Untitled (Manbites Dog Theater), early 2000s
ARTIST: MICHAEL BROWN
Location: 703 Foster Street
Since the 1920s, there have been significant efforts made in Durham to expand the performing arts. These efforts, however, were held back at various times throughout the twentieth century. The Carolina Theater opened its doors in 1926, but with the emerging profitability and popularity of the film industry, the theater program was soon dominated by motion picture showings. Other groups concerned with cultivating the arts in Durham began to form at this time as well, but they struggled to secure financial support as their endeavors were overshadowed by needs associated with the Great Depression, war, and segregation. During these difficult times, art, viewed as a leisure activity reserved for the wealthy, became secondary to more pressing social issues. Following the Second World War, local citizens created an alliance in 1954 of cultural organizations that aimed to support the many arts and theater groups that emerged from the area.
Two of the main catalysts in furthering community participation in and support of the arts were North Carolina Central University and Duke University. These educational institutions began establishing art programs as more people moved into the area. North Carolina Central University broke ground on its new museum in 1977, and Duke University’s Art, Art History & Visual Studies department took its present shape in 1986.
In theater, however, professional performance artists, playwrights, and directors were still in need of spaces in which to perform their experimental scripts. This changed in 1987 when Manbites Dog Theater opened its doors to the public. In 1998 it purchased its current home located at 703 Foster Street. In the early 2000s theater founders Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt worked with Michael Brown to paint a mural along the south- and west-facing walls of the building (in an effort to mask the theater’s loading dock). As a result, Brown designed a cityscape of the surrounding urban neighborhood. His representation of the city calls to mind Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous 1927 painting Radiator Building, but with a surrealist twist similar to that of René Magritte’s L’empire des lumieres (Empire of Light)(1953-54). In this mural Brown sets silhouettes of the buildings and glittering lights of indoor settings against a bright daytime sky. Similar to O’Keeffe’s visualization of the most recognizable skyscraper in New York City, Brown portrays two of Durham’s major landmarks: the Lucky Strike Water Tower and the People's Security Life Insurance Company (now occupied by the Duke Clinical Research Institute). The two structures symbolize different parts of Durham’s history and identity. While the water tower references Durham’s roots in the tobacco industry, the triangular top of the Institute could now represent Durham’s role in the Research Triangle and the promotion of education and innovation that has helped rejuvenate the community.