Vishaan Chakrabarti

Q&A: Vishaan Chakrabarti

The architect and urban planner says a city’s investment in performing arts yields returns of high magnitude, both measurable and intangible. He speaks at this week's Dallas Festival of Ideas.

published Sunday, February 22, 2015

Photo: Dallas Festival of Ideas
Vishaan Chakrabarti

Dallas — On Feb. 27 and 28, Vishaan Chakrabarti will be the keynote speaker on the Physical City panel at the Dallas Festival of Ideas, sponsored by the Dallas Institute for the Humanities. He is a believer in the social and economic health of America’s cities, particularly because of the increasing influx of young millennials, older workers and retirees leaving the suburbs and moving back to the city. Chakrabarti is the author of the book A Country of Cities, a partner with SHoP Architects of New York and director of the Center of Urban Real Estate at Columbia University.

We chatted him about the arts’ impact and what he’ll discuss at the Festival. In addition to speakers from around the country, the event includes performances by local theater, dance and music performers. You can see a complete schedule at the bottom of this interview.


TheaterJones: In your experience as an architect and urban density advocate, what economic role do venues for performing arts—music, theater, dance, opera—play in a city’s growth?

Vishaan Chakrabarti: Performing arts investment returns tend to be of a very high order of magnitude. We’ve been doing some work with Lincoln Center, which generates billions for New York City. But, to me, I think understanding the impact of the arts has to be measured not only in traditional multiplier effects, such as income for restaurants, hotels and so on. Those measurements fail to capture what it means to have performers, stagehands, and the whole ecology of performing arts that makes itself present in a city. Hard to measure that impact because people in the arts community tend to be less predictable in terms of when and how they commute to get to work. Basically, we love cities because of the element of surprise; part of that is that no two days are the same. People in the arts bring that everyday surprise to the street life of a city. To have that cultural force is intangible—hard to measure, but essential to what draws people to the city and makes them stay, to think “this place is so exciting, so vibrant.” With technology creating ever more pronounced personal time in front of screens, real street life and live performances are even more precious.


What do you make of the Dallas Arts District? What venues work best for performing arts and their audiences?

The Dallas Arts District has evolved since the last time I was in Dallas. I noticed condos being built near the district. A large arts district is not a bad thing. Many cities have those districts. There’s New York’s Museum Mile [NYC designation for a section of Fifth Avenue between 82nd and 105th streets featuring nine museums]. Lincoln Center was designed to allow people to experience culture by getting in the car and parking and getting back to the suburbs easily—the shopping mall version of culture. Since it was constructed, Lincoln Center has spent a billion on figuring out how to break down barriers. As an architect I ask, how do those buildings meet the street? You don’t want to walk by big black facades. Walkers need to feel engaged—by signage saying what’s going on, by wine bars, retail.

What’s important to remember is that such a district is necessary, but not sufficient. Cities need the ecology of smaller grained institutions embedded in neighborhood buildings that reflect the life of the city. Small theaters can afford to be experimental. Many performers go back and forth between big and small venues. A symbiotic relationship develops between large-scale venues and smaller, finer-grained ones that feed the cultural city.


Can cities create a formal role for performing artists in the renovation of older buildings or the design of new buildings for performing arts? Are there models you know of?

I don’t know of a city that engages artists in such a way. Large cultural centers are so expensive and the donors have a big role. But it is important that all venues serve several performing needs. Ballet and opera houses should be designed for more than one kind of performance. It’s hard to finance single-use kinds of buildings. Dallas has such an extraordinary philanthropic culture, it can afford custom-built formal arts centers [like the Meyerson Symphony Center].


Can cities offer incentives to arts organizations that stay in the city instead of migrating to suburbs?

I would look for more of a sense of helping support people in the arts community who are giving their time to environmental and cultural trade missions. Europe does this. France actively advocates for their artistic community when they’re working abroad. If there’s a big architectural commission in Argentina, their diplomats talk up the architects in France who might want to compete.


How can cities provide low rent to keep artists close to its center?

Subsidized housing for artists has generally not worked. There are problems with who qualifies. Are you really an artist? And artists are naturally nomadic. They move into a neighborhood to get an affordable place to work. The gentrification process takes place, and they move on. They’re looking for an edgier neighborhood, and that drives a kind of real estate cycle.


Should suburbanites pay a heftier county tax to support the performing arts they drive 20 to 30 miles to enjoy in the inner city, like the symphony, opera and major theater? Could state or federal governments take steps to keep some of that tax wealth from leaking to suburbs to help sustain our inner cities?

That’s an issue nationwide. Often suburban residents think their taxes are supporting cities. But, in fact, a much larger percentage of our gross domestic product and jobs is generated in cities. We're in the middle of a major demographic shift. This shift is not a racial, but an immigration dynamic. Young and old are moving back to cities because crime is lower and public schools are improving in many places. Part of what’s happening is that young people are getting priced out of New York City. They're moving to St. Louis and Buffalo and Oklahoma City. Buffalo, a Rust Belt city, has a completely new life associated with it through the artists that have moved there. A public will must grow in cities to have an effect [on changes in tax legislation]. I’m optimistic that this new dynamic will generate legislation to allow major cities to keep more of the wealth they generate to rebuild infrastructure, invest in poor performing schools, innovative work and performing spaces and high-speed rail.


There are so many challenges facing the young people in America’s cities, and many are moving back into old neighborhoods because they hate the commute and maybe want to avoid polluting the environment. What role can the performing arts shoulder to address the healthy redevelopment of our cities?

