Dallas — Last week we witnessed yet another meaningless exchange regarding Dallas and its relationship to its artists, particularly those in the so-called emerging category. The seemingly never-ending query “How do we keep our artists in Dallas?” was once again explored during the Mayor’s Dallas Arts Week kick-off, this time by a slightly more diverse group of panelists but a group that was sorely missing the voices of the very people being discussed. But enough about the past! I want to use my first monthly ART-iculate column in TheaterJones to talk about now—with only an occasional romp back into the past to contextualize the now.
Dallas has a long history of ignoring itself in favor of aggrandizing “the outside.” This is particularly true of its relationship to its artists (performing, media, visual, literary, all of the above). I came to this city 1980 and was amazed that there was no vehicle in place to support local artists except for the CETA program that was actually on its last leg nationally. Admittedly, I was used to the East Coast level of support where artists could secure grants for their projects or to simply do their work, so this environment of no local dollar support was a shocker. Fast-forward to 2016 and we’re still not on par with most major cities that have well developed arts funding for individual artists and we’re also still rehashing the conversation about how to retain Dallas artists. So what’s the problem Dallas? Why can’t we get this situation resolved and off the arts convo table?
I’m going to suggest that we have two problems when it comes to answering these questions. One stems from the lack of confidence on the part of Dallas arts supporters/donors in the local talent. There is still way too much reverence placed on things and people from “the outside.” We spend an exorbitant amount of money on bringing in art and artists from other places to create arts activity in our city at the expense of the homegrown creatives. This is how buildings get to be more critical to the discussion of art than artists. Dallas wisdom says if you have state-of-the-art facilities quite naturally you can attract the top artists, which in turn will make Dallas a top arts destination, right? Wrong! It will simply make Dallas a top-booking city for second-rate touring productions. (OK, in the interest of full disclosure, I think ALL touring productions are second-rate!)
The second problem is one of cultural inequity, a problem Dallas shares with many other cities but is far less likely to address honestly than some others. We are a city with a substantial community of color but to look at the financial support for the arts, you would hardly think so. I am always amazed when I ask whites and blacks who claim to love the arts in this city if they’ve ever seen a Teatro Dallas or Cara Mía production and they sheepishly admit they haven’t. Or if I ask if they’ve checked out any of the exhibitions at South Dallas Cultural Center or the African American Museum and they answer likewise.
Dallas, with all its claims to being “an international city,” is quite the opposite. We may have people from all over the world as residents but the cross-cultural mash-up that should result from this multi-cultural populace never seems to happen. We are pitifully siloed, both culturally and racially. I can still attend certain arts events and know exactly who the black and browns will be in the audience because there are definitely some usual suspects when it comes to participating in DFW arts offerings. The idea of stepping out of your comfort zone only seems to apply to people of color as I have too often heard the comment from white artists and patrons “why don’t more people of color come out to [our] events?” Well, I’d ask the same question of them. Why don’t more white people who claim to love the arts come to the events offered by artists and arts organizations of color? And that includes critics and the mainstream media.
We can’t expect to reach real “international city” status until we recognize that this dichotomy exists and must be addressed and resolved before the rest of the world will see us as we’ve imagined ourselves! I suggest that instead of constantly talking about cultural equity we start practicing it. We should all commit to trying an arts flavor we’ve never tried before, at least once a quarter. If we do this, we’ll also be supporting local artists who, if this catches on, may find it possible to make a living in their hometown. Now wouldn’t that be something to talk about!
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, recently retired Director of the South Dallas Cultural Center, and a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. Look for her ART-iculate column, which will explore issues around race, politics and the arts, on the third Wednesday of the month. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.