Ten years ago this month, I stood on the 46th floor of the Chase Bank building on Ross Avenue, in downtown Dallas, looking out over the Arts District’s latest two major cultural facilities in their final stages of construction: the ruby-husked Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House and the metal cube of the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. The new facilities promised to transform the half-mile of Flora Street from the Dallas Museum of Art to One Arts Plaza into the largest contiguous arts district in the world. But that day a decade ago, I didn’t see a completed vision—only snippets of an elusive dream.
When the idea of the Arts District first surfaced, in the 1970s, the hope was to transform the northeast corner of downtown into a vibrant neighborhood. But walking Flora—then and now—feels more like trekking through a quiet corporate campus, albeit one flanked with impressive buildings designed by famous architects. When I wrote for D Magazine in 2009 about what 30-plus years of planning, investment, and civic ambition had failed to create in the Arts District, I turned to urban planner Kevin Lynch, who wrote about vibrant neighborhoods requiring “place legibility.” They must offer a physical—and, by extension, mental—network of paths, edges, nodes, and landmarks. I argued that the Arts District hadn’t yet developed place legibility. Less generously, one architecture critic simply called the area an “architectural zoo.”
As the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which operates the Winspear and Wyly, plans to celebrate its 10th anniversary, an afternoon stroll down Flora Street today produces an experience similar to the one I had a decade earlier—relatively empty streets that don’t encourage pedestrians to explore or expect surprise. Over the past 10 years, the district has added a number of new buildings: a city-built performance hall, a luxury residential high-rise, two office buildings, and new restaurants. The two newest buildings under construction—developer Craig Hall’s hotel and residences, and the long-anticipated Atelier Apartments development adjacent to Museum Tower—are also rising from the last two vacant lots along the stretch. Which means that 10 years after the grand opening of the Performing Arts Center, we can finally see the Arts District in full, and yet we can still feel its failings.
It is difficult to argue that Dallas has the bustling, arts-centric urban neighborhood it was promised about 40 years ago, but as the Performing Arts Center gets set for its anniversary party, many of the greatest accomplishments of the last decade are invisible from the street: excelling artistic institutions, a newfound spirit of collaboration, and a new urban design master plan in the works that seems to offer solutions to some of the district’s lingering problems. In fact, 40 years after it was promised, the Dallas Arts District might finally be edging toward realization.
Dallas likes to open its big, signature civic projects during moments of economic hardship. The city rebuilt Fair Park for the Texas Centennial during the depths of the Great Depression. The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center opened its doors in time for the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis. The financial collapse of 2008 devastated fundraising efforts around the ATTPAC. The crisis did not delay or stall construction because the Performing Arts Center board had issued bonds to fund construction in 2005. But shouldering the cost of that debt service during an economic downturn would shape the direction of the center—and the Arts District—for a decade.
Almost 40 years after it was promised, the Dallas Arts District might finally be edging toward realization.
The Performing Arts Center was not alone. A number of the institutions up and down Flora Street faced financial difficulties in the 2010s. Audiences, however, may not have noticed. The opening of the Winspear and the Wyly lent a certain magic to the experience of attending an opera or the theater, with the Winspear’s louvered canopy suspended over its grand, grassy plaza, or the Wyly’s alluring, descending esplanade into the shape-shifting theatrical machine. The organizations using the new buildings began to produce bold and ambitious work. When the New York Philharmonic lured Dallas Symphony Orchestra maestro Jaap van Zweden in 2016, and the Dallas Theater Center earned its first Tony Award for best regional theater in 2017, it was clear that the district had achieved its goal of helping to elevate Dallas’ top-notch arts institutions.
But the dream of the Performing Arts Center, like the dream of the Arts District, has always been about more than building some venues for arts productions. The hope was that the Performing Arts Center would complete an urban neighborhood built on the foundation of artistic ambition. At the time of the opening, founding director Mark Nerenhausen spoke about a center that could function as a catalyst for the city’s broader cultural experiment. Practically, this meant the center could not only present events on its own, but it also could leverage marketing to grow audiences, handle ticket sales for small and midsize groups, and use its facilities to raise the profile of artists and arts groups. But after the financial crash, there wasn’t enough institutional bandwidth to make the Arts District a more cohesive whole.
By 2016, the district had to face some serious problems. The Performing Arts Center hired the accounting firm Deloitte to look at its books. The accountants reported the organization simply couldn’t service its debt; neither ticket sales nor fundraising could do the job. “That was a critical point for the center,” says Debbie Storey, the Performing Arts Center’s president and CEO who has been on the board since 2009. “We were trying to shoulder our own burden.”
The Performing Arts Center approached the city with a plan. If Dallas could find $15 million in public funds to help pay down its debt, the banks holding the bonds agreed to write off a substantial portion of the loan. Donors stepped forward to take care of the rest. The deal would finally pull the center out of a hole it had dug for itself, but it also boiled up long-simmering frustrations over inequitable public investment in the arts. A solution, of sorts, was reached when the Moody Family Foundation was granted the naming rights of the City Performance Hall and set up a fund for artists and arts groups that the Performing Arts Center would administer.
Storey says the so-called Performing Arts Center “bailout” did more than relieve the center of its massive debt burden. “The bailout laid the foundation for us to think more broadly about the business and take the steps and lay the plan to complete the original vision,” she says. In addition to the Performing Arts Center’s Elevator Project, which offers space in the center for Dallas arts organizations, the center has launched a new ticketing initiative that handles box office services for 29 arts organizations, increased efforts to share audience data and marketing among Arts District institutions, and expanded educational initiatives in schools and communities throughout the city.
