When you talk to artists who choose to live in Dallas, it doesn’t take long to pinpoint how this city fails to support its culture. There’s a lack of funding for individual artists and their projects. Large organizations soak up generous philanthropy while small ones struggle to survive or find adequate space to operate. There is inequity in the investment in, and disbursement of, cultural activity, with a large amount of funding, programming, and civic and philanthropic will thrown behind organizations in the Arts District. Meanwhile, huge swaths of the city lack access to any cultural amenities at all.
Then there is the attitude that shapes the city’s understanding of art and culture. Art is too often seen as an economic driver, something used to attract traffic and business to underdeveloped neighborhoods. There is also the perception that artists who stay in Dallas don’t take themselves or their careers seriously. They should go away, the thinking goes, move to places like New York or Los Angeles, earn their credibility, and then Dallas patrons will import their work later, after it has proven its “value” on the open market.
These attitudes have helped Dallas grow into a center of cultural consumption—a great place to catch a show, see solid exhibitions, attend patron parties—but not as a place of cultural production, a place where artists want to live and work. As a result, our cultural scene looks like a mix of high-end retailers and strip-mall storefronts. We’ve got gorgeous facilities built by starchitects and we’ve got mom-and-pop shops struggling to survive but little in between.
This year, though, some of these long-held assumptions and habits may finally be challenged—perhaps even changed. That is the hope behind the Dallas Cultural Plan, a new document in the works under the auspices of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, with help from a New York-based consultant called Lord Cultural Resources. When the plan is completed this summer, it will be the product of almost a year’s worth of research. Consultants, city staff and officials, and a steering committee comprised of local arts advocates have spent that time trying to better understand how the city supports the arts and what the city can do to better facilitate a more vibrant and equitable cultural scene.
A comprehensive arts policy, though, is not new in Dallas. The city created a cultural plan in the 1980s and revised it in the early 2000s, but like many plans dreamed up in Dallas, this one has sat on a shelf. “It read well. It had all the right things in it. But it never really got enforced,” says Vicki Meek, the retired manager of the South Dallas Cultural Center.
What will make this new plan different? For one thing, says Jennifer Scripps, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, the new Dallas Cultural Plan includes a great deal more community input than any of those earlier iterations had. Since October, the department has hosted community meetings, conducted surveys at city events, solicited online feedback, and is even embedding artists in various city departments to better understand how offices that don’t deal directly with culture impact the environment in which artists work. Unlike previous attempts, Scripps says, the new study is utilizing digital engagement. Taking advantage of one of Lord’s specialties, this plan will also include more analysis of cultural data, from how Dallas ranks compared to other cities based on the amount of funding it dedicates to the arts, to how successful it is at engaging the community.
So far, though, much of what researchers have heard echoes the requests and complaints that Dallas artists have had for years. They need more rehearsal, studio, and storage space. There needs to be a broader engagement across Dallas’ diverse neighborhoods. Younger audiences need to be drawn in by promoting more socially interactive events. Or as Scripps succinctly puts it: “Making sure that we are always offering something for everybody.”
That kind of generalization, while accurate, hints at what can sometimes be frustrating about far-reaching master plan-style cultural studies. They can be too generic to effect real change. That pitfall has bothered artist and Dallas cultural affairs commissioner Giovanni Valderas, who believes the solution to supporting a more vibrant, homegrown arts scene in Dallas is simple: direct more funding to artists and give them spaces throughout the city to set up shop.
“As cynical as it may sound, we don’t need a study or a questionnaire to know what’s happened,” Valderas says. He speaks from experience. When he was a teenager growing up in Oak Cliff, he found his way into the since-closed Ice House Cultural Center, where he became immersed in the multifaceted programs offered there. He spent summers painting murals with friends from the neighborhood, attending classes, and soaking up the work of artists in the gallery. “We should do it intuitively, knowing that it is going to impact someone’s life,” he says. “Because I was that kid, a teenager, who wandered into a cultural center, and it ended up changing my life.”
The hope is that, if the process of creating the cultural plan works, these kinds of recommendations will emerge in the final project. But there is also a chance that the plan could do more than instruct city departments to redirect more funding to cultural centers. A well-conceived plan could also help the city think differently about the arts.
“You have to start looking at this from a humanitarian standpoint,” Meek says. “It is the arts that humanize us. I have personally seen what the arts can do for a child who has been disenfranchised.”
What we really need is a whole new framework for valuing the arts.
For Dallas, that would be a radical shift in perspective, because the arts in this city have long been treated as a social calling card, a symbol of prestige, an agent of gentrification, and something required on a checklist of things that make a city world class. But a cultural policy that drives the city to support the arts because they humanize its citizenry? That would be revolutionary. Meek, who sits on the Dallas Cultural Plan’s steering committee, believes an enlightened cultural policy can achieve this, but it will require a sustained political will that can hold the city’s feet to the fire long after the plan is completed and formally adopted.
“I frankly believe that Dallas is one of the laziest political cultures I’ve ever seen,” she says. “I don’t understand it. Maybe it is because, for so many years, the politics was ‘We buy whatever we want.’ ”
Maybe Dallas is ready for a new approach. Meek says recent changes on the City Council and renewed enthusiasm among younger people indicate to her that, unlike in previous decades, there may be a base of support for real change. Scripps agrees that the plan should have teeth and, as with similar plans Lord has created for other big cities, the long research process should pinpoint actionable items that can be put into practice.
“We will be reporting, fine-tuning, honing, and then figuring out if these are the realities,” Scripps says. “Then it will be: this is what we can do in the next three years, and this is what we can do in the next 10 years. I think these things can be so general, but what can we really do? I’d like a little bit of a road map.”