Do We Really Want to Make Downtown a Funky, Artistic Neighborhood?

A few local art events in recent weeks have once again brought up the topic of Dallas’ as an “Art City.” The first event was Aurora, which demonstrated what a transformative effect a single artistic event can have in a neighborhood. The event, as well as some recent activity on Main Street downtown, prompted Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings to declare that he wants Dallas to get “funky” and believes downtown is ripe for a transformation into a culturally vibrant city center. “I’m serious as a heart attack about this,” the mayor said. “Let’s take downtown and make it the coolest, most artistic, culturally fun place going on…Developers must work with the city to rehab older buildings that are currently undesirable for prospective tenants.”

The other events of note all have to do with money. The annual Two x Two for Aids and Art Auction beat-out previous year’s fundraising efforts by raking in a cool $5 million at the one-night event. The Nasher Sculpture Center’s tenth anniversary celebration poured $3 million into public art works scattered around the city. And yesterday we learned that the DMA received an anonymous $9 million grant towards its free admission policy.

Taken in sum, it would seem we are at a significant pivot point in the cultural life of Dallas. On the one hand, there is a tremendous amount of civic will, as voiced by the mayor, for doubling down on our investment in growing a Dallas that is culturally vibrant — enthusiasm backed by this new Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau advertisement which prominently leverages cultural attractions as tourist and business bait. On the other hand, we have deep pockets who invest big bucks in art of all stripes. But is the mayor’s dream feasible? Can these things be brought together in a way that produces a real viable artistic community in a place like downtown? If they can, it will take more than Dallas’ usual overabundance of wealth and will power to realize it.

Here’s the problem with these kinds of dreams for artistic communities. Often efforts to build neighborhoods branded as “artsy” or “creative” end up being precisely the kinds of places artists don’t really want – nor can afford — to live. They’re over-planned, over-priced, and over-branded, and true vibrancy — derivative of an organic, dynamic density of diverse populations and functionalities — is substituted with culturally-branded lifestyle. Not coincidentally, this effort to manufacture cultural vibrancy has coincided with an enormous change in the way civic officials, investors, and real estate developers understand the social and economic role of artists.

There are numerous examples of (c.f. SoHo, Williamsburg, Hoxton Square, etc., etc.) and studies about how artists create desirable neighborhoods simply by moving into undesirable neighborhoods and gradually transforming them. Artists are seen as value-add agents, who, by their very presence and activity in a given zone of a city, can inject value into real estate. They are like earthworms, which get into the soil, churn it up, and desecrate it with their excrement, only to leave a plot fertilized and ready for cultivation.

While artists used to be an indicator of neglect, suddenly they’re understood as important agents in a growth process (foot soldiers of gentrification). The difficulty, however, is that when civic boosters and real estate investors say that they want an “artsy” downtown, more often than not what they imagine is the end product of an organic growth process, while truly culturally vibrant neighborhoods get their start in a form that is antithetical to investment. SoHo, for example, was such a crap hole no man’s land that Gordon Matta Clark could slice and dice his way through the neglected space and no one seemed to care.

Or take the Bishop Arts District, which, before it was branded an “arts district,” was merely a derelict collection of run down buildings where some local artists, notably the members of the Oak Cliff Four, found cheap studio space. It took decades, as well as the activities of smart developers who understood the neighborhood they were invested in and didn’t force its transition, to promote a gradual evolution of Bishop Arts to what it is today. In the end, ironically enough, the evolution of the neighborhood left the “arts district” without any art.

The lesson is this. If the city really wants to create a truly vibrant, culturally-activated downtown, it should focus its attention away from things like redeveloping downtown buildings for residents, and instead look for opportunities to work with the existing deriliction to create immediate opportunities for access and agency. Access and agency is what attracts the kinds of people whose activities will enliven downtown, while newly renovated apartments will only create the kind of residential price point that will keep them out.

What if, then, instead of new housing, the city legalized squatting? Squatting, after all, is what largely contributed to attracting artists to Berlin after the fall of the wall, seeking out free space for living and working in buildings previously owned by the evaporated East German state. Applying this idea to Dallas is not as far fetched as it may sound. Squatting has been fazed out of Berlin, but the government has allowed for some squatters to legitimize themselves and keep residency in their buildings by paying small token rents of around 100 to 300 euros. In downtown Dallas, this hybrid form of legalized squatting would allow for intermittent and transitional use of vacant space with minimal investment on the part of the property owner. Moreover, it could help cultivate the kind of anarchic communal environment that is attractive to creative individuals, opening space not just for residencies, but also for pop-up shops, galleries, communal workplaces, and more. Dallas could manage an inventory of vacant space in downtown Dallas and allow anyone to “squat” in a vacant building for penny rents. Moth-balled buildings would quickly fill up.

The city should also pursue establishing organizations and institutions downtown that attract young people and artists. Good studio space is difficult to find in Dallas, and the city could adopt a model piloted by London’s ACME studios to bring affordable, professional grade artists studios downtown. And, as I have mentioned before, city officials should go out and recruit a high caliber art school relocation or expansion to Dallas with the same fervency normally saved for stealing Fortune 500 companies from other cities.

The University Center at Dallas near Main Street Garden, which was created in the early-1990s to allow people who live or work near downtown to have access to courses from a number of further-flung North Texas universities, could also be better leveraged by offering incentives to universities to move their art departments downtown. Another positive addition to downtown would be an international artists residency.  That UTD’s CentralTrak residency is perpetually strapped for cash is a travesty considering its invaluable role in the artist community, creating greater interaction between artists within and outside the region, as well as  providing an arena for sustained cultural dialogue. A second, larger, and more substantially-endowed residency would thrive downtown.

