Dallas — We’ve all heard the statement “Art saved my life” uttered by one artist or another. In the last month, I’ve heard that statement from two people who hail from two radically different worlds. The first was a very wealthy white man whose son had been written off by the education world because of his severe learning difference. But for the introduction of the arts into his life, this son of great privilege could have been lost, possibly consumed by self-hatred and self-doubt. The arts saved him.
The second man who claimed the arts saved his life was a 75-year-old African-American literary icon. But for the introduction of the arts into his life, he might have succumbed to the “mean streets of Detroit,” completely convinced of his unworthiness. The arts saved him.
Culture and the arts are a critical tool for energizing communities. All communities have a culture and artists who practice that culture. Unfortunately, we don’t always get to experience the richness of our many diverse communities because we still labor under the illusion that certain cultures are more valuable than others. Edward T. Hall in The Silent Language stated, “One of the most effective ways to learn about oneself is by taking seriously the cultures of others. It forces you to pay attention to those details of life which differentiate them from you.” I couldn’t agree more and have spent a good portion of my cultural life learning about cultures other than my own. I also learned a long time ago that culture flourishes everywhere, if only you keep your eyes and heart open to it.
The examples I started this article with were chosen for a specific reason. I wanted to make the point that the arts are a kind of equal opportunity lifeline for many. Most artists I know, whether they come from means or not, see their creativity as a gift that they have a responsibility to nurture. Interestingly, artists seem to find ways to develop their creative urges whether they have access to major cultural institutions or simply learn from a creative great aunt or father, which is why it’s important for a city to put in place programs that support culture and the arts wherever they are found. The arts save lives.
We need our kids to learn from a very early age to respect their culture, whatever that looks like, and the arts that are birthed from it. They must have the opportunity to see themselves in this world of creativity which means the exhibitions like the great Mexico exhibit recently seen at the DMA cannot be a one –off deal. It means the occasional African American Museum field trip needs to become more the norm than not. It also means artists from their communities must have access to the resources that allow them to not just live among these kids but to work among them too and be in their schools, recreation centers, community centers, etc. The way we build our next generation of cultural consumers is by nurturing them where they live. When families in Pleasant Grove can see a great theater performance in Pleasant Grove and families in South Oak Cliff can experience a stellar dance performance in South Oak Cliff, they are far more likely to seek other such performances outside their community.
We are embarking on a new endeavor in Dallas, one that can either take us to new heights or keep us running on this “business” as cultural treadmill we’ve been on for decades. The Cultural Plan we are beginning to explore can be totally awesome, or it can be just another document to shelve like our Cultural Policy. I am hoping that these difficult times we are currently experiencing will be the necessary kick in the butt we need to understand the urgency of getting this right this time. We are seeing a lot of energy being exerted around issues of race and transformational healing from many sectors of our community. The arts can play a major role in this realm but only if they are embraced in their entirety and not just as window- dressing. The arts save lives.
The 75-year-old African-American literary icon I was referring to is the great Dr. Haki Madhubuti who was in town this past weekend along with the legendary Sonia Sanchez for the regenerated Tulisoma South Dallas Book Fair. He told a story that made me realize how powerful culture and the arts are once they’ve grabbed a kid by his heart. He told the standing-room-only crowd at the African-American Museum that the reason he was able to imagine starting Third World Press, was because he was mentored by two African-American cultural icons, both of who ran cultural centers out of their homes. The late Dr. Margaret Burroughs and the late Dudley Randall created The DuSable Museum and Boardside Press respectively without “funding” from government or private foundations, but with their private resources and sheer will to serve their communities. Madhubuti used this model and did the same in his basement apartment, starting Third World Press with a mimeograph machine and $400. Thankfully, he didn’t buy into the idea that cultural organizations had to be located downtown in some fancy building or we wouldn’t have the thriving 50-year-old Third World Press Foundation today.
All the Dallas African-American institutions followed this same model (I know because I worked with Curtis King out of his Knight Street apartment as he grew what started as the Junior Black Academy of Arts & Letters!) as did Cara Mía and Teatro Dallas. Just think how many kids of color have been touched by these institutions. Now think how many more can have a soul-stirring cultural experience if we simply recognize that culture lives in all our neighborhoods and support the development of that culture.
The arts save lives. Yes they do!
» 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