Dallas — I recently was invited by artist/scholar Dr. Lauren Cross to have a conversation with her and her colleague at University of North Texas, Dr. Jennifer Way, for art students as a part of their series Art, Politics & North Texas. I had a blast talking to our next generation of artmakers especially since the topic is so near to my heart. I was thrilled to hear that all were in Jennifer’s class called The Artists as Citizens. Actually, I was thrilled that such a class even existed given how isolating it can be studying studio art. Needless to say, much of what my talk centered on was why we as artists cannot afford to have our heads in the sand during these trying times nor can we afford to be politically naïve.
Sharing my ideas with those UNT students got me thinking about North Texas and the cultural community’s role in creating a world artmakers will want to inhabit. I have been encouraging artmakers to engage with the Dallas Cultural Plan planning process because there’s no substitute for getting in on the ground floor when the ideas are being shaped and reshaped. There’s been great response so far but we have a way to go before the process is complete, so I just hope we don’t start with a bang and end with a whimper.
Despite how the narrative is too often represented by our city’s public relations team, Dallas is so much more than just one Arts District. When I think of how the arts organizations in our town came to be, I get a little steamed about how little credit the artmakers get when culture is discussed around corporate tables and city government offices. Artists have had to fight an uphill battle in many cases to exist in this town, especially those that were the innovators during the early days of Dallas’ cultural growth.
I mean, were it not for the vision of Paul Baker, there would be no Dallas Theater Center and his brilliant offspring, Robyn Flatt pushed and pushed until she got Dallas Children’s Theater off the ground. Artmakers Katherine Owens and Bruce DuBose did what many said couldn’t be done and started an avant-garde theater, Undermain, in a scruffy basement in Deep Ellum, a theater that has garnered national and international accolades. The same is true of rabble-rousers and theater geniuses Cora Cardona and Jeff Hurst who came to me in my other incarnation as Supervisor of Community Arts Development and pitched their idea for a bilingual professional theater. Teatro Dallas is an award-winning theater today because they wouldn’t take no for an answer and thank God they didn’t! Cora went on to mentor just about every successful Latinx theater professional working in North Texas and beyond. Her mentoring of Adelina Anthony produced Cara Mía Theater which is blazing a new path for Latinx theater in Texas—and across the country!
Many don’t know it but the impresario Curtis King is a theatermaker as well and his insistence that the Black Arts have a permanent showcase in Dallas is why we have The Black Academy of Arts & Letters. Teresa Wash may be an arts administrator now (out of necessity) but she too is a theatermaker who saw an opportunity to expand the offerings for the black community and set her sights on building a facility that would allow this to happen. TeCo went from a small community based organization to Bishop Arts Theater, a full-fledged multi-arts facility in what was once a very underserved area of Oak Cliff.
In the world of dance, we have numerous companies operating on relatively nothing but still they produce a plethora of dance programs. Without Ann Williams’ vision to create a professional dance company that celebrated the work of black choreographers, we’d have no Dallas Black Dance Theatre, our largest company. Newbie visionary Terrance Johnson is forging a path for another contemporary black dance company with his Terrance Johnson Dance Project. Tony Browne made a commitment to provide North Texas with at least one professional African dance ensemble and with not much more than pure grit, has created a fantastic company, Bandan Koro African Drum and Dance Ensemble (against a lot of odds, I must add!). The brilliant Danielle Georgiou paid no attention to the fact that contemporary dance is a difficult sell here. She’s proven that persistence and excellence finds an audience if only given the chance to do so. Before his untimely death, Bruce Wood assembled one of the most dynamic dance ensembles in the country and following in his innovative footsteps is choreographer Joshua Peugh whose Dark Circles Contemporary Dance is causing quite a stir!
While I’m mentioning artists who persisted in making spaces for artmaking, I can’t ignore the South Dallas Cultural Center, a space I managed for nearly 20 years. Without the tenacity of artists like Art & Elaine Thornton, Charles Hillman, Gwen Hargrove, Arthello Beck and the other artists they mobilized, there probably would never have been a center built in South Dallas, at least not one as stellar as SDCC! They lobbied city council and tirelessly advocated for it to be included in a bond package. It’s the only OCA cultural center whose existence was made possible because of artists, not arts administrators, planting the first seed and then staying the course until it happened.
Why am I talking about all these artists? Because these artists embody the Artists as Citizens those UNT students are learning to be. They all saw a need and decided to meet it, whether big bucks were being invested in their dreams or not. Some were embraced by the elite and therefore attracted major donors but others soldiered on despite the lack of substantial funding. They continue to work the political system to get increases in funding for small and midsized cultural organizations.
If only Dallas would recognize that the most precious cultural resources it has are its artmakers, we’d be able to hold on to our creative sector and not have to constantly sit on panels discussing how to make this city one where artists want to live. As we look at this new cultural plan, I just want us to keep in our minds that without a healthy environment for artists to produce, there is no hope of having a truly healthy cultural ecosystem.
P.S.: Don’t forget to vote “FOR” the Bond Package (Proposition F) because all the facilities these artists use need repair! Early voting is underway so don’t sit this one out! Election day is Nov. 7, but get yours done now.
» 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
- January: The Creative Community in the Trump Era
- February: Being a Black Artist in a White World
- March: Expanding Our Cultural Horizons
- April: Intercultural Self-Determination
- May: A New Cultural Plan
- June: Working for Good
- July: Into the Forest
- August: Saved by Art
- September: Immersed in Cultural Equity