It wasn’t just the Performing Arts Center that realized it needed a reset in 2016. That year, the Arts District began a process of updating its master plan. The original plan, designed in 1983 by the Sasaki firm, mapped out a future for the district that no longer resembled the results on the ground. Over the past three years, the district, working with architectural and planning firm NBBJ, drafted a new master plan that will be presented to the Dallas City Council for approval this fall.
It has taken 10 years, but leadership in the district is thinking about collaboration in the right way.
Perhaps the biggest revelation in the plan: for the Arts District to be a true neighborhood, it must focus on areas outside of Flora Street for development that brings more residents, daytime users, and street-level attractions. The plan places as much emphasis on rethinking Ross Avenue, Pearl Street, and San Jacinto as it does on Flora. It also looks to improve connections between the district and the surrounding neighborhoods—including Klyde Warren Park and Uptown, the Main Street District downtown, and future development south of Ross, toward the Pearl Street DART station—all of which have changed significantly since 1983.
Most encouraging is the attention paid by the plan not to large-scale developments, but to simple solutions that could improve the legibility of the Arts District’s urban space, things like traffic calming, improved wayfinding, sidewalk sizes, signage, lighting, and trees. It lays out a plan for transforming Pearl Street from the highly trafficked barrier that currently bisects the district into a narrower and more navigable boulevard that could connect Flora Street with the surrounding area. That plan acknowledges some of the design mistakes of the past—from streets dominated by black façades to ill-placed underground parking entrances—and demonstrates an appreciation for the kind of improvements that could boost the district’s walkability.
The new master plan also acknowledges that many of the things the Sasaki Plan called for to introduce life to the district haven’t—and won’t—come to pass. The Sasaki Plan envisioned a boulevard where arts institutions were nestled between retail and residential developments, as well as galleries, movie theaters, boutiques, and other arts spaces. The burden for inspiring organic circulation rests on the institutions whose signature homes dominate Flora’s streetscape.
The leaders of the various Arts District institutions I spoke with are aware that enlivening their street will require ramping up programming outside their doors, and they seem willing to work together to imagine new ways of expanding their reach into the street. “I don’t think it is an accident that we have a collection of leaders right now who, without exception, work well with each other,” says Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center. “What [board members] most wanted was the arts organizations to work together and the arts organizations collectively to thrive.”
Large-scale events like regular block parties, the outdoor Aurora light and video art exhibition, and the Soluna festival have offered a glimpse at how people could transform the antiseptic campus into a lively public space. But like many of Dallas’ public spaces, the district requires intensive programming to come alive. The Dallas Symphony’s president, Kim Noltemy, says she sees opportunities for thoughtful collaborations between Flora’s organizations that could help drive more round-the-clock activity—everything from hosting musician lunches at the Nasher Sculpture Center to offering yoga classes in the Meyerson’s lobby, something the symphony can do now that it has taken over management of the building from the city.
“I think it’s interesting because it is not a huge area from the DMA to One Arts Plaza, not a lot of distance,” Noltemy says. “But people don’t have a sense of what’s down at the other end of the street if [they] are on one end. We’re thinking about things like using the park next door. What can we have in the park that makes people want to stop? Is it music? More art? What else can we do with that? What can we do in the lobby in the Meyerson? How do we put this all together so that when you say you are going to walk to the end of the street, there is something to see and do your whole way up and down the street? If that is what is going on, then you don’t have to push people to circulate. We haven’t achieved that yet.”
When the Sasaki plan was created, the only thing that drew people to Flora Street were parking lots, some warehouses, and the old Borden Dairy. It is easy to look back and imagine changes to the plan or the way it was implemented that could have preempted some of the challenges facing the district today. Building a closer DART light rail station, for example, would have been nice. But focusing on shortcomings makes it easy to miss all that the Arts District has accomplished.
Since the opening of the Performing Arts Center, the arts organizations, at their best, are better than they have ever been. It has taken 10 years, but organizational leadership in the district is thinking about collaboration and neighborhood engagement in the right way. They finally have the will, resources, and bandwidth to make a real difference. The Arts District Master Plan is taking the right steps to fix the neighborhood’s streetscape and connectivity problems. And we don’t know yet what kind of impact the residents of Flora Street Lofts or the guests of the new Arts District hotel will have on the area’s vitality.
There was another goal for the Arts District, however, that may require more of the focus and effort of the next 10 years: to increase audiences for the arts in Dallas. Results so far are mixed. Each organization has seen its own audience numbers grow over the past 10 years. But Kevin Moriarty says what troubles him is that the overall audience for the arts in Dallas doesn’t seem to have increased. “What has happened is the buildings have supported the arts, and collaborations have been meaningful,” Moriarty says. “But what has not happened is a significant expansion of the total audience of the arts in Dallas. Many of us have individual stories. We have literally doubled the audience that we had 10 years ago. But if you look at the total arts audience, there is no data that I’ve seen that we’ve seen a significant increase.”
Moriarty doesn’t have an answer as to why. Dallas lags far behind East Coast and Midwestern cities in per capita audiences for the arts. He speculates that because those cities are older, they have a deeper cultural connection to their artistic communities. Or, he wonders, maybe as in business and politics, Dallas’ arts audience is a bellwether for the nation, suggesting a dwindling interest in the arts throughout the country in the long term.
If either suggestion is on the mark, then the challenge for the Arts District over the next 10 years will be to expand beyond new collaborations and urban improvements and focus on increasing education, access, and interest in the arts. Because, name-brand architects and high-brow artistic ambitions aside, the true value of the Arts District for Dallas lies in its power to drive a deeper engagement with the city and its civic life through artistic and cultural expression.