Dallas — Now that it’s crystal clear that the ATTPAC deal was never going to be derailed (the 10 million dollars over 10 years from the city to help with construction debt was approved last week), maybe we can focus our attention on the underlying issue that sparked this debate i.e. racial and cultural equity. For decades now, artists of color have been fighting the battle to gain equity across this nation. Dallas actually is a latecomer to this discussion and so it isn’t surprising that we haven’t yet found solutions to our equity problem.
Two years ago when Dallas hosted the Race Forward’s “Facing Race” conference, I thought it telling that they chose to use the arts and culture sector lens through which to approach this work around equity because it's the one sector in Dallas that has made the least amount of progress on this topic. But I was willing to see where this would take us, given that I was all but talked out on the subject and was only interested in action.
As I feared, we didn’t end up pushing ourselves beyond the kumbaya moments and so we find ourselves at the point we are today with artists of color demanding our Office of Cultural Affairs address the issue of racial and cultural equity in a real way. So I want to use this month’s conversation to pose a series of ‘what ifs” just to throw some ideas on the table for us all to consider as we once again challenge the status quo.
What if… instead of seeing this situation as an “us against them” scenario, we really looked at how to increase the overall funding pie so that the total needs of the Dallas cultural community are met. There would be far less rancor over bailouts like the ATTPAC bailout if in fact the communities of color were having their needs met. If the funding was expanded rather than contracting because the only solution taken is to rob Peter to pay Paul, everyone can win.
What if… Dallas took a broader view of itself and recognized that big fancy shiny new buildings are great but they ultimately are not the sign of a culturally sophisticated city. Such a city has a healthy, thriving cultural ecosystem that includes a myriad of cultural offerings reflecting the diversity of its citizens. It would realize that the art that happens within its big fancy shiny new buildings should not be restricted to imported art but should also include that which is homegrown and the homegrown should be supported in such a way that it can successfully be exported!
What if… Dallas started looking beyond one designated locale (Dallas Arts District) to realize that the greater part of the city needs the arts as much as it needs great schools, clean parks, good streets, and accessible food markets. Study after study has shown that kids that grow up with the arts as a steady part of their education do much better in all aspects of their life. Having a place in their own neighborhood to experience the arts with people who look like them is an invaluable resource. Just ask the South Dallas Cultural Center “kids” who now have kids of their own who attend that center, what the value of having a center in their community has meant. So the demand for neighborhood cultural centers should be seen as a smart move for our city to make if indeed we truly want culturally literate citizens.
What if… Dallas stopped giving lip service to the idea of racial and cultural equity and actually started seeing these two imperatives as a positive by taking the necessary steps to realign its priorities to address the more than 60 percent of the city that is POC (that’s people of color for you newbies to this conversation!). When our NextGen and Millennial POC artists say they want to see a different model advanced for cultural funding, stop seeing this as a threat! The Dallas racial demographics have changed dramatically since I arrived here in 1980, with the city proper have a majority POC. The DISD is over 70 percent Latino and yet we are not seeing the students attending DISD schools getting the opportunity to regularly interact with Latino arts organizations. The next largest racial group, African-Americans, find themselves in the same situation. Without support from OCA to expand the reach of POC cultural groups into their communities, this situation cannot change.
And finally What if… Dallas’ private donors began to expand their sense of what is culturally valuable to include ethnic-specific cultural programming. Instead of sinking their generous dollars into outreach programs by so-called mainstream cultural institutions, they took those same dollars and invested in POC institutions so they can expand their programming into both their own community and the general community. A truly culturally literate community is eager to explore those things that take it out of its comfort zone, things that force it to rethink notions its held for a long time, things that challenge its ideas of what life can be, things that broaden its humanity.
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.