I’m a firm believer in people thinking broadly about the world. Coming generations don’t need to feel as specialized, so somebody can be a performer and an environmentalist. All those social and political issues, whether about inequality or clean air, should find their way into the work itself. Architecture is that way. Our firm thinks about if things should be made with materials that are better sourced. We use our specific talents through the lens of our art. One artist can do both things. You can be an activist for environment; if you are also an artist [then] that should be revealing itself in your work. Hopefully we’re seeing that in our cities.


Schedule for the 2015 Dallas Festival of Ideas:

Friday, February 27, 2015

7-9 p.m – Opening Event: The Future Starts Here
At the Dallas City Performance Hall

The Physical City, The Cultural City. The Innovative City. The Political City. The Educated City. Five dynamic speakers illuminate the possibilities. Five potent performances put them into action. Join us for opening night: The Future Starts Here.



The interpretive performances have been curated by Will Richey of Journeyman Ink and David Rodriguez of Dr. Gorilla. The opening night event is directed by Lee Trull of the Dallas Theater Center.


Saturday, February 28, 2015


8:00 a.m – Festival HQ opens in the lobby of the Winspear Opera House
Booths open at 9 a.m and performances start at 10 a.m

Free family programming runs throughout the day with performers on the IDEAS Stage, artists, interactive booths and action stations.

Panels to take place in the Dallas City Performance Hall, Crow Collection of Asian Art, Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas Museum of Art, and Booker T. Washington High School.


9:00 a.m – 10:00 a.m – The Educated City
Booker T. Washington High School

Dual keynote Dr. Claudia Allums (Director, Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education) will discuss with keynote Elizabeth Green how her big idea from the night before can be applied to Educated Dallas.

Audience Q&A


9:30 a.m – 10:30 a.m – The Political City
The Dallas Museum of Art

Dual keynote Florencia Velasco Fortner (President & CEO, The Concilio) will discuss with keynote Ta-Nehisi Coates how his big idea from the night before can be applied to Political Dallas.

Audience Q&A


10–11 a.m – The Innovative City
The Meyerson Symphony Center

Dual keynote Gabriella Draney (Co-Founder & CEO, Tech Wildcatters) will discuss with keynote Rahaf Harfoush how her big idea from the night before can be applied to Innovative Dallas.

Audience Q&A


10:30–11:30 a.m – The Cultural City
The Crow Collection of Asian Art

Dual keynote Chris Vognar (Culture Critic, The Dallas Morning News) will discuss with keynote Luis Alberto Urrea how his big idea from the night before can be applied to Cultural Dallas.

Audience Q&A


11 a.m.-12 p.m – The Physical City
The Dallas City Performance Hall

Dual keynote Mark Lamster (Architect Critic, The Dallas Morning News) will discuss with keynote Vishaan Chakrabarti how his big idea from the night before can be applied to Physical Dallas.

Audience Q&A


12–2 p.m – Lunch program
Concessions open at the Winspear Opera House
Restaurants open for lunch at One Arts Plaza

Free family programming at the Festival HQ – Winspear Opera House, Lobby.  Performers, artists, interactive booths, and action stations.


1–1:45 p.m

How can Dallas attract and retain its creative talent?
Free lunchtime panel open to all at Booker T. Washington High School

The interpretive performers from the Opening Night Signature Event (Michelle GibsonJamal MohamedDavid Lozano) will join Will Richey and SMU’s Zannie Vossin discussing how Dallas can work to make the city a creative hub that will attract artists from across the world, and make it appealing enough that its native talent stays here.


2–3 p.m – The Physical City
The Dallas City Performance Hall

Dual keynotes Chakrabarti and Lamster will regroup with panelist Maria Loveland Schneider (Sustainability Consultant, Sustainable Development Resources) to drill down further into ideas for Physical Dallas.

Moderated by Jeff Whittington (Executive Producer, KERA)

Audience Q&A


2:30–3:30 p.m – The Political City
The Dallas Museum of Art

Dual keynotes Coates and Velasco Fortner will regroup with panelists Lee Cullum(host of CEO, KERA) and Michael Sorrell (President, Paul Quinn College) to drill down further into ideas for Cultural Dallas.

Moderated by James Ragland (Columnist, The Dallas Morning News)

Audience Q&A


3-4 p.m. – The Innovative City
The Meyerson Symphony Center

Dual keynotes Harfoush and Draney will regroup with panelists Chad Houser (Founder, Café Momentum) and Trey Bowles to drill down further into ideas for Innovative Dallas.

Moderated by Dr. Seema Yasmin (Professor in practice, The University of Texas at Dallas; medical correspondent for NBC Channel 5; health writer, The Dallas Morning News)

Audience Q&A


3:30–4:30 p.m – The Cultural City
The Crow Collection of Asian Art

Dual keynotes Urrea and Vognar will regroup with panelists Teresa Coleman Wash (Executive Artistic Director/Founder, TeCo Theatrical Productions) and Jin-Ya Huang to drill down further into ideas for Cultural Dallas.

Moderated by George Getschow (UNT Mayborn School of Journalism)

Audience Q&A


3:30–4:30 p.m The Educated City
Booker T. Washington High School

Dual keynotes Green and Allums will regroup with panelists Alfonso Correa(Teacher, School for the Talented and Gifted) and Onyema Nweze (Dallas ISD Academic Facilitator) to drill down further into ideas for Educated Dallas.

Moderated by Dr. Dan Russ (Professor, Gordon College; Senior Fellow, Trinity Forum)

Audience Q&A


4:45–5 p.m. – Conclusion and Next Steps. Call to action.

What have we learned? What are the next steps for each city?  What does action look like?


5–8 p.m – Closing party

Performances, beer and BBQ in the lobby of the Winspear Opera House. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Vishaan Chakrabarti
The architect and urban planner says a city’s investment in performing arts yields returns of high magnitude, both measurable and intangible. He speaks at this week's Dallas Festival of Ideas.
by Martha Heimberg

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