A collage of drawings by artists at Trans.lation. Photo by Alaena Hostetter.

Where Are Dallas’ Artists of Color?

Can Darryl Ratcliff's 'soft power' bring racial equity to the city's art scene?

A high-end looking building in the Design District could have been the setting for your garden-variety gallery party. But behind the white-paneled façade in late July was a different kind of get-together. Francine Thirteen belted out dark, soulful lyrics to a backdrop of electronic beats, while b-boys popped and locked in slow motion. Howler Jr, a Ben-Kweller-esque indie band, rocked the gallery’s inner cavern. Dezi 5, ever the entertainer, vogued and pelvic-thrusted his way through the crowd during his set. The event, dubbed “Soft Power: Intimacy,” was emceed by Will Richey, a spoken-word poet. And artists such as Anasasi Knowbody, Chesley Williams, Adu, Lauren Woods, Fred Villanueva, and Christian Vazquez showed their work.

Partygoers bedecked in attire that was simultaneously unique, tasteful, and flashy, (the kind of clothes only people in art or fashion would have the foresight to wear), attended the event, which was put together by Darryl Ratcliff. A social practice artist, community organizer, author, and epic party-thrower, Ratcliff concocted this particular gathering to bring together people — of different backgrounds, races, socioeconomic statuses, and cultures — in the name of cultural equity.

For eight years Ratcliff has been working to help level the playing field for minority artists — an underrepresented demographic in the arts scene. He gives them a place to shine, increases their exposure, helps them raise money, and fosters conversation about how Dallas can better nurture its artists of color. Through a new micro-grant program, the city gave Ratcliff $5,000 to throw this party. It coincided with the launch of the Creative Equity Investment Fund with the purpose of investing in creatives of color and supporters in an equitable way. The door fee of $10 went into the fund, and for $100 you can become a fund shareholder until Sept. 15. And Ratcliff packaged the whole thing in one of Dallas’ most progressive and technologically advanced art spaces, Zhulong Gallery, one of the only galleries in Dallas with a director who is African-American.

Ratcliff is doing all of this because, according to artists and organizers on the front lines, Dallas has a very real problem with exposure and opportunity for minority artists — who is included in gallery shows, who holds the positions of power in galleries and museums, and who gets funded by city dollars and to what extent.

It’s important to note the distinctions between racial diversity, racial inclusion, and racial equity. Fittingly, Ratcliff uses a party analogy to explain the nuances. Diversity is akin to having minorities at your party. Inclusion is like having minorities on the party planning committee, although they may not be equally represented. And equity would amount to having minorities equally represented on the committee and as involved in decision-making as their non-minority counterparts. Equity is Ratcliff’s concern.

The packed house at Zhulong Gallery for "Soft Power: Intimacy." Photo by Alaena Hostetter.
The packed house at Zhulong Gallery for “Soft Power: Intimacy.” Photo by Alaena Hostetter.

The city’s premier visual arts institution, the Dallas Museum of Art, made strides when it started offering free admission under director Maxwell Anderson — the DMA has since seen a 29 percent increase in minority visitors. However, the local art scene has a ways to go with the “inclusion” and “equity” components. There is an enormous chasm in terms of who fills curatorial and administrative roles and in what artists receive support.

Vicki Meek is a long-time arts programmer, activist, artist, and the current director of the South Dallas Cultural Center. The SDCC is a multi-purpose arts facility focused on black culture that hosts gallery shows, theatrical productions, concerts, film series, benefits, and classes. She understands the frustration of newer activists like Ratcliff. Meek’s been working on bringing more arts dollars and programming to minority cultural institutions in Dallas for more than 30 years. She says some things have changed but not enough.

According to Meek, the lack of equity is symptomatic of a segregated arts scene. “How many white people ever go to anything at the Black Academy of Arts and Letters? I’ve actually had people say to me who were white, ‘Well can I come to the South Dallas Cultural Center?’ What are you crazy? It’s a city facility! What do you mean can you come?” Meek says.

Cassandra Porter, director of individual giving at Big Thought, says there’s a very small African American turnout at many of the art functions she goes to. “I’ve seen Darryl [Ratcliff] for the last several years at different openings…museums and galleries, even the non-traditional ones, and we’re the only ones there or few there,” she says. “And then we’re not really there on the wall, which might be another reason why no one is coming. There are very few places where you can count on seeing an audience of color as well as an artist of color on the wall. We have a lot of work to do.”

