Q&A: Max Anderson on the Future of the Dallas Arts District

Max Anderson has been asking that question about the Arts District. Now he’s bringing in an international think tank to help answer it.

In the 30-plus years Dallas has been dreaming of its Arts District, the project has taken a variety of shapes in the civic imagination: an architectural campus, a vibrant neighborhood, a way of branding our city’s cultural ambition. Dallas Museum of Art Director Max Anderson has an additional vision—the Arts District as a conduit of international cultural exchange. It’s an idea that Anderson has been kicking around for years. But it took concrete form after he convinced John Rossant, founder and chairman of the New Cities Foundation, to bring the annual New Cities Summit to the Dallas Arts District this month and use it as a platform to launch a new organization: the Global Cultural Districts Network. The goal of this new network? Harness the potential of the billions of dollars that have been invested in arts districts from Hong Kong and Singapore to Abu Dhabi and Doha. The timing of all this couldn’t be more fortuitous. Dallas will also play host to the United States Conference of Mayors in June. For the whole month, the Dallas Arts District will serve a new role as the campus of a massive, multidisciplinary urban think tank.

What exactly is a “cultural district”?

You could argue that historically, there are two models. Amsterdam and Berlin are one model, where there is a cultural district because when those cities were emergent in the Enlightenment, they were places that were being planned. Then you have a phenomenon like Manhattan, which is incoherent in some ways. There’s one that was organically grown, and then there’s another that is concentrated.

Why are so many newer cities building planned cultural districts?

We crossed the tipping point last year in which now more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities, for the first time in human history. A lot of those newer cities, particularly in Asia, are focused on the question of “What does it mean to be a city?” I think a big driver for China, in particular, is “bread and circuses.” It is useful to give people something to focus on other than whatever challenges they might have in daily life. The emperor Titus built the Colosseum for that.

So it’s more than just building up the cultural “brand.”

I don’t think every cultural district is born from the same enlightened quest that Dallas might claim, that we’re going to build a concentration of cultural entities in order to make downtown vital and promote ourselves as a culturally aware city. Some others have said, presumably, that we’re going to build a district because it is going to be the only way to hold this place together and create a logical model for why this city exists.

What is the goal of this Global Cultural Districts Network?

There is a quarter of a trillion dollars of investment in the 100 districts we’ve identified, but do they all have the same degree of understanding in how they are going to operate, beyond being physical entities that all have gleaming, potentially starchitect-designed exteriors? The question is, can you build an ecology that starts to make sense of these billions of dollars of investment that benefit the local public and make a city relevant globally?

Is there an advantage for the Dallas Arts District in getting out in front of this effort?

As chairman of the Dallas Arts District, my question to my colleagues was, “I know we have talked a lot about food trucks, but can we move on to chapter two?” After all of these commercial developments that we are
hoping will come to roost—Flora Lofts, the expansion of Crow’s building, what Craig Hall is doing, Two Arts Plaza what can we be planning even further than that? Does the district have a calling card that goes around the United States and around the world?

What are the incentives for the individual organizations in the Arts District to get on board?

How could it affect their programming and bottom line? It has to feed the mission of the institutions and the furtherance of their aspirations as the prime movers in cultural offering. It also has to benefit the institutions
financially and the city economically. Like all cities, we have great sports teams. We have great shopping. Like all cities we have all these other attributes, but the single identity that culture can offer is the unique attributes of the artists, the presentations, programs, activities that make it a calling card.

What do you see as the first manifestation of this new partnership between all these global districts?

Festival. We’re watching how the symphony is moving toward a festival next spring. How about in 2016 we look for a movable feast that has programmatic activity here and in Hong Kong, where Jaap van Zweden is the guest conductor—and why not Amsterdam, where he’s from? You can have a world premiere of some piece of orchestral music that could be presented in those cities, and art exhibitions that could be shared. And connect it to DFW Airport. Because now we have more nonstops to international locations than almost anywhere in the United States—especially in the Persian Gulf. What could we be doing there? What could we be doing in Asia?