic history incorporated into a vision of its future.
“It’s self-evident,” says Lucy Billingsley of the impetus to pay close attention to the art in her One Arts Plaza development. After all, the building bookends Flora Street, making it one of the most dominant structures in the Arts District.
But proximity to the Arts District isn’t the only reason to incorporate art into real estate. In many of Billingsley’s projects, like the International Business Park near the intersection of the Dallas North Tollway and the George Bush Turnpike and the Offices of Cypress Waters near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the developer, working closely with her art consultants, has taken care to choose art that does more than look pretty on a wall.
“When anyone is coming into our buildings, we have an opportunity to give them something that complements and enriches their experience of the space,” she says. “A building exudes the brand of the companies that are there. If they come by significant, powerful, happy, bold pieces of art, I think it is the right thing to do.”
Billingsley has a particular interest in in contemporary Asian art. She admits that the art doesn’t just complement her developments’ aesthetic, it also offers an excuse for personal growth.
“You go on a trip, searching, meeting artists, and looking for the right pieces,” she says. “All of that makes the whole process a lot more fun.”
Gabriel Barbier-Muller says his real estate investments and his interest in art have nothing to do with each other, except for the fact that his success in the former helps fuel passion for the latter.
“We don’t collect as an asset class,” Barbier-Muller says. “We don’t collect as a business. We don’t collect as a strategy. We collect as an insatiable addiction as a quest to learn.”
The Swiss-born Barbier-Muller comes from a grand tradition of art collecting. His grandparents and parents were both major collectors of antiquities from around the world, and his father established a small museum in Geneva. Barbier-Muller recently opened a museum featuring his renowned collection of Samurai armor in the second floor of the renovated Saint Ann school in the Harwood District. His European perspective, he says, shapes his attitude toward both real estate investment and art collecting. His development of Harwood has its goal to turn a corner of Uptown into a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly district. Art is just one of the ways of enlivening and enriching how those individual real estate developments touch the public and the community.
“I think that people in general are attracted to what is positive and good,” he says.
Only in Dallas would one of the city’s best museums also happen to be a shopping mall. And yet the driving vision behind NorthPark Center and its art says so much about this city’s business ethos, which blends civic, philanthropic, and entrepreneurial concerns.
When it opened in 1965, NorthPark featured works of art pulled from Ray Nasher’s renowned collection of 20th-century masters, including Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. Today, the tradition lives on. NorthPark continues to showcase the Nasher collection, rotating pieces by Sir Anthony Caro and Thomas Houseago around well-loved mainstays like Mark di Suvero’s towering Ad Astra (2005) and Jonathan Borofsky’s Five Hammering Men (1982). More than an amenity, the art has largely come to define the identity of NorthPark, setting it apart from other shopping centers and advancing a mentality that blurs the distinction between what is good for business and what is good for society.
“Every company has a special responsibility to enrich the lives of its customers and the community,” Raymond Nasher once said. “It should serve as a catalyst to link art and business for the benefit of all.”
Not long after Scott Rohrman started to acquire property in Deep Ellum, he began to hang out in the neighborhood, chatting with bartenders and waitresses in an effort to learn from them just what made the neighborhood tick.
“They stressed from day one that art was part of the community,” he says.
Rohrman came to understand that in order for his investment to work, art had to bepart of it. He took a forward-thinking approach to incorporating art into his real estate. Rather than buying work or commission public sculptures, he simply handed the keys over to some of his vacant spaces to artists. The result was a string of exhibitions curated by locals that were some of the most interesting and innovative art activity in Dallas at the time. His latest initiative is even more ambitious, 42 commissioned murals intended to enliven Deep Ellum’s historic structures.
“It’s qualitative—I don’t think there is any way to quantify it,” Rohrman says of the impact of art on his investment. “I’m trying to fill my buildings, but we are trying to do it in a way that is giving back to the community at the same time.”
Mustangs at Williams Square
There is perhaps no other work of public sculpture in North Texas that so perfectly encapsulates the hopes, dreams, desires, and ambitions of real estate developers than the Mustangs at Williams Square. In 1976, John Carpenter reached out to artist Robert Glen with a one-of-a-kind commission. Carpenter was in the midst of taking his family’s huge swath of pristine ranch land just northwest of Dallas and developing it wholescale into a new city. Las Colinas would rise from the prairie in the hope of becoming a “world-class residential and business development.”
Working from a studio in Kenya, it took Glen nearly eight years to carefully sculpt and install his larger-than-life stampede of mustangs. Those statues shouldered the task of creating a new civic brand, functioning as iconic attractions, and serving as a gathering place within an invented city. Today, the mustangs stand on a wide, wind-blown plaza like monuments to some post-modern Rome, the equine equivalent of an Imperial arch financial triumphalism enshrined in bronze.
In 1951, to mark the opening in Preston Center of the second-ever Neiman Marcus store (which later moved to NorthPark), the company commissioned sculptor Alexander Calder to create a work of art. Calder’s Mariposa (1951) became the first piece of art in the Neiman Marcus collection, and it set the stage for one of the largest and most innovative corporate collections of its kind.
Under the direction of Stanley Marcus, an avid art collector himself and patron of the Dallas Museum of Art, Neiman Marcus has always placed high value on including art in its stores. Sure, the prestige of works of art by some of the most well-known artists—from Picasso to Warhol to Lichtenstein—helps support the appeal and image of the high-value retailer. But, like Raymond Nasher, art supported Stanley Marcus’ belief that “art enhanced the quality of people’s lives and the customer’s shopping experience.”
Today, Neiman Marcus is one of the few retailers in the country with its own art collection. It employs a curator who manages and oversees the installation of a collection that includes more than 2,500 works.
A version of this article appeared on dfwrealestatereview.com.