The fire marshal would like to keep these dang kids, enjoying themselves at a Vice Palace event, from making Dallas even better. Photo by Andi Harman

Arts & Entertainment

Why Is the Dallas Fire Marshal Harassing the City’s Arts Scene?

The city gives cash to an artist to throw an event, and then the city shows up and shuts it down. Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

Amidst all the national coverage Dallas received over the past month, one of the things that stuck out was the recurring sense of surprise from out-of-town writers over what kind of city Dallas has become. We are all familiar with how this story goes. People who don’t know Dallas come to town with the usual stereotypes and preconceptions. Then they spend a little time here and some of those preconceptions fall away. What they discover is that there is much more to this place than meets the eye, things simmering under the surface, out of view, that nonetheless feed it, inform it, participate in its slow evolution.

It all fits into a larger story that begins with the fact that, historically, Dallas has never really been known as a cultural hot spot. Sure, there was Deep Ellum in the 1920s and 1980s. Sure, we have a lot of big art collections and fancy museums. But, generally speaking Dallas is known as a place of cultural consumption, and not cultural production. The are multiple reasons for this. Cultural funding has been (and largely remains) a top-down affair, with deep-pocked philanthropists backing status-driven ventures, while generally ignoring the grass roots arts scene. Small theaters and galleries come and go; musicians, artists, and actors feel a constant pressure to move elsewhere to further their careers. We pat ourselves on the back when a big new venue opens, and then shoot ourselves in the foot by de-funding the Office of Cultural Affairs as soon as there is a budget shortfall, or by handing away the keys to cultural funding to head-in-the-sand organizations like the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

Or at least that was the way the old story went for decades. But over the past, oh, five to seven years, things have been slowly changing. Why they have been changing is difficult to put a finger on. University programs have become more active; more people have moved to the area from other places; the internet has made the dissemination of ideas more fluid, and pilfering and borrowing of grass roots cultural strategies have proliferated. There are probably a dozen other reasons, too — a strong economy, the slow emergence of new sources of arts funding, a strengthened public dialogue around the need to shift the way Dallas thinks about and nurtures its culture, and plenty of other things.

How things have changed is a little easier to put a finger on. It is now not unusual that on any given weekend, while you can still find theater and art and music in traditional venues, you may hear about a pop-up show in a warehouse in West Dallas, a poetry reading in a storefront in Deep Ellum, a theater performance in a run-down 1920s bungalow, or a concert in an art gallery. The various cultural “scenes” have comingled. Artists have turned their lofts into venues for hip-hop showcases. Filmmakers have screened experimental cinema in photography studios. And while plenty of challenges still exist, the sum total of all of this activity is a city with a much healthier, much more vibrant cultural scene.

You might ask yourself, if you aren’t in the business of regularly spending your Saturday nights hitting noise shows in grimy, un-air-conditioned former auto body shops in the shadow of the Trinity River levee, why should you care?

Well, on the one hand, it generally makes Dallas a more interesting place to live, something that was apparent when suddenly everyone was looking at this city a few weeks ago and thinking, really? Dallas? There is another, more elusive reason why you should care about grass roots cultural activity. Did you know, for example, that some of the organizers of some of the Black Lives Matters protests are also vets of projects like Rick Lowe’s Trans.lation Vickery Meadow socially engaged art project? Did you notice that the university art department faculties are filling up with young artists who cut their teeth throwing warehouse parties? Or that after-hours loft parties during the Dallas Art Fair have created connections between artists and out-of-town dealers that have launched careers? In a thousand ways, this grass roots, homespun, underground cultural activity is feeding the city, making it a better, more possible place. In short, all this activity participates in the real business of being a city, facilitating the connections and interchanges that drive the social and economic activity that defines urban life.

I’m writing about all of this not because a few out-of-town journos came here during one of our darkest moments and found we were kind of cooler than they’d expected. A big “whatever” to all that. I’m writing all of this to put my current rage in its proper context — rage stoked by a story I read today in the Dallas Observer.

In the piece, writer Jeremy Hallock reports on how the Dallas Fire Marshall has been cracking down on a lot of cultural events in Dallas, not just warehouse parties and pop-up events in vacant spaces, but also going after some of the city’s most reputable galleries. Here’s the real kicker: the fire marshal has even been cracking down on events that have been funded by grants from the Office of Cultural Affairs. Put another way: the city gives someone cash to throw an event, and then the city shows up and shuts it down. Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

This story starts a few months ago on New Year’s Eve, when the fire marshal systematically shut down virtually every DIY NYE party in the city. It was a major blow to Dallas’ then-thriving loft party scene, which had been particularly influential in incubating Dallas’ emerging hip-hop scene. At the time, the crackdowns were largely chalked up to the fact that, sure, technically these parties were illegal. However, the crackdowns continued and expanded beyond the scope of illegal warehouse parties and into what might be described as harassment of business owners.

Hallock reports about fire marshals showing up at galleries that have been open for decades and newer ventures open for a few months. Sometimes the visits result in wasted time, like when the owner of Ro2, a perennial Dallas Art Fair participant and one of the most active galleries in the city, had to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of the city’s zoning and permitting department just to locate a Certificate of Occupancy dating back to 1990. Other galleries faced a tougher go of it. Basement Gallery in Oak Cliff was shut down in March after three years of operation when the fire marshal discovered they had the wrong kind of CO.

