Vicki Meek

Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea

In her November ART-iculate, Vicki Meek looks at the importance of arts centers in culturally diverse neighborhoods around the country, and why they should matter here.

published Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Dallas — In recent months, one of the calls for cultural equity from David Lozano and Giovanni Valderas has centered on the need for more neighborhood arts centers like those in South Dallas/Fair Park and North Oak Cliff. The idea expressed was that, although a centrally located Arts District is great, everyone isn’t going to venture downtown and even if everyone did, there still is a need for more ethnically specific programming in neighborhoods that are comprised primarily of people of color. I, having managed such a center for a couple of decades, have no doubts about the effectiveness of these institutions in providing a safe space for cultural expression and cultural discovery.

Dallas is actually new to the concept of the neighborhood cultural center, even as the Bath House and South Dallas Cultural Center have been open 35 and 30 years respectively. I grew up in Philadelphia and got the bulk of my arts schooling at two South Philly institutions, Settlement Music School (SMS) and Fleisher Art Memorial. I, and so many like me who attended Philadelphia Publics Schools, were afforded an A-One arts education with some of the finest faculty primarily because these places were created by some very forward thinking individuals who understood the value of an excellent arts education for all, no matter the income level.

If you check out  the history of Settlement Music School, you’ll find that the alumni list reads like the Who’s Who of Philadelphia arts professionals from people like the great jazz bassists Stanley Clarke and Christian McBride to the Bacon Brothers Kevin and Michael, to acclaimed classical pianist Leon Bates (my high school classmate) and opera star Wilhemenia Fernandez and Mario Lanza to television musical director Kevin Eubanks and jazz legends Buddy Greco & Joey DeFrancesco. Even Albert Einstein participated in the SMS Chamber music program and served as a Board member in the 1950s.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Vicki Meek

Students studying at Fleisher had the honor of learning their craft from the faculty of Tyler School of Fine Arts, Moore College of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts).


“Thousands of young people toil during the day whose lives are unavoidably cast upon a background of routine and sameness—the world’s work must be done—to them should be offered pastures where beauty and inspiration may be gathered,  places where rich and poor alike may give expression to their finer emotions—playgrounds  for the soul.”— Samuel S. Fleisher


Samuel Fleisher said the quote above as he opened a space in 1898 for poor residents of South Philadelphia. It was open to all tuition free because he knew most couldn’t afford to pay for the classes so he, being a wealthy man, endowed the program. Fleisher was not alone in his thinking that art belonged to all the people.

Henry Street Settlement founded in 1893 by social worker and public health advocate Lillian Wald, in New York City’s Lower East Side, also added art programs to its services to poor European  immigrants in 1915, especially for the children. Its theater and music programs trained numerous young people, many who went on to be arts professionals. In 1954, a young Paul Taylor premiered his ballet Jack & the Beanstalk at Henry Street Settlement. Of course, it remains a powerful institution today in the New York cultural community. In Cleveland, Ohio, Russell and Rowena Woodham Jelliffe founded Karamu House with a mission to establish a place where people of all races, creeds and religions could find common ground. The Jelliffes discovered in their early years, that the arts provided the perfect common ground, and in 1917 plays at the "Playhouse Settlement" began. Karamu is probably best known as the place where Langston Hughes hung out, studied and produced his many of theatrical offerings.

The United States government also embraced this idea of arts for the masses (offered where the masses live) during the Great Depression, setting up hundreds of arts centers around the nation and employing America’s artists to teach in them.  The 1930s and ’40s saw places like Southside Community Arts Center in Chicago, Harlem Community Arts Center in New York City and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis serve the cultural needs of their communities, providing instruction and cultural enrichment to all who were interested, usually free of charge. Today, only Southside Community Arts Center remains true to its original mission. The Walker abandoned its “community” mission and has become one of the premier contemporary arts centers in the country.

In the 1960s and ’70s due to urban unrest in many of America’s major cities, the Federal government once again revisited the idea of “arts for the people” when it added The Expansion Arts Program to the many programs offered by the National Endowment for the Arts. This groundbreaking program allowed access to federal arts dollars for the first time to a demographic typically shut out of the grants process i.e., people of color and rural residents. It was during this time period that institutions like The Artists Collective in Hartford, Watts Tower Arts Center in Los Angeles, El Museo de Barrio in New York City and Carver Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio opened their doors to traditionally underserved neighborhoods. These institutions have been invaluable to their respective communities, providing arts opportunities and experiences to countless people of color who likely would never had been exposed to their own cultures in the mainstream institutions. These mainstream institutions routinely garner most arts funding dollars in most cities, both the public and private dollars.

So when David Lozano puts the idea of more neighborhood arts centers on the table, he puts it there backed by a rich history of neighborhood centers and their role in the development of ethnic specific cultural arts. They offer people who are typically absent from the mainstream arts world (or when they are present, it’s often from a perspective that is not their own) a voice. Let’s take a closer, more serious look at the need for more neighborhood arts centers as we re-visit the Cultural Policy and embark on a developing a Cultural Plan.

» 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.



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Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea
In her November ART-iculate, Vicki Meek looks at the importance of arts centers in culturally diverse neighborhoods around the country, and why they should matter here.
by Vicki Meek

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