On its face, this week’s Festival of Ideas panel was unique in highlighting artists that are producing culture in unexpected contexts, away from Dallas’ gleaming cultural institutions: Think hospitals and in homeless communities like the Stewpot. But the sticky issues of race and access to art in Dallas were the backdrop of the entire evening. And perhaps at the root of the tension is not solely the difference in cultural access between the haves and have-nots, but rather in whose responsibility it is to address these issues.
Are communities without access to cultural institutions—communities of color, individual artists—supposed to come to the major institutions, larger funders, and city government? Or are our civic and cultural institutions failing to communicate and provide access to the very communities they most need to reach?
The Festival of Ideas is a joint project between the Institute of Humanities and The Dallas Morning News. It brings in speakers who focus on targeted areas: Innovative City, Physical City, Healthy City, etc. This year’s theme is the Equitable City. In addition to the day of talks, the Festival of Ideas organizes forums in the lead-up to the festival and volunteer committees afterwards, which are charged with implementing some of the ideas it brings up.
The Cultural City Forum, which took place at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture on Tuesday night, brought together Shirley Brice Heath, Margery Bailey Professor of English and Dramatic Literature Emerita and Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology at Stanford University; Cynthia Brannum, art director at the Stewpot; Jeremy Biggers, a multimedia artist; and Courtney Crothers, the art curator for UT Southwestern Medical Center. The panel was moderated by Caroline North, the arts and culture editor at The Dallas Observer.
Biggers, who was the only person of color on the panel, was asked about the T-shirt he was wearing: “Art is for people who can’t afford it.” In Biggers view, art has always had aristocratic tendencies but is actually for the people. He said he wants the everyday person to consider that everything around them has been touched or designed by an artist— including “the Sunny Delite jar in your fridge”.
Heath and Brannum spoke of their efforts to bring art to the people. The Public Works program, a joint project between The Public Theater, the Dallas Theater Center, and SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts is holding a community performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with a cast of first-time actors from the community paired with veterans. Heath mentioned the importance in showing the public that a foster child and a homeless person can star alongside a Broadway actor. Brannum spoke of using art at the Stewpot as a way to help the homeless unwind, distress, and find their voices. Most of these men and women don’t have access to the materials, time, and money needed to make the art that Brannum facilitates. They also have a relationship with work that is rooted in failure—creating art brings with it a positive connotation, she said, and attracting an audience builds their confidence.
Crothers, with UT Southwestern, uses art functionally. “We don’t push boundaries, we don’t challenge, but we introduce fine art to a population that hasn’t been to a museum,” she said. The art in William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital functions to subtly aid in coping with trauma. Considering the democratic nature of a hospital, it’s not far off to think that the art on its walls would be the first time many interacted with contemporary works.
Each panelist shared anecdotes of the exclusivity of culture in Dallas. Brannum highlighted patrons who place art by Stewpot artists in their lake house but would never in their primary home. Biggers said Dallas was “a cosign city,” that it has a history of not giving local artists a chance until they leave and gain approval from Los Angeles or New York City. Heath said the lack of signage in the Arts District at places like the Dallas Theater Center communicates “if you don’t know where you are going, you don’t belong here.”
They lamented that most city meetings occurring during the normal workday, making it difficult for working people to interact with city officials regarding cultural matters. Even community meetings, like November’s Cultural Vitality Program meeting at the Latino Cultural Center, had fewer than 10 artists in attendance.
In Dallas, culture is happening in a variety of ways. From the street culture of the homeless, to mural painters in South Dallas, to art in hospitals—culture exists in unexpected places. Yet, our central cultural districts, and our institutions who control the most resources, are still thinking about culture narrowly and exclusively. The opportunity lies in increasing awareness. Institutions like SMU, Dallas Theater Center, and the Festival of Ideas are making real attempts to think differently about their missions and increase access to diverse communities.
Yet, the process is one that is both slow and full of missteps. Public Works might consist of deep community engagement, but will that make the Dallas Theater Center accessible or help people find it? The Festival of Ideas is attempting to tackle equity, yet even this Cultural Forum did not have representation of the Latino community—the largest racial group in Dallas. The city of Dallas is trying to make culture more accessible to communities via programs like Neighborhood Plus and the Cultural Vitality Program, but if artists of color don’t know about these programs, or if there is too much bureaucracy to make them accessible, is it really progress?
Perhaps this is the growing pain of a city that is confronting generations of disinvestment and neglect when it comes to making culture equitable. Progress is happening—slowly, painfully, frustratingly—but it is happening. When it comes to making culture accessible to all communities in the city as a whole, it must overcome a lot of strong negative perceptions in order to be successful. However, if we keep practicing, increasing funding, trying out new programs, and developing empathy for each other, maybe we too will all get to become experts.