Earlier this year, City Manager A.C. Gonzalez finally filled one of the longest-running vacancies in City Hall—director of the Office of Cultural Affairs. His hire, Jennifer Scripps, is no stranger to Dallas’ nonprofit sector, having returned to her hometown from New York in 2007 to help lead the development of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Some in the arts community, however, wished to see the city tap someone who has more experience working with Dallas’ artists and arts groups. Regardless, as the city’s new culture chief, Scripps will be able to make a statement early in her tenure as she leads the process of updating the department’s strategic plan and putting together a list of needs for the upcoming bond program.
You were working at Lincoln Center when you left for the Perot Museum. What drew you back to your hometown? At Lincoln Center, it was so big, and I had this amazing role. I think my title at the end was director of special projects, which is always that jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none catch. The decision was you can continue to have an impact on a huge beast, or you can come back to Dallas and have a bigger role on a smaller team.
This job was open for some time. Did that concern you, that maybe there was a reason it was open for so long, whether it be infighting, management issues, or something else? I definitely had those questions in my mind, as well as “What are they possibly looking for?” I think that they had interviewed some really amazing candidates, and the time wasn’t right or the location wasn’t right for whatever reason. Also, the team was really strong. Things were still happening. The department was very much functioning. If I were on the hiring side, I understand that there is a little bit of “this is not my hot-burner item.”
You came into the role from the nonprofit sector. What are you learning about it now that you are on the inside of city government? We have a lot to be proud of, and we are going to do a better job of telling that story. The range of offerings. I think that we have not done a good job of telling the story that there are 40 groups that consider the City Performance Hall their home. Same with the Latino Cultural Center. I think of the summer programing, the numbers for the kids in South Dallas and Oak Cliff in our free five-week art camp program. That totally energizes the community.
“Building buildings is fun. The long, hard work is programing that building 365 days a year.”
You have been hired at an interesting time. Right away, you have to tackle a strategic plan and a bond program. Any early ideas about critical needs? That list of needs is being refined. I don’t know what is my most pressing need. Public art is part of that. All of this is a maintenance story: how do we start to chip away at that? As I go on these tours, some of these facilities need new carpeting. They do. But that’s not where we start. No matter how long the list is, we’re not going to get it all. The other thing in the mix is what’s going to happen with Fair Park and who is going to do what there. We have a lot of art in Fair Park. We have buildings in Fair Park. But how does that affect my prioritization for the whole city?
Is a website redo on that list? [laughs] You’re only, like, the 20th person to mention that to me.
How are you going about setting priorities? There will be a strategic plan process. How do we structure conversations around what small groups and artists need? What do the larger groups need, the more mature institutions who often think that working with the city is not worth the effort? I think artists haven’t always felt like they have had a seat at the table, and I think me setting the tone up front of “talk to me” is going to be really important. I’ve heard that from at least a third of my commissioners now.
One of the challenges the city faces with cultural funding is that, a long time ago, it prioritized funding buildings over programing. Are there ways of finding more money for artists, arts groups, and programs? Building buildings is really exciting, and we are a real estate town. The long, hard work is programing that building 365 days a year. Let’s make a case for public-private partnerships. We don’t have a group [for culture] like Friends of the Dallas Public Library. Let’s agree that there is a great amount of public space in this city that would mean a heck of a lot to people if we could energize it with art. Let’s energize parks or amphitheaters. Let’s energize the five black-box theaters in the libraries. There is probably not going to be a cultural center built in some of those neighborhoods, so how do we get really creative with what we have?
Is it worth renewing the conversation about getting a dedicated sales tax back on the table in terms of finding funding for culture? Not right now. There are lots of different models. And when you peel the onion on a city like Denver—how has Denver done all this stuff?—well, they have the 1 percent sales tax for the arts. But then you find out they all argue about what they get of that. So it is not like if you have the 1 percent sales tax all our problems are solved. No model is perfect.
A version of this Q&A appears in the August issue of D Magazine.