Hello-o! A(nother) Dallas Cultural Plan Update

The information-gathering phase of Dallas' quest for a comprehensive arts policy continues. And so does the Office of Cultural Affairs' messaging campaign, which communicates the city's urgency to support the arts with a formal Cultural Plan, one meant to provide guidance on how to allocate public resources like money and physical venues to artists. Many questions remain, but the city's concept of what art is— and how to decide what to support— is becoming less vague. 

Headington Companies, which owns The Joule and the lion's share of successful new restaurants in downtown and the Design District, was represented on a public panel sponsored by the Office of Cultural Affairs Monday. The company's president, Michael Tregoning, was onstage at Moody Performance Hall for what was billed as the headlining discussion of the year among scores of dialogues and huddle-ups also presented by the OCA.

The Dallas Creative Conversation became an annual convening ritual in 2013 for the mayor's Dallas Arts Week, which has since morphed into Dallas Arts Month. A hype machine for the emerging Cultural Plan is well into overdrive; spirited invitations for public comment at hallmark museums and cultural centers dotted fall calendars like map pins.

Monday's discussion was a parade at the intersection of commercial success and creativity. Tregoning was joined onstage by Lola Lott, the principal and CEO of charlieuniformtango, a Dallas advertising and production company known for a streak of ads aired during the Super Bowl; Kelley Lindquist, the president of Artspace, a nonprofit developer of arts facilities focused on affordable housing; and Kimi Nikaidoh, the artistic director of the Bruce Wood Dance Project. Lott and her husband Todd bought a historic Winnetka Heights church and founded Arts Mission Oak Cliff in an area originally zoned for residential, just around the corner from LULAC. It is now a year old.

The mayor was not part of the panel, nor was Joy Bailey Bryant of Lord Cultural Resources. Both appeared before the discussion to cheer the interactions at earlier input meetings and voice congratulations for Dallas arts as a whole. Rawlings big-upped the Dallas Theater Center for its Tony Award—an example of the kind of excellence we have here already in Dallas, he said—and reminded the crowd of his appearance in The Tempest last year for DTC, with a laugh.

It was then, just after the Tony joke, when I thought I heard someone yell. "Hello-o! Hello-o!" echoed a voice from the crowd. A woman rose from her seat and hurried toward the doors; the sound came from her phone. The interruption was perfectly timed. Is the Tony Award still what's freshest on the mayor’s mind when it comes to DTC, and, for that matter, all of the other arts institutions operating within Dallas that he could have mentioned? What about the more recent catalyst for the center's place in the headlines: abuse of power by a senior staff member that went on for years before his firing? Is the value of arts groups being assessed by accolade and monetary value alone? Well, yeah, the mayor suggested with his choice of opening reference. Well, yeah, said the applause after the joke. Hello-o, said a phantom dissenting voice.

Defining success is important; it is perhaps the most important barometer to clarify when it comes to building a sustainable arts ecosystem and determining how to assign public resources.

As the city looks forward during events like Monday's, there are current needs going unmet for the smaller groups the city is also supposed to serve. A meeting of the Cultural Affairs Commission last month saw arts administrators scrambling to find space for performances at city-owned cultural centers.

OCA director Jennifer Scripps said fitting together everyone's calendar is like a “Rubik’s cube,” simply a matter of logistics. For David Lozano, a space shortage could mean a season cut short for his award-winning Cara Mía Theatre Company, which has focused on works conceived and grown in-house. Cara Mía uses the city-owned Latino Cultural Center as a performance venue and often plans productions from their conception based on the space.

"We just want what the Latino Cultural Center has been providing Cara Mía Theatre for the past several years; 16 weeks in the theatre to produce our full seasons," Lozano told me recently. The city recently limited groups like Cara Mía—defined as “core groups” in city parlance—to 10 weeks in public buildings like the Latino Cultural Center. Lozano has protested that decision, and is in discussions with the city to walk it back.

Artist and former South Dallas Cultural Center manager Vicki Meek was inspired after the city floated that 10-week cap to write about the racism implied by the city's value system and how its definition impacts arts groups run by people of color.

The presence of arts organizations that depend on the city's cultural centers was scant at Monday’s talk—it wasn't billed to be about them, after all—but when they were mentioned, it was telling. Take the first question Dallas Morning News arts writer Michael Granberry asked the mayor in that intro session.

"Small arts organizations are increasingly vocal about, 'I need to be taken care of,'" Granberry said.

The mayor acknowledged broadly how difficult it is to satisfy all parties involved when resources are finite. That Rubik’s cube deflection frustrates advocates for the arts community in Dallas because they remember the $15 million spent to bail out the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s construction debt. The city has not discussed its issuance in context with the many needs of smaller arts organizations. 

“[Making it all work] is like making a piece of art or a piece of music,” the mayor said Monday.

What that piece is starting to look like, via the ongoing Cultural Plan crusade, is becoming less amorphous. People will see its results differently. To me, it looks like an advertisement, a logo with a paint splatter, economic development for creatives. Tregoning, though, sees art.

"There's a place for people like us in these discussions," he said at one point.

Success for consumers of art as Tregoning seemed to define them is simple: they are able to find and buy the things they want to buy. Tregoning noted that Headington Cos. does buy a lot of art in Dallas, but said it is hard to find. There is no cohesive market here, Tregoning argued, adding that Dallas must be a tough place for artists to make a living.

Programs like the mentor match-up sponsored by New York City's New Museum, which pairs artists with businesspeople, would be helpful, he said. Nikaidoh expressed gratitude for charlieuniformtango for the sizzle reel it produced for her dance company, a resource any growing organization of that genre needs to promote itself.  The scale of need among all these groups, and the city’s role in helping them meet those needs, has been neatly quarantined into separate panel discussions. That scale truly varies, and the city must keep that in mind as its cultural plan comes together.

When developer Tim Headington needed more space for his art, he knocked down a few historic buildings. The ones that rely upon the city's resources will have a tougher time.