“I don’t see people like me. I don’t see a lot of black people…. especially with the fashion scene. It’s a lot of charity events, and the crowd is definitely more white-centered,” says Chesley Williams, an artist featured at “Soft Power” who created the beehive-shaped, intricately wrapped fabric headpiece that performer Francine Thirteen donned during her set. “When you walk into the room and you feel like you’re like 1 percent of the crowd, how do you network, how do you mingle? What’s your comfort level?”

Relying mostly on anecdotal evidence, Ratcliff ran his own analysis of the artists represented by the 13 galleries in the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas association over a 15-month period. He found that only 15 percent of shows went to racial minorities. Of that 15 percent, only 2 percent went to black people — a total of four shows.

“For a city the size of Dallas, four shows out of 188 is embarrassing,” Ratcliff wrote in a March 2014 article for Glasstire where he presented the numbers. “Anyone who claims to value diversity should be embarrassed to be associated with an arts community that looks like this. It’s not just CADD, whose public visibility makes statistics easy to compile; it’s the entire contemporary arts community in Dallas.”

Darryl Ratcliff.
Darryl Ratcliff.

His article didn’t go unnoticed — or without criticism. Among other things, critics pointed to the fact that Ratcliff determined each artist’s race as opposed to them self-reporting. But Ratcliff says the article had to happen. He was frustrated after working for two years with gallery owners and directors on including more artists of color and not much changing. After the article was published, tension in local galleries was palpable, Ratcliff says.

He doesn’t think galleries purposefully excluded minorities from their shows. Galleries are perhaps a product of their environment, and the gallery owners, directors, and curators are products of their education and background.

“I’m noticing the Dallas arts scene is very much comprised of people who emerge out of the schools,” says Carol Zou, the new project manager of Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow, a kind of cultural equity project in a high-crime community of immigrants and refugees. Zou is an Austin native who recently moved from Los Angeles to restart the flagging Trans.lation program. She feels that higher education institutions in North Texas deserve much of the blame for why the arts scene isn’t more equitable.

“In L.A., a lot of radical social organizing comes out of UCLA and maybe USC too. Everyone who comes out of there is…politically conscious,” Zou says. “But here I don’t get a sense that the art programs are politically conscious to the point where the artists coming out of those art programs would care about racial equity. If the artists here are…content with the racial climate because they’re not being politicized in those educational environments, then they’re going to let things be the way that they are.”

Carol Zou, project manager of Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow, tends the organic garden at the program's headquarters. Photo by Alaena Hostetter.
Carol Zou, project manager of Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow, tends the organic garden at the program’s headquarters. Photo by Alaena Hostetter.

The amount of funding and its sources are also problematic. Meek says the city does give some funding to minority arts organizations through an initiative she helped develop back in the 1980s. But as far as municipal funding for the arts, Dallas lags far behind its peers. According to an SMU National Center for Arts Research study, arts organizations in Dallas receive only 3.2 percent of their funding from the city, whereas other large markets like Atlanta, Minneapolis, San Diego, Houston, and Phoenix, for example, give 6 percent.

For all the talk about Dallas being a national arts powerhouse, it doesn’t even make the top 100 arts cities in the nation. The same NCAR study found that Dallas ranks 158th in arts vibrancy — measured by total arts dollars, the number of arts providers, and support from local government. But Dallas arts organizations receive more trustee giving than other cities of its size. Dallas’ philanthropic corps has deep pockets to bridge the funding gap, but these donors tend to be wealthy and white and support a narrow sector of the arts community.

While the arts scenes in other cities may receive more support from local government, this doesn’t mean their arts equity problems are non-existent. Racial inequity is a trend in the art world at large. It’s been documented in New York City by the census-data-crunching collective, BFAMFAPhD, which found that the city’s art world is 200 percent whiter than its population. One of the gatekeepers to entering the art world is an advanced art degree, and with many elite schools charging up to $120,000 in tuition costs, you have to wonder, who can afford this? Considering only 15 percent of people with arts degrees in New York City make a living from their work, and median earnings for working artists are $25,000 a year whether they have an art degree or not, there are real socioeconomic barriers to entering the arts.