The story of the Cinderblock Sessions cuts closer to the core of the issue. Housed in a warehouse space near Fair Park that was converted into a photography studio, Cinderblock has been hosting intimate concerts featuring acclaimed local artists. But when fire marshals recently showed up, they were informed that they needed an “amusement indoor CO” in order to continue. The only problem with that is that in order to acquire an amusement indoor CO, Cinderblock’s operators would have to also acquire more paved parking.

If you are in the real estate business, these stories probably sound like business as usual at City Hall. The problem is, arts organizers and entrepreneurs are not property developers. For a developer, the right zoning can create or support the value of an investment. For an arts group, value is registered in flexibility, in the ability to remain dynamic, innovative, and constantly evolving. The capacity to mount a photography show one weekend and host a hip-hop show the next is precisely what makes these kinds of organizations both viable and necessary. Currently, the city is punishing the city’s smallest cultural organizations precisely because they are trying to dream up the kind of dynamic, flexible, and innovative programming that makes this city a better place to live. Furthermore, many of these people are active in precisely the parts of town the city would like to see developed, places like West Dallas and Fair Park where artists are often the foot soldiers who begin the slow process of revitalization and/or gentrification.

But to force arts organizations to come up with the cash to pave over vacant lots in order to provide parking that satisfies the city’s zoning code just so they can throw a one-off concert? Well, that kind of logic succinctly explains why Dallas is the concrete wasteland that it is today.

I understand that the rules are on the books, and technically the fire marshal is only doing his job by enforcing those rules. But this entire situation only serves to demonstrate that, as often is the case in Dallas, the rules on the books are the things working against Dallas becoming the city we would like it to become. Or, as artist Darryl Ratcliff succinctly puts it in the Observer piece: “There’s a gap between rhetoric and action.”

At the end of the Observer piece, Jennifer Scripps, the Office of Cultural Affairs’ new head, says she is starting to get apprised of the issue and promises to sit down with the fire marshal. But Scripps needs to go much further than that. What if the fire marshal suddenly showed up in the Arts District on a Friday night and shut down the Winspear and Wyly theaters? If that happened, how do you think the city would respond? How quickly would they respond? But the reality is the sum total of these shutdowns of grassroots events and organizations represents the cultural equivalent — or even exceeds the impact — of putting the kibosh on a weekend in the Arts District. The city should respond to this situation with similar urgency. Scripps needs to put this on the front of her agenda.

Luckily, the Office of Cultural Affairs should have an ally in the Dallas mayor. Mike Rawlings has long expressed his support of the Dallas arts scene. I’ve seen the mayor at events, such as openings at the now-closed Oliver Francis Gallery, that would have surely been shut down by the fire marshal had he been on his recent cultural vigilante streak. During his annual arts week panel discussions, Rawlings often lauds the work artists have done in neighborhoods like West Dallas and the Cedars, which has contributed to the revitalization of those areas.  (I reached out to the mayor for comment, but an assistant said he is unavailable this week.) 

UPDATE: I reached Mayor Mike Rawlings via phone ahead of his vacation. Rawlings says that he had been alerted to the issue a few months ago by both Butch McGregor, who manages the West Dallas properties for the Trinity Groves ownership group, as well as the mayor’s daughter, Michelle, an artist. He says he hasn’t “advocated one direction or another,” in part because he is waiting for the city’s new fire chief, David Coatney, to get his feet under him. But Rawlings says he understands that there are concerns about fire safety, but also says there is a need for the city to allow for flexible use of vacant spaces.

“On one hand you don’t want to have some big party some place and everyone dies in a fire,” Rawlings says. “But you want to use the buildings, you don’t have to put a lot of money in the buildings if it can create some sort of purpose from an artistic standpoint. You want this to happen, want cultural arts organizations to find cool and cheap places to get their arts organizations off the ground. The key is for us as a city is to facilitate it.”

Rawlings expects to revisit the issue with the new fire chief at some point in the next few months.

Now, as Ratcliff contends, that rhetoric needs to be backed up with action. Scripps needs to work with the mayor to develop a new permitting process designed specifically for arts organizations. It should be administrated by the Office of Cultural Affairs — not out of the rat maze that is the Oak Cliff Municipal Building. Artists, gallery owners, musicians, cultural entrepreneurs, theater producers, and others should be able to have a one-stop shop where they can obtain temporary or permanent permission to operate as they see fit with minimal oversight. They need easy-to-obtain pieces of paper that can tell the fire marshal to, well, “shove it” when he tries to shut them down.

Supporting Dallas culture is as much about removing barriers to grass roots arts activity as it is about promoting the success of our largest cultural institutions. We need to remove all the barriers the city puts in front of those who are actively working to make it better. These barriers are financial, legal, and cultural. In the past five to seven years, we’ve seen Dallas improve so much on all these levels. There is much to be proud of. But there is much more work to do. Step one is getting the fire marshal to step down.

 

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