The Tribune-Herald published a story Sunday about Waco’s Cameron Park Zoo, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The article by J.B. Smith described the zoo’s humble beginnings back in the 1950s when it briefly operated out of a pet shop on 25th Street.

The whole story underscores the role that engaged and determined citizens play in the cultural life of a city. Indeed, without such independent civic energy it is the cultural elements — those qualities that make a city a great place to live — that will die on the vine.

In 1956, a group of citizens came together in Dallas to create the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts. It was initially financed by a few wealthy individuals and by selling different categories of membership. It acquired a small storefront space along Northwest Highway near Preston Road in which it began to display new and cutting-edge art. Its first exhibit, defiantly entitled “Abstract by Choice,” opened on 
Nov. 20, 1957.

The purpose of the DMCA, its president Edward Marcus told the Dallas Morning News, was “to stimulate and encourage in Dallas the fullest possible expression of and appreciation of contemporary art in all its forms and manifestations.” Everyone involved hoped it would be “the citadel for contemporary art in Dallas.”

That fortress vocabulary was not accidental. Many supporters of contemporary art in the 1950s often felt as though they were under attack, particularly, as things turned out, in Dallas. In 1955, the city’s “Public Affairs Luncheon Club” accused

the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (later the Dallas Museum of Art) of endorsing communism by its choice of artists in an exhibition, including Diego Rivera and Pablo Picasso.

In what Time magazine called a “thumping victory in their campaign to censor the Dallas Museum,” civic groups badgered museum trustees into agreeing not to “acquire or exhibit any work which is designed to convey Communist propaganda,” nor would they “acquire or exhibit the work of a person known by us to be now a Communist or of Communist-front affiliation.”

Several people also criticized what they believed was a broader tendency “to overemphasize all phases of futuristic, modernistic and nonobjective paintings and statuary.”

Such was the atmosphere in which friends of contemporary art in Dallas believed they had no allies at the city’s museum. And so they took the bull by the horns, as the saying goes, and made a difference.

By 1960 the DMCA had more than 50 pieces of art by some of the most prominent artists of the century in its permanent collection. It had 2,000 members, had purchased its own building closer to downtown and hired a full-time director.

Impressive collection

The DMCA finally merged with the Dallas Museum of Art in 1963. But its legacy, and the generosity of its supporters decades ago, lives on in the impressive collection of mid-20th century art at the DMA. Today when a visitor sees certain pieces by Gauguin, Matisse, Henry Moore, Joseph Stella and others, he’s seeing what were once gifts to the DMCA from individuals who cared deeply about the cultural life of their city at a crucial time.

Whether such a success story is possible these days is, sadly, an open question. The associative impulse in American culture is nowhere near as strong as in the 1950s. Nor is the aspiration to understand and preserve high culture as an unquestioned good as prevalent as it once was.

Still, stories like Waco’s Cameron Park Zoo and the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts remain a testament to what a small but energetic group of civic-minded people can accomplish, even operating within a city that couldn’t be less interested or approving of what they were up to.

David A. Smith, a Baylor University senior lecturer in history and a Cultural Arts of Waco board member, can be reached at davidasmith.net.