Arthur Peña has conjured up a spirit in West Dallas. When it started a year ago, he just wanted to put together rad shows and expose musicians to new audiences, as the Oak Cliff native puts it.
“I’m an artist, a painter, so I have that art crowd that always comes in,” Peña says. “The whole point of Vice Palace is to collapse those two worlds together and to bring unity through that.”
Vice Palace, the name of Peña’s roving do-it-yourself music venue, has taken shape in galleries, traditional venues, and warehouses. It’s the vacant warehouses, though, that are Peña’s favorite to work with, embodying his grandest schemes. Having such a large space not only brings out the creativity in him, but also provides the attitude that these underground shows need. In the one year that Vice Palace has existed, Peña’s used 10 spaces. One of them, off Singleton Blvd., was a 35,000-square-foot canvas that rivaled the enormity of Deep Ellum’s newly opened venue The Bomb Factory.
The spaces Peña has had at his disposal have come from Butch McGregor of West Dallas Investments, the same company that’s developed Trinity Groves. Alongside the restaurant incubator, McGregor is just as eager to assist in launching a cultural renaissance in West Dallas.
As an artist, Peña understands the need to be able to do whatever the hell you want. His raw, unconventional spaces provide a freedom that traditional venues like Three Links or the Granada Theater can’t accommodate. For him, it’s as much about the theatrics and about allowing musicians to feel like they can try something new.
“I told the performers, ‘I want you to think of this performance as an experiment. You can do mostly whatever you want. I’ll try my best to make it happen, whether it’s calling favors or whatever,’” Peña says. “Think of this performance as a way for you to expand upon what you know your live set is like.”
This weekend Vice Palace celebrates its one-year anniversary with a bill recognizing established acts and emerging talent in a vacant space at 2516 N. Beckley Ave. Peña enlisted the help of some of Dallas’ tastemakers, asking each to nominate a performer. This time around even Peña’s not sure what to expect. In the past he’s booked the bands, and the lineups have usually churned out eclectic bills featuring some of Dallas’ outlier acts such as Hex Cult, Cutter, and Vulgar Fashion. Because of that, Vice Palace shows have become events where people don’t know what to expect. It may be a little too much for the average concertgoer, which is essentially the attitude of Vice Palace. If it were up to him, Peña would’ve gone with the same bands he’s used to, but he remembered last year’s backlash to KXT’s Summer Cut festival, which featured only one female musician among the nine bands on the bill.
“When I got this final list, I was like, ‘Oh shit!’ Three of the bands are fronted by females and the other two acts are minorities. This event just shows how diverse the city’s music community really is,’” Peña says about the lineup.
Given the diversity of the lineup, both ethnically and sonically, Peña would of course love for his event to become something of an official Dallas music showcase. Not only is an audience seeing a diverse group of musicians nominated by their peers, but those same musicians can also get a real tangible reward from the nomination. The entire door collection from this weekend’s festivities–cover is $15–will go directly to the artists and performers (a fashion show will run from 7 to 9 pm).
“If we get 500 paying people in the door that means the five nominated bands and two fashion designers will be given just over $1,000,” Peña says. “This is their chance for a breakout performance. So, hopefully next year it’s a continued thing where Vice Palace Year Two happens and people are like, ‘Yo I heard these people got paid out like $800 and they got some good press. That’s really what I feel like this show is going to be about.”
Peña wants to help act as a facilitator and advocate for these musicians. In the art world, Peña can write a grant, find money from collectors and institutions. Maybe the city itself will be willing to donate grant money for projects.
“There’s no such thing like that for musicians or designers. A musician is expected to haul their gear around, go to a house show, play for 30 to 40 minutes for a couple brews, maybe for gas money or maybe $100,” Peña says. “So for me it’s always been about bringing communities together, mixing genres, but also focusing on a specific spirit or attitude and seeing artists mingle with musicians.”
Peña’s seen the results of that mingling. Thor Johnson, a Dallas native and visual artist, has begun working on video projects with bands he’s met through Vice Palace. Hex Cult and Street Sects played one of the first Vice Palace shows and went on tour in the East Coast together just a couple months ago, and bands have been formed through musicians meeting at previous shows.
“That kind of stuff is what I’m about. Just being there for the musicians…Vice Palace isn’t only a safe place to experiment, but I’m also doing what I can to put these people in front of people that may have never seen them or come across their music.”
Peña drives home the idea that the only way art and music can fold together is if they exist in the same place, like with Vice Palace. He has plans with the warehouses and makeshift venues he works with. Peña would love to turn a raw, underground space into a legit venue, a studio space, a record label, and a one-stop shop for poster printing and T-shirts. It’s an idea he came up with during his time at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he earned a graduate degree and learned about a collective called Fort Thunder–a warehouse in West Providence where artists worked to meld genres and communities, activating people’s imaginations through experimentation.
“I’ve already established Vice Palace as this spirit because it’s roaming around, but it needs a home where it can really flourish and can really set roots and become something the city has never seen before,” Peña says. “A space that is a creative hub and a home to all kinds of different creative energy.”
While the dream is to have a dedicated space, first Vice Palace is looking to focus heavily on building and establishing itself as a major player in producing media focused on Dallas musicians. Peña recently released a feature on Stefan Gonzalez, who performs as Orgullo Primitivo and will host the opening ceremonies of Vice Palace: Year One.
Peña says Dallas is abuzz right now. He feels an energy in the city and a flourishing of artists at the top of their creative game. He hopes Vice Palace can become the gel to pull it all together.
The lineup for Vice Palace: Year One
Tony Q and Plain Jane Francis–nominated by Central Track
$kaduf–nominated by Crown and Harp/Moody Fuqua
iill–nominated by Dallas Distortion Music
Rat Rios–nominated by King Camel
Lily Taylor and Sean Miller–nominated by THRWD