Dallas — Back in May, I was invited to CitySquare to discuss their pending purchase of the iconic Forest Theater and its surrounding buildings. Larry James, CEO of CitySquare, informed me that they really wanted to explore the idea of developing the block as a cultural hub and wanted to see what I and a group of other people invested in South Dallas thought about the idea. As someone who spent 20 years of my arts administration career in this community, of course I had some definite ideas about the potential for this new CitySquare acquisition. I was pumped about this sale because I felt good about the purchaser. Of all the entities that could have acquired this block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, CitySquare is one that I think will proceed with caution, being careful to engage the community in designing the best usage for the theater and its neighboring buildings.
Fast forward to July, and CitySquare has bought the properties and placed this project in the very capable hands of a young, energetic and visionary woman, Elizabeth Wattley, who quickly organized a series of community focus groups. I just attended one last week and was excited to see the level of conversation shoot up to excellent immediately. The donors who made the sale possible told a moving story of how the arts had literally saved their son’s life because he had been “written off’ by his school due to a severe learning difference. We all know kids who have experienced this same situation, at least I know I do. These donors are believers, so they were excited to hear what our thoughts were for revitalizing the theater and other buildings.
So, here’s who was in the room. Guinea Bennett-Price and Anyika McMillan-Herod were there representing Soul Rep Theatre Company; Jiles King (many may know him as the first Executive Director of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters) was representing his own Seventh Stage Productions company; Melanie Ferguson came, representing developers Matthews Southwest, a company with strong ties to South Dallas by way of its numerous housing; retail and civic developments, Ken Smith, a South Dallas native and founder of Revitalize South Dallas; was also in the room as was Maggie Parker with The Real Estate Council Community Fund. Amber Sims, who’s a part of Reimagine Fair Park and The Dallas Morning News OpEd Project’s Dallas Public Voices Greenhouse added her insights as did entrepreneur and South Dallas resident Lincoln Stephens and his neighbor Traswell Livingston III, Vice President/Chief Operating Officer of Aids Services of Dallas.
Understanding that she needed to hear from a variety of perspectives, Elizabeth very smartly included Marian Williams who currently serves as President of the SouthFair CDC board but who also taught science for many years in South Dallas and has been committed to the community in a myriad of ways over the years. In that vein of getting all perspectives, Rodrigua Ross, Executive Director of Park South YMCA was also there to offer some ideas for how best to develop the Forest Theater block as was UNT Law School Dean, attorney Cheryl Wattley and Joli Robinson who’s with the Office of Community Affairs at the Dallas Police Department. I’ve taken the time to give a shout out to all these dedicated people because this is what a focus group for a proposed cultural space in an African American community should look like. Elizabeth said she initially thought of having an all artist focus group, an all business leaders focus group, etc. but quickly dropped that idea in favor of one that mixed it up, in the hope that the diversity of interests would produce the most fertile ideas, and indeed it did!
African-Americans have often not had the luxury of being unidimensional when it comes to developing institutions or organizations serving the black community. South Dallas Cultural Center, for example, is not just a stellar arts center but it also serves as a hub for its constituents to get information on community social services, to provide college guidance for high school students, to give education advice for parents with school aged kids, and provide a host of other services. It maintains a collaborative working relationship with neighboring churches, schools, organizations and businesses in order to best serve its patrons and will certainly do the same with whatever the Forest Theater Project ends up being.
We were asked to think of all the things artists would want, need, and absolutely not want for the project and those ideas were posted on a vision board. Next, we were asked to imagine what the community would want, need and absolutely not want followed by a focus on youth wants, needs and no-nos. Once we thrashed out all these areas, Elizabeth had us revisit all the suggestions with an eye on what actually already exists in South Dallas and where the gaps occurred in cultural services. We also were charged with identifying those ideas we posted that would be better seen as complementary to already existing programs. By the time our two hours were up, we had done some pretty wonderful imagining and left Elizabeth and the CItySquare staff and board with some concrete ideas. Several more meetings will be held to gather more ideas from more artists, business owners and community activists and soon a plan of action will be in place.
This project alone would have been enough to get my creative juices flowing but I also had the pleasure of meeting with the good people at Cedars Union to hear about their plan for an emerging artist 7,000 sq. ft. incubator space that will provide some work space and lots of artist business development assistance. There’s already a model for the space that will house 15 visual artists with future plans for a performing artists space. The plan calls for 15 micro studios in four different sizes at an incredibly affordable rent. Some of the common area amenities include small meeting rooms, a gallery, a community gathering space, a tech lab, tool access for multiple artistic disciplines, high speed Wi-Fi, 24/7 building access with secured parking and year-round programming.
An artist will submit, through an online application process, a letter of intent, their résumé/CV and artist statement, and links to their website, social media, or any other online outlet to view their work. This will be submitted to a jury of professional curators and artists who will select the artists for the 15 available slots.
What’s exciting about this project is its affordability because most times when spaces are created in newly gentrifying areas, they are way out of the price range of most emerging artists.
Since they cannot usually afford to buy a house and build a studio onsite, like so many of us mid-career artists have done, they’re left out in the cold where work space is concerned. It’s also exciting that The Cedars Union Annex will be creating a community for visual artists, something I think we all need, particularly when first starting out. Unlike the performing artists, the visual artists typically work in solitary. By occupying a space in a building with 14 other artists and perhaps another 20-plus who have shop privileges, a solid community of support will be established.
All in all, it’s looking like 75215 has a very bright cultural future ahead so artists check in and stay tuned!
» 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.
» ART-iculate runs on the last Wednesday of the month.
- April: Vicki Meek ART-iculates
- May: On Dallas and Cultural Equity
- June: Equity vs. Diversity
- July: An Arts Super PAC?
- August: Too Big to Fail?
- September: It Isn't Us Against Them
- October: Another Missed Opportunity
- November: Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea
- December: Save Our Summer Programs