Last night was all about Dirk. But on Monday, Mayor Mike Rawlings took his own curtain call of sorts at the Moody Performance Hall, where he hosted his last panel discussion to kick-off Dallas Arts Month.
It is a tradition that dates to 2013, when the city coined what was then “Dallas Arts Week,” an effort to focus attention on the ferment of cultural activity that clusters around dates in April (when Dallas weather is at its best). As I write in the April edition of D Magazine, this enthusiastic attempt to brand Dallas as a cultural destination corresponded with a period of local cultural history characterized by peaks and valleys, highs and lows.
The mayor’s annual conversation has served as a forum to highlight the local arts scene’s successes and air some of those grievances. Occasionally this occurred involuntarily, as was the case in the first year when the mayor’s panel was called out for featuring five white men talking about how to make the city possible for artists. The mayor has learned a lot over the years, not just in terms of diversifying the conversation he hosts each April, but also in focusing the content of the conversation. While the panel discussions have often displayed this city’s penchant for endlessly mulling over its own cultural import and ambition, they have also attempted to narrow in on important topics, like arts education or drafting cultural policy.
I have attended most of the mayor’s panels over the years, and what struck me about this latest edition was that most of the evening was given over to an actual conversation about art, rather than the endless hand wrangling about artistic scenes. This is refreshing in a city where focus on culture often engages everything that happens around the art—institutions, funding, civic ambition, collecting, philanthropy, parties—and not really the actual stuff art world people supposedly care so much about. Monday’s conversation engaged in a top-line conversation about the relationship between politics and art, and its success owed to the quality of the panelists—Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster, artist Lauren Woods, and Cry Havoc Theater founder Mara Richards Bim.
All three panelists produce work that engages explicitly with the political sphere. Lamster spoke about his book on Rubens and his latest biography of Philip Johnson, showing an image of Johnson’s JFK Memorial in downtown Dallas to highlight the inextricable relationship between the aesthetics and politics of the built world. Lauren Woods spoke about her Dallas Drinking Fountain Project, as well as her understanding of her own expansive artistic practice, which engages—and sometimes subverts—political processes and relationships. Bim shared a moving clip of one of her theater’s performances, Babel, a meditation on gun violence in America constructed, in part, out of interviews with the families and victims of the Sandy Hook Massacre. She also spoke about an upcoming project focused on the border crisis.
Rawlings’ moderation presented the mayor not as an expert on the subject but rather a curious and engaged audience member. The conversation at times tussled through the kinds of concerns covered in an intro to art course—What is the role of aesthetic quality in relation to political content? To what extent is it necessary to understand the political context in which a work was created? But the fact that these questions were being asked by a mayor of Dallas made them pertinent.
One of the often-unspoken problems with the way Dallas has long engaged with culture is an attitude among philanthropic and political classes that sees art as somehow apolitical, transcending political concerns, or unsullied or unencumbered by politics. When the city has backed cultural investments—leveraging huge sums of public dollars to build marquee venues for large arts organizations, for example—these expenditures were sold as ways to enrich the civic soul. And while it is true that a quality orchestra and intelligently curated museum enriches a city, the attitude ignores the fact that the very way culture is funded and supported in Dallas is a product of a political environment that is deeply exclusionary, inequitable, and self-serving of the political elite.
Towards the end of the evening, the panelists drove home some of these points. Artists still face challenges when it comes to accessing funding, space, and visibility, they said. Lamster spoke about what he called Dallas’ “moments of philistinism.” Woods spoke about her personal experiences with lingering racism in philanthropic families and the ability for artists to get “blacklisted” from the city’s tightly knit philanthropic circles. Bim spoke about Dallas’ “pay-to-play” youth theater scene.
Common grievances were also aired. The fire marshal is still shutting down exhibitions, and there is still crappy public transit, insufficient affordable housing, and a lack of studio and rehearsal space. Citing her engagement with the Confederate Monuments debate, Woods said, in her experience, “The artists skill set isn’t completely trusted in the public space”—meaning artists are generally not seen as political actors or cultural workers with something to contribute to the larger civic dialogue, but as decorators, entertainers, jesters.
But the panelists also saw glimmers of light. Cry Havoc, Bim said, wouldn’t have gotten off the ground had it not been for a relatively new small grant program created by the City of Dallas. The new cultural plan, adopted this past October, is already affecting change on the ground. “We killed the toll road,” Lamster said. He added a reality check: while it is difficult for artists in Dallas, it is difficult for artists everywhere.
But perhaps the biggest sign of progress was the fact that the mayor’s Arts Month panel wasn’t preoccupied with what it would take to make Dallas a “arts destination,” nor was it unwilling to address some of the more uncomfortable political realities that lay in the way of that dream. Rather, in a closing statement, Rawlings quoted John Adams speaking on the need for one generation to effect political and economic change, so the next generation can achieve the right to an artistic education.
That brand of self-awareness may signify the real promise of progress–progress that is possible only when Dallas gets over itself.