Zou sees the financial barrier play out in Vickery Meadow. She says she was fortunate enough to have her bachelor’s degree paid for by her parents. She went on to get an MFA, but others aren’t so lucky. “If you’re a low-income kid who’s a minority… are you going to take on $100,000 worth of debt to get an MFA? That’s really hard for people in this community to fathom,” Zou says. “I think everybody should be able to make the choice to be an artist, but I think usually it’s people with economic access who do, and I think that breaks down along race lines.”

“I have a lot of privilege, frankly, on a person level,” says Ratcliff, who also holds a degree in art. “I’m also very aware this is hard… and you have all this privilege on your side? Imagine how hard it is for people who don’t have all that privilege.”

Aside from the lack of diversity of artists shown in galleries and museums, racial inequity is a well-known phenomenon in the makeup of gallery and museum staff. After becoming director of Zhulong Gallery, Aja Martin realized she is one of only a handful of minority curators or gallery directors in Dallas. “I think that Bob Corcoran, the gallery owner, in hiring me, was making a statement about encouraging more diversity in the arts…wanting to create a space that is a gallery but also a cultural hub,” Martin says.

The Mellon Foundation recently tabulated numbers across the nation, putting some hard data to something that was already widely known. The study found that while 28 percent of museum staff is made up of minorities, most of these positions are in security, facilities, finance, and human resources. Only 4 percent of museum curators, conservators, educators, and leaders are African American, and only 3 percent are Hispanic.

Artists, curators, and programmers point to Houston as an example of a city that’s doing arts support and funding really well. Houston Arts Alliance, the city’s designated arts agency, is a nonprofit that distributes money straight to arts organizations, other nonprofits, and individual artists. The Alliance receives half of its funding from Houston’s hotel occupancy tax, and 30 percent more comes from the city. This year, 23 artists were each awarded a $10,000 grant, and eight more received between $4,000 and $7,000. These individual artist grants have been awarded since the Alliance’s inception in 2006. Because Houston Arts Alliance is a nonprofit, it has more leeway in distributing funding. This month it launched the Jamail Innovation Grant, to give money to arts organizations to “problem-solve”, “take risks”, and “interrupt business as usual.”

Dallas just began its micro-grant program to fund individual artists this year through the Office of Cultural Affairs, a governmental entity. And Dallas’ hotel occupancy tax is mostly funneled to the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has invited artists to apply for funding. But according to Giovanni Valderas, an artist appointed by the mayor to the Cultural Affairs Commission, there are so many stipulations on the funding that it’s impossible for small to medium-sized organizations to even have the staff to keep up with the data crunching that DCVB requires.

However, Dallas is doing some things right. The Cultural Affairs Commission considers the racial makeup of organizations, among other factors, when distributing funding. Arts and cultural organizations with more diverse boards of directors, staff, and attendees, for example, get more points, and a higher point rating corresponds to more money. In recent developments, the Office of Cultural Affairs proposed receiving a piece of the hotel occupancy tax pie, $1.4 million to be exact. The city council will vote on it on Sept. 9.

The recently launched individual artist micro-grant program is a huge step forward. It’s the first time the city has given funding to individual artists who were not associated with a foundation or nonprofit. “No program in recent memory has generated so much excitement and support from the community,” says David Fischer, the interim president of the Office of Cultural Affairs. In the second round of micro-grant funding, the city awarded five artists $5,000. Ratcliff used his share to create “Soft Power.”

The lack of opportunity in the more established arts spaces, combined with this bump in funding, is prompting a flurry of DIY arts initiatives. “In the gallery scene there’s a certain aesthetic that they can sell,” Valderas, on the Cultural Affairs Commission, says. “Let’s say an artist…doesn’t meet that aesthetic, but that doesn’t mean their art is any less important. I think artists got really tired of it, and they said you know what…I’m going to find a space, rent it out and make it my own gallery. And they do performances, they do exhibits.”

