Celebration of life to be held May 25 at the Palladium for Jeff West, the openly gay man who helped turn facility into an international attraction
Jeff West, 54, the openly gay former director of the Sixth Floor Museum, died suddenly on Monday, May 21.
West’s cause of death was still undetermined at press time. He was found in his office not breathing.
West spent more than 25 years working for nonprofit organizations in Dallas.
City Councilman Dwaine Caraway said West worked behind the scenes to improve downtown and enhance the city’s artscape. At this Wednesday’s council meeting, Caraway spoke about a number of projects in which West was involved that benefited people in his district.
“Mr. West was instrumental in providing limitless generosity of gifts in-kind, goods, deeds and services,” Caraway said. “It goes without saying that Jeff will be sorely missed and that his kindness and generosity will forever be remembered by the citizenry of Dallas.”
At the age of 18, West became a Baptist minister. He married at age 22 and had a son.
In 1982, he left the ministry to pursue theater and moved to Dallas to direct a play.
He remained married for another 10 years.
West became executive director of the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas followed by less than a year as executive director of the Irving Arts Board. He then became managing director of the Dallas Theater Center, where he produced more than 50 productions over the next five years.
“Jeff was at Dallas Theater Center during the transition between Adrian Hall and Ken Bryant,” former DTC Board of Trustees chairwoman Bess Enloe said. “After Ken’s sudden passing, Jeff remained in the position of managing director for several years, holding things together. He contributed greatly to the Theater Center and was a wonderful leader at a very critical time.”
In 1994, West became director of the Sixth Floor and spent 11 years at the museum that recounts the events of the presidency and 1963 assassination of John Kennedy.
After Dallas County acquired the Texas School Book Depository building in 1977, county offices occupied the first five floors. The top two remained empty until 1989, when the Sixth Floor Museum opened.
According to his friend Russ Vandeveerdonk, West turned the newly installed exhibits into the city’s largest attraction, visited by more than 400,000 people annually.
Most of the staff at the Sixth Floor has changed since West worked there. Museum spokeswoman Carol Murray said she issued a private statement of sympathy to West’s friends and relatives.
During his tenure at the museum, West developed a variety of foreign language audio tours of the exhibits to attract an international audience. He added the vacant seventh floor to the museum for temporary exhibit space and paid off initial construction costs four years early.
“Everything he did came to fruition,” Vandeveerdonk said.
The city relied on West’s Kennedy assassination expertise beyond the museum.
Through his work, Dealey Plaza was named a National Historical Landmark, and West supervised a feasibility study for its restoration. In 1997, he supervised the expansion of the visitor’s center and the restoration of the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza, a block away.
Vandeveerdonk said while many city officials are trying to downplay the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, West thought it was a way to promote how the city has changed and grown.
And while current museum officials are at odds with the eclectic group of conspiracy theorists, history buffs and vendors who gather daily on Dealey Plaza, West embraced them.
Vandeveerdonk described West as sweet, very personable and outgoing.
West volunteered for a number of organizations including Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS and helped found the Dallas International Film Festival. The morning he died, he was working on a fundraiser planned for this week for the American Heart Association.
At the time of his death, West was a vice president of Matthews Southwest, the lead developer of the new Omni convention center hotel in downtown Dallas and the largest developer in The Cedars. West chose artwork from local artists for the hotel.
Soon after the Omni opened downtown, West took Dallas Voice Life+Styles editor Arnold Wayne Jones on a tour of the hotel pointing out all of the gay artists represented throughout the facility.
“The last time I saw Jeff he greeted me, as he usually did, with a bear hug,” Jones said.
Jones said he was touring the hotel when West spotted him from 100 yards away and flagged him down.
“Let me show you what you want to see,” West told Jones. Someone with West looked a little puzzled that he would know what Jones wanted to see, but West immediately began pointing out all the artwork by gay artists, including the massive Ted Kincaid digital photograph that dominates the lobby.
“He’s here for the gay stuff,” Jeff laughed.
West is survived by his mother, three sisters, his ex-wife and his son.
A memorial service was tentatively set for 4 to 6 p.m. Friday, May 25, at the Palladium Ballroom, 1135 S. Lamar St.
Friends are encouraged to bring their best Jeff West stories.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 25, 2012.
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