White Rock Lake Museum on July 5, 2022. Photo by Renee Umsted.

The White Rock Lake Museum will remain at the Bath House Cultural Center — for now.

The Office of Arts and Culture, which manages the events and programs at the Bath House, initially gave the museum board a July 1 deadline to decide what to do with the exhibits.

But that day passed, and the museum, created in 2004, remained in place in the 412-square-foot space.

On July 12, Benjamin Espino, the interim director of the Office of Arts and Culture, met with White Rock Lake Museum board president Krista de la Harpe and two museum founders, Becky Rader and Marci Novak. Espino agreed to host a public meeting to discuss the OAC’s offer to professionally de-install and store the museum exhibits until they can be re-installed in a new location. Until a meeting is scheduled and until the museum board advises the OAC on its plans for the exhibits, the displays will be kept in place in the Bath House.

As of publication, the public meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Espino’s offer initially came in a June 17 email to de la Harpe and White Rock Lake Museum board member Michael Jung. Espino wrote that, if the museum board desired, the OAC would cover the cost of professional de-installation of the exhibits and provide a condition report on the museum pieces. After the de-installation, the OAC would store the exhibits in a climate-controlled environment until the renovations to the Doran Circle building are complete; the estimated completion date for that project is sometime early 2024, Espino says.

The Doran Circle building is home to Dallas Park and Recreation’s Recreational Services staff. But new park department offices are under construction on the old Army reserve center on E. Northwest Highway, and eventually, the Recreational Services staff will move there.

John Jenkins, director of the park department, pitched the idea of the Doran Circle building becoming a visitor center for White Rock Lake Park and locating the museum there. The building would be staffed during the day and locked at night.

Several options were proposed for the future location of the museum, but the group’s board has insisted that the museum stay at White Rock Lake.

“I believe that the history of the Lake belongs on the Lake, and the Bath House is the only building on the lake that’s open to the public,” de la Harpe says.

The Doran Circle building is near the Lake, but de la Harpe says as is, the building isn’t suitable to house the museum. She says she wants to see that funding has been earmarked for the renovation project, as well as take a look at a “valid long-term contract” for the museum.

The legal issue

A lease agreement between the City and the White Rock Lake Museum has been an important part of the saga for years.

In 2017, the museum was asked to leave the Bath House to create more space for artists. The Advocate reported in February of that year that Jesse Smith, the then-cultural affairs commissioner for District 9, said Jennifer Scripps, the former director of the Office of Arts and Culture (then the Office of Cultural Affairs), told him the museum did not have a signed contract for the City-owned space.

At that time, the museum board and the City drafted a lease. Representatives on behalf of the museum signed it, but City officials never signed and returned it.

Earlier this year, when the museum was again asked to leave the Bath House to create space for art programs, the City again said the museum didn’t have a lease.

De la Harpe says at the July 12 meeting, she brought up the legal ramifications of the City trying to “evict” the museum based on a lease that isn’t in place and of the City not signing the lease that was drafted.

Espino says he can’t really comment on that matter because he’s not an attorney. In an interview with the Advocate, he shares his take on the situation: “If the museum has gifted these items to the City — because at one point, I believe either [Rader] or [de la Harpe] said, ‘We gifted this to the city.’ I said, well then, obviously the City has possession of it, and we want to store these items and obviously have them reinstalled in the Doran building when it opens up,” Espino says. “So I mean, that brings up a very interesting point to me of, if there is no lease in place, and they did gift this to the City, then the Office of Arts and Culture runs the Bath House Cultural Center, and we use it for arts and cultural programming, then is there an issue of putting it in storage.”

Created by a group of citizens wanting to preserve history, the museum was always intended to be a gift for “the citizens of Dallas,” de la Harpe says. And she says she worries this effort to move the museum out of the Bath House will become one more example of Dallas losing its history.

“This museum is one of the biggest pieces of Dallas history,” she says. “That’s a wonderful history.”

But the OAC has said it values the museum and will store and re-install the exhibits.

“If the museum has gifted this to the City, we, as a City, will honor that gift and will put it into storage because we do need the space for arts and cultural programming,” Espino says.

The final decision on the White Rock Lake Museum has yet to be made. We’ll continue providing updates as we learn more.

Editor’s note: The story was updated to clarify that the White Rock Lake Museum was a gift to Dallas residents.