Ratcliff’s headquarters is Ash Studios, a former metalworking shop turned DIY art space near Fair Park. He owns a small part of the studio with majority owner Fred Villanueva. The space is homegrown, rustic, and unpretentious. It functions as an art gallery, performance hall, sculpture garden, and working studio for a handful of regular artists. Most importantly, it’s an incubator for everything Ratcliff stands for — a mission that he and Villanueva share. They posted up shop in the South Dallas neighborhood as a way of representing that underserved community, bringing together diverse audiences and creators. They host regular events for artists who wouldn’t necessarily get face time in traditional venues.

Ash Studios / via Ash Studios Facebook.
Ash Studios / via Ash Studios on Facebook.

Over the last several months Ash Studios has hosted: a music video release party for funk duo Ducado Vega and Zenya Vi; a nationally-touring puppet show, called Ballenarca, that takes place inside life-sized fiberglass Sperm Whale; a hip-hop slam featuring Brooklyn-based rapper Ken Rebel; and plays by House Party Theatre, an SMU-alumni company. Aside from all the fun stuff, Ash Studios also hosted an event to register voters for the Dallas City Council elections back in May in conjunction with another initiative Ratcliff is a part of, Creating Our Future. That event brought in 500 people, and they registered 100 to vote. Ratcliff stresses the importance of political engagement in the cultural equity movement.

“One of the reasons why our city’s art budget is so low, is because there hasn’t been a majority of pro-art people on city council…City Council members [who] don’t see arts and culture in their district don’ t see the importance of giving more money to the OCA (Office of Cultural Affairs), which in turn affects the entire city,” he says.

Ratcliff has a no-strings-attached approach when giving funding to organizations or artists who need it. It’s based on good faith that they will use the money where it’s most needed. Sometimes the projects don’t come to fruition, but oftentimes they do. A past event Ratcliff threw in conjunction with D Magazine, called “City Under the Influence,” funded Karen Weiner of the Reading Room, and her literacy project for Trans.lation. She and another artist were nominated for the micro-grant and attendees voted on who should receive the money. She was awarded $500, half of the door fee, to procure books in different languages for the Trans.lation library. The project was waylaid for various reasons, but last month, Weiner said she had just delivered the books to Zou.

At Trans.lation headquarters, Zou and I sit around a coffee table discussing cultural equity. We’re in a storefront space in a modest Ethiopian-owned strip mall. The sun is shining at an angle from behind the building, casting long shadows on the parking lot. On the outside of the building, I notice the cracked pavement and uneven asphalt. Inside, I’m blown away by the quality of the artwork and cultural expression in these humble surroundings.

Portraits by Trans.lation artists adorn the walls of the program's storefront space in Vickery Meadows. Photo by Alaena Hostetter.
Portraits by Trans.lation artists adorn the walls of the program’s storefront space in Vickery Meadows. Photo by Alaena Hostetter.

Taking up prime real estate on one wall is a very large Aztec calendar that one of the dance leaders, Ana, uses to teach her troupe members about their heritage. Behind me is a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall collage of 8.5-by-11-inch colorful drawings. In the storefront windows are portraits by Trans.lation artists. One unmistakable portrait is of Rick Lowe, the internationally-acclaimed, Houston-based artist who conceived of and began Trans.lation in 2013 with the Nasher Sculpture Center. Also in the front window, intricately beaded jewelry created by a Bhutanese woman is nestled, awaiting buyers, in serving bowls. Two of her creations are for sale in another window — at the Nasher’s gift shop. Paint, brushes, and supplies of all kinds are shelved behind a partition in a back room, and folding tables are stacked against a wall of the bathroom. An organic garden stands in the narrow yard behind the building beckoning to the slanted sunrays.

Though the physical space is limited, what takes place here is virtually limitless. It’s a community hub where people meet and organize events, use resources to make their art, and take free classes taught by other immigrants and refugees in painting, dance, and English. It’s given many of these people, who were professional artists in their home countries, a voice and a purpose in a new land – a way to connect with their roots and form new relationships. Trans.lation also helps its members in tangible economic ways. It has an Etsy store and acts as the middleman for artisans to sell their work. It pays local artists to teach those free classes. And it’s funded almost entirely by a donor through the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Sitting in the midst of this quiet room, the remnants of bustling mornings and afternoons evidenced in all parts of the space, there’s no denying the real impact that cultural equity initiatives have on real people. And I’m there to witness the fruition of a concept that is so similar to Ratcliff’s entire mission, a project he’s played a part in shaping.


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