Although the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts was short-lived, it was influential in developing an audience for modern art in Texas and set trends nationally. The museum developed from the Society of Contemporary Arts, which was organized in 1956, shortly after the "red art" controversy at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (later the Dallas Museum of Art) had been quelled by policy statements issued by the museum's board, backed by the support of the Dallas Morning News. However, the status of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts as a city-owned organization rendered it vulnerable to ongoing pressure from protesters, some of whom equated abstract art with communism. As a private organization, the Society of Contemporary Arts provided a venue for contemporary art free from political pressures.
Begun by a group of fifteen that included artists, architects, theater directors, photographers, and critics, the Dallas Society for Contemporary Arts initially exhibited art in the lobby gallery of the Dallas Little Theater. Sculptor Heri Bert Bartscht served as director of the group, which by 1957 had attracted the support of such prominent patrons as Edward and Betty Marcus and John and Lupe Murchison. The society agreed that there was a growing need for a museum focused on contemporary art, and the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts subsequently opened to the public in November 1957 with the exhibition Abstract by Choice. The museum initially operated in a 1,600-square-foot rented store at 5966 West Northwest Highway and was funded by membership fees and underwriting by a number of business people. Edward S. Marcus served as the group's president, and exhibitions were organized and installed by members on a volunteer basis.
During the museum's first two years volunteers organized a number of ambitious exhibitions, such as The Fauves (1959), which featured works by Georges Braque, André Derain, Henri Matisse, Maurice Vlaminck, and others drawn from collections in Canada, England, and the United States. In 1959 five museum trustees purchased a building at 3415 Cedar Springs Boulevard that more than doubled the museum's exhibition area. An additional 10,000 square feet of space, which the trustees initially planned to rent out, was available for future expansion. The same year, the museum hired Douglas MacAgy, an experienced museum professional, to direct the museum.
Under MacAgy's guidance the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts organized a number of innovative exhibitions that attracted national attention, among them American Genius in Review: I (1960), which rediscovered five artists active in the early twentieth century whose work had been relegated to undeserved obscurity; René Magritte in America (1960), the first major museum exhibition of the French Surrealist painter's work in the United States; and 1961 (1962), the first major museum exhibition of Pop art. The last prompted Claes Oldenburg's Injun, a performance-art piece that MacAgy claimed was the first museum-commissioned "happening." MacAgy also organized group exhibitions and included works by Texas artists Jim Love and David McManaway in the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition The Art of Assemblage when it traveled to Dallas in 1961.
The Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts provided a supportive environment for a group of artists that included, in addition to Love and McManaway, Roy Fridge, Roger Winter, Herb Rogalla, Bill Komodore, Hal Pauley, and Charles T. Williams. Pauley, McManaway, Fridge, and Rogalla's wife, Jett, worked for the museum, and the others frequently helped install exhibitions. Over time the museum evolved into what MacAgy called an "artists' place," where they could meet, talk, and work with friends in an artistically stimulating milieu.
The Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts supplemented exhibitions with public lectures, tours, and films. In 1960 the museum began offering children's art classes under the direction of Paul Rogers Harris. The public was further enriched by the museum's outstanding permanent collection of contemporary art, which included works by such artists as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Odilon Redon, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Joseph Stella, Gerald Murphy, and Joaquin Torres-Garcia.
The real estate demands of its new location and competition with an older, more established museum for financial support drained the museum's resources, and in 1962 the board sought a merger with the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. In April 1963 the boards of both museums voted to merge the two institutions under the name Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. The trustees of the DMCA, still wary of community opposition to "red art," arranged for the formation of the Foundation for the Arts to serve as a holding agency for its collection, with the power to solicit funds and acquisitions. The foundation would manage funds and hold title to any acquisitions, although the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts retained possession of all works in the foundation's collection. A new board of directors was formed, with forty-one board representatives from each museum.
The Dallas Museum of Fine Arts was invigorated by the influx of new voices on its board of directors. It worked to enlarge its membership and pressed for more financial support from the city and from individual donors. Such former DMCA staffmembers as Paul Rogers Harris and Janet Kutner have played an active role in Texas art, and many of the artists associated with the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts have established national reputations. The DMCA's pioneering exhibitions and its relationship with local artists were celebrated in the 1971 exhibition One i at a Time, which was organized by MacAgy and took place at Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University.