None of these options are completely far-fetched, but they do require an adjustment of how the city imagines what constitutes a worthwhile, effective investment in its urban core. If Dallas wants to be funky, then it needs to be truly funky. High-rise residential conversions are nice, part of the equation of downtown’s future, but certainly not funky. There needs to be room for more ideas about what downtown can be and how it can be built-out. It is a huge area with the capacity for multiple neighborhoods with divergent characters, personalities, and functions.

All of these suggestions would also take substantial financial support to realize. In light of the recent big dollar expenditures on art in Dallas, this shouldn’t be an issue, but it does get to key point. Art patrons whose dollars most often flow into institutions, private art collections, and conspicuous acts of social charity need to be convinced that investing in making Dallas a place that sustains and produces legitimate artistic talent is actually an investment in their own credibility. Dallas won’t truly be mapped at as a cultural center of any significance until the measure of its artistic production rises to meet that of its artistic consumption. The day a top Dallas patron writes a check to cover the insurance liability on allowing a moth-balled building in downtown Dallas to be opened up for squatters is the day this city will really raise the eyebrows of the rest of the world. It might also be the day someone really does have a heart attack.


  • Jerome Weeks

    In reference to your ‘legalize squatting’ idea, the history of Deep Ellum provides some guidance. In the early ’80s, the area was becoming a small artists’ haven precisely because it was basically illegal to live there. So back then, Dallas actually had semi-squatters (they weren’t true squats because the building owners often countenanced the illegal tenants). Even so, these were ‘classic’ starving artists’ loft-studio apartments – with improvised plumbing, heating, lighting and, oh, ordinary, civilized safety codes. It wasn’t until after much debate and finagling that the area’s zoning was changed to accommodate ‘the facts on the ground,’ so that the empty warehouses could now contain clubs, galleries, manufacturing shops and apartments, all at once.

    But what truly saved Deep Ellum from the inevitable land rush of developers was the savings-and-loan debacle of the mid-to-late ‘8os. That prevented very real plans to bulldoze much of the area for high-rise apartments. So quite by accident, we ended up with one of the only collections of pre-war buidlings left standing anywhere in or around downtown, buildings raw and shabby enough that your typical Dallasite wouldn’t live in them.

    Now, of course, you’d be lucky to find a decent-sized Deep Ellum loft for under a grand a month — meaning many artists can’t afford them any more. But for awhile there, the area actually functioned in the classic pattern of prospector artists — what I like to call ‘mobile urban development surveyors’ or MUDS — infiltrating a rundown neighborhood and creating new value there.

    Perhaps, then, ‘legalize squatting’ would be too much like official approval and would cause far too much uproar about property rights, landlord liabilities and the like. Maybe an unofficial, wink-wink, ‘turning a blind eye’ toward it would work, something that could be done without wrangling in City Council meetings.

    Finally, concerning your call for re-education — “Art patrons whose dollars most often flow into institutions, private art collections, and conspicuous acts of social charity need to be convinced that investing in making Dallas a place that sustains and produces legitimate artistic talent is actually an investment in their own credibility” — it’s a fact in ANY city that raising money for bricks-and-mortar projects is easier for arts groups than raising money for artists (those loafers), particularly artists’ housing. THAT’S what we’re really talking about here although it’s a term you never use: low-income housing.

  • Peter Simek

    I disagree. I don’t think what we are really talking about here is low-income housing, a term I deliberately avoided because it suggests a kind of bureaucratic wrangling that is antithetical to the improvised conditions of agency that I believe, if introduced, would move positively affect downtown’s development. But you are right that any effort to involve official approval may be counterproductive to achieving that very agency. The Deep Ellum example is a good one, tacit approval by turning a blind eye. That’s what I’m really trying to encourage in this piece: to, on the one hand, create space in the dialogue for ideas that are atypical (precisely not administrated low-income housing), while also raising the possibility of civic investments that are more conventional and yet not currently on the discussion table, namely universities, artists residencies, and a form of subsidized (low income) non-profit studio space.

    Regarding patrons, yes bricks and mortar galvanize, but the three examples I cite above – money for the DMA’s free admission, public art scattered throughout Dallas, and an auction fundraiser that raises acquisition funds for the DMA — are not cases of brick and mortar fundraising. I think this is a key point, and a cause for optimism. Our patrons are willing to fund art in big ways, and they, generally speaking, are invested in trying to raise the bar on Dallas legitimacy as a cultural center. I’m just trying to reiterate the point, yet again, that this legitimacy will only be achieved when patrons understand an investment in the conditions that can make Dallas more viable for working artists, an “Art City” as the Phaidon book terms it, is an investment in advancing their own cultural legitimacy. The museum should be supported, programs in the community should be supported, but artists too should be supported.

    One final point: this does not mean that artists should sit around and wait or whine about patrons not being interested in their work. This only means that patrons should become more engaged in the dialogue surrounding locally-produced work and to consider it as a legitimate contribution of a broader cultural dialogue. I know, it is a tedious, often un-sexy task. But when a major collector stages an auction of reputable talent from in- and out-of Dallas, for example, they should show up. They should be interested in knowing who the five strongest artists in Dallas art, and follow their careers. This happens in other cities, but it has always been a sticking point here for a variety of reasons that would require another article to get into.