Weiss has been in the Arts District since 1978, when she joined the Booker T. faculty. “It seems like I blinked and the lights went on,” she says. Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.

The Future of the Dallas Arts District

New Arts District executive director Lily Cabatu Weiss has seen the neighborhood grow up around her. Now she wants to take it higher.

About 35 years after the idea was born, and hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment later, it feels a little late to challenge the Dallas Arts District with the real question that needs to be asked of it: is the idea of an “arts district”—a place where we stick all of our city’s best arts institutions into one segregated area—even a good one for Dallas?

When Sasaki Associates first sketched out a vision for the Arts District in the early 1980s, the design firm drew an image of a skyscraper-lined streetscape anchored by a European-style public promenade. In renderings, arts venues are nestled between hotels and 40-story office buildings. It looks like a sliver of Manhattan was carved out, flown in, and plopped down in a desolate corner of downtown Dallas. You can understand why the promise of that future gave city leaders such a jolt at the time.

Today, that vision is all but built out, but the reality doesn’t feel at all like those decades-old drawings. There is much less density, the block lengths are much longer, and the development that has happened doesn’t crowd the streetscape—lending it cohesion and a sense of place—like it does in the Sasaki vision. What John King, San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic and Dallas native, wrote in D Magazine ahead of the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center in 2009 still holds up: “The dream was ‘a great street in the European tradition,’ to quote one Sasaki planner at the time. Maybe that’s why it feels like an attractive but alien streetscape—in Dallas but not of it.”

Still, the Dallas Arts District is in Dallas, and like so many of this city’s crown jewels, from Fair Park to the Trinity River, it has become as much of a perennial challenge for the city as it is a civic amenity. Since the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, a string of Dallas Arts District executive directors have attempted to tackle what is a tricky urban conundrum. How do you make a place that is so spatially diluted—that doesn’t boast too many residents or any retail or services to speak of, has had trouble supporting a smattering of restaurants, and which includes under its umbrella numerous organizations with different, and sometimes competing, programming and donor bases—feel like the neighborhood the Arts District was intended to be? Answers have included relaxing city codes to allow for more food trucks and investing in large-scale events, like the Aurora art and light festival, which can on occasion attract the few thousand people that are needed to make Flora feel like an actual city street.

More permanent fixes have remained elusive, ways to seriously address issues like pedestrian connectivity and walkability, programming that can help give the district its own identity, and measures to ensure that new development doesn’t continue to turn what was intended to be a thriving neighborhood, the cultural heart of the city, into a sterile corporate campus stocked with arts venues.

That is why the announcement this past April that the Dallas Arts District has finally found a new executive director (nearly a year after the previous one, Catherine Cuellar, left abruptly to join the Communities Foundation of Texas) is so intriguing. Lily Cabatu Weiss comes to the Arts District not from the nonprofit sector, but from within the Arts District itself. She was artistic director at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and has been on the Booker T. faculty since 1978. When Weiss began working in the Arts District, Booker T. was an island in a stretch of vacant land that, at one time, had been the place where the backyards of Ross Avenue mansions rubbed up against the African-American neighborhood of State-Thomas, all of which was bulldozed to make way for elevated highways by the mid-20th century.

Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.
Photo by Mei-Chun Jau.

Perhaps it’s that long history that affords her a particular perspective not on how the reality of the Arts District doesn’t measure up to the vision, but rather on how much has been accomplished on Flora Street.

“This is huge, vastly different than when I moved into it in 1978. I still have to pinch myself,” Weiss told me, just three days after starting her new role. “That I could walk across the street and get a coffee at 7-Eleven. For a long period of time, we didn’t have anything. You just brought your lunch and ate there. I think, ‘This is crazy.’ It seems like I blinked and the lights went on, and we have all these new facilities at our doorstep.”

The view from Booker T. Washington’s doorstep may be the most favorable one in the district. The students at Booker T. have, arguably, benefited the most from having some of the city’s best arts organizations all grouped together and within a few steps of their classrooms. Weiss talks about her years taking her dance classes down Flora on visits to the DMA. After the renovation of the school in 2009, other arts organizations in the district have helped integrate the school into their programming in new ways. And if you drive around Flora Street on any given weekday afternoon, you’ll mostly see Booker T. students milling around in the grand, though largely empty, plazas that surround the district’s architectural showpieces, laying claim to the district as their own neighborhood and playground.

Another reason to watch Weiss’ tenure as chief is that it begins at a pivotal moment in the history of the area. Last December, the Arts District board contracted with the architecture firm NBBJ to revise and update the original Sasaki plan. Long overdue, a new master plan comes at a time when the last few remaining lots have been slated for development or have already started construction. Even still, Weiss sees the potential for a new vision for the Arts District that doesn’t limit its imagination to Flora Street.

“I think the difference between the early days of the Arts District is that we were defined by Flora,” she says. “We’re no longer just defined by Flora Street, because Klyde Warren Park is considered the Arts District, the Perot Museum is considered the Arts District.”

Weiss sees the potential for a new vision for the Arts District.

At first, the idea of redefining the boundaries of the Arts District to include places like Klyde Warren and the Perot strikes me as the same kind of drawing game Downtown Dallas Inc. plays when it loops Uptown into its maps to boost the appearance of downtown’s success. But then, what Weiss seems to understand is that the Sasaki plan—that sliver of Manhattan imagined for Dallas—doesn’t make sense if we don’t consider how Flora fits into the surrounding area. She tells a story of taking her class to the DMA and struggling to get 75 to 100 dancers to cross a Pearl Street intersection that only gives pedestrians 15 seconds to traverse six lanes of traffic.

“I want to walk,” she says, when asked what she enjoys about visiting other cities. “I want to get out there and see what this city is, and that has to be easy. If it is too much of a pain and it is going to take me a considerable amount of time, I won’t do it. I do think that is key, whether that is for our neighborhood or whether it is for downtown as a whole.” 

Speaking with Weiss about her new role, it sounds like she will spend a critical amount of her time fundraising. She says what attracted her to the job was the sense that the Dallas Arts District as an organization has a board and structure that can make it more effective at coming up with new ideas for programming and collaboration.

But perhaps it is her familiarity with the Arts District’s little absurdities and joys—like crossing Flora or the availability of coffee at 7-Eleven—that will keep her vision for the future grounded in the day-to-day realities that actually make neighborhoods appealing.

A version of this column appears in the June issue of D Magazine.