It’s rare for a struggling organization to look beyond its own interests when money is at stake, but that’s exactly what Dallas Heritage Village did last week when it chose to forgo tens of thousands of dollars that the City Council had re-appropriated from the Cultural Vitality Program.
It was a victory for the DIY arts community, which felt robbed when the Council pulled $34,000 that had been earmarked for small arts organizations and individual artist grants. It re-allocated the money to to the Cedars-area historic park, which had its funding cut due to performance issues. Dallas Heritage Village has been hurting for cash, especially after losing 20 percent of its city funding after receiving a failing score in its most recent panel review. This is the city’s first park, and one of the only acre-plus areas of green space in the Cedars. It houses the city’s oldest homes, schools, and storefronts. It’s also out of money, and has millions of dollars worth of deferred maintenance.
Dallas Heritage Village is run by the Dallas County Heritage Society, one of 34 cultural groups that, last summer, presented their cases to the Office of Cultural Affairs to argue for funding. The OCA had $4.9 million to split among the requestors. Its presentation did not impress the committee, and in October, when time came to allocate those dollars, Dallas County Heritage Society had its funding blasted from $170,000 to $102,000.
Jennifer Scripps, the director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said that Dallas Heritage Village received a score of about 62 points; 70 points or above is a passing grade. The summer’s review process determined how much city money organizations will be eligible for based on certain benchmarks, like the financial health of the overall organization and the diversity of programming, staff, and board members.
“It was a historic cut for an incumbent group,” she says.
Doling out taxpayer dollars in a more equitable fashion has been a decades-long struggle for grassroots artists and arts organizations. Complaints have run rampant that city funding typically padded already deep pockets of the largest, mostly white-run arts organizations, while ignoring smaller community efforts and organizations geared toward people of color.
“We worked really hard to move the needle this year,” Scripps says. “All organizations of color received increases, and a vast majority of small arts organizations received increases.”
It’s widely known that Dallas Heritage Village is struggling financially, and according to Cultural Affairs Commissioner Ilknur Ozgur, community groups in the Cedars went to bat for the organization, lobbying their council member, Adam Medrano, to bring the request for more money despite its failing grade. About two weeks ago, Council voted to fund the organization, despite the OCA and CAC’s recommendations not to do so. Dallas Heritage Village was allocated $34,000 that the OCA had set aside for smaller artist grants.
“Ultimately, we work for the city government, and Council can override [our] recommendations,” Scripps says. “In a system as complex as the OCA’s artistic funding, sometimes it does feel like two steps forward and one step back.”
While it’s not common, this wasn’t the first time that Council has worked around the OCA to fund an organization. And, should this same sort of thing happen in the future, the next organization that’s getting money that had been set aside for smaller artists might not be as considerate as Dallas Heritage Village was.
The returned money came as a bombshell to those on the inside. Commissioner Ilknur Ozgur got a text from Melissa Prycer, the executive director of Dallas Heritage Village, mere minutes before the Cultural Affairs Commission meeting. She said she would give back the $34,000. No one – least of all the artists – saw it coming.
“I almost lost my mind. It was the most relieving and beautiful text I’ve ever gotten,” says Ozgur, who runs performance art troupe Artstillery, and was recently appointed to the commission by her council member Omar Narvaez, who represents West Dallas.
Ozgur claimed to be a huge part of Dallas Heritage Village walking the funds back, having spent hours on the phone and in meetings with Prycer and its board chair, Steve Enda, explaining the situation and how it would hurt local artists. The two then looked for solutions together.
“They decided they wanted to support community and artists and needed to show that they care,” Ozgur says. “We worked together as a team in a moment that could have been complete conflict – it actually worked.”
Ozgur hammered out plans for future programming with Prycer that will both help the community and local artists – and position the Heritage Village to earn back its lost funding in next year’s review by meeting many of the benchmarks it missed this round.
Their plans include creating what’s known as an Artist Advisory Board for Dallas Heritage Village, made up of artists who live or work in the Cedars. Heritage Village will rent structures on its grounds for artists to use as studios, since affordable space for artists is always in dire need. It also plans to host ticketed events that artists can make money from.
Criticized for representing a mostly white perspective of Dallas history with its exhibitions and permanent installations, Ozgur says Heritage Village’s future programming will be more inclusive of people of color and the historical perspective of their communities. The advisory is here to help.
“I think this will be a game-changer,” Ozgur says.