Vicki Meek

Let's Talk Arts Equity (Again)

Vicki Meek looks at the Latino Cultural Center debate and wonders if our city's cultural leaders are really ready for racial equity and parity.

published Wednesday, March 28, 2018



Dallas — On my birthday in 1964, my hero Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer made a statement during the Democratic National Convention that aptly sums up how I’ve been feeling lately. Her now famous “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” statement summarized her feelings regarding battling racism and is exactly where I am in my battle to gain cultural and racial equity and parity in Dallas. I hadn’t attended a Cultural Affairs Commission (CAC) meeting in quite some time so I wasn’t prepared for what transpired last week when I presented remarks supporting Cara Mía Theatre Co.’s request for sufficient dates to present their entire season at the Latino Cultural Center (LCC). The first thing that happened was those of us presenting were informed that our time was cut from three minutes to two. This meant we had to amend our prepared remarks on the spot! This revision meant I didn’t get to make some points I thought needed making. The same held true for the other presenters. So, I am making them in this article because they are important points germane to the issues related to Office of Cultural Affair’s history of sidestepping its commitment to cultural and racial equity and parity.

The first point I want to make is how long this battle for equity and parity has been going on since many sitting around the Cultural Affairs Commission horseshoe seem new to this discussion. Back in the 1980s, the City Arts Program (now Office of Cultural Affairs) embraced this issue head on with programs like The Minority Arts Incentive Program, The Cultural Projects Program, The Arts Endowment, the construction of South Dallas Cultural Center and the adoption of a Cultural Policy that set a minimum benchmark of 25 percent of all funding to go to organizations of color. In the 1990s, additional programs were initiated to further the goals of the initiatives enacted in the 1980s. Programs like the Leadership Excellence and Advancement Program (LEAP), The Latino Arts Initiative and Neighborhood Touring Program were designed to assist organizations and artists of color in gaining greater financial support by both providing technical/administrative assistance, along with additional funding. The LCC was built due in large part to the tireless efforts of Teatro Dallas under the board leadership of the late Jesse Tafalla and was designed to be the premier cultural center in the Southwest for Latinx arts. A neighborhood center that had a Latinx focus was also opened in Oak Cliff, the Ice House Cultural Center that was later replaced by the Oak Cliff Cultural Center (OC3). By the way, the LCC was never envisioned as the facility for small community arts groups which is why it warranted a general manager like the Meyerson, not a manager like the other cultural centers.

The second point I want to make is that the City of Dallas has never had a problem creating facilities for those cultural entities it has deemed invaluable. When I moved here in 1980, the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now Dallas Museum of Art) was located in Fair Park as was the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO). The Dallas Theater Center (DTC) was housed at The Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek and the Dallas Opera (TDO) and Dallas Ballet performed at the Majestic Theatre downtown. As the city powerbrokers decided that in order to be a “world class city,” Dallas needed to have world class facilities for these organizations. We saw the erection of The Meyerson and DMA and plans laid out for an Arts District that would accommodate TDO and DTC. The only one of the aforementioned organizations that didn’t make the cut was Dallas Ballet, but that was not for lack of city funds being poured into this entity, despite its constant state of financial disaster. It simply reached a point where the City couldn’t justify spending taxpayer dollars without seeing a positive return on the investment. But all the others acquired new, beautiful facilities, built using a formula that allowed for a public/private partnership. I should also add that there were long term management contracts with these entities that tied up city funds for years, making achieving racial parity very difficult without growing the cultural budget considerably. So, the fact that all the current ethnic specific Cultural Operating Program (COP) organizations had to fight tooth and nail to get facilities is an indication that unlike the DSO, TDO, DMA and DTC, their cultural offerings were not seen as important to the City’s “world class” status.

The third point I want to make is how disingenuous it is for OCA staff to state that it can’t give resident status to Cara Mía or Teatro Dallas who, in the 1990s, requested this status of the LCC, when no one batted an eye at the idea of DSO being the resident arts organization in the Meyerson. I’m specifically using the DSO/Meyerson example because this facility is, like the LCC, run by OCA staff, unlike the other Arts District residents who manage their facilities. So, it’s OK to have one arts organization monopolize a city facility but not another? I don’t think I’ve ever heard the CAC suggest that the Meyerson should make room for small and mid-sized groups and not have the DSO take up all the choice dates. The recent furor over the raw deal the city was getting from ATTPAC resulted in some token acknowledgement that small and midsized groups should have access to ATTPAC facilities that taxpayer dollars funded, but court’s still out on what will result from this ATTPAC mandate to provide more support.

What has me sick and tired is how blatantly racist all of this is and how ironic it’s all coming to a head as the OCA embarks on this elaborate community planning process in its quest to write a Cultural Plan. The Latinx organizations are being pitted against each other as they jockey for the use of the LCC. The only two professional theaters, Teatro and Cara Mía, both need access to sustain their growth momentum but somehow this idea of having resident companies is being called unreasonable. I can’t help but to wonder where Teatro would be today had they been granted LCC residence status back in the 1990s (remember, they requested it back then!) before they found themselves scrambling for a space and ended up taking three steps backwards to gain one step forward?

And now Cara Mía, a theater whose artistic directors were all nurtured by Cora Cardona, is at that tipping point in its development. Rather than being celebrated for its growth and respected position in the national theater community, it’s being denigrated by OCA staff and some CAC members who think they’ve been given enough already! We sure didn't hear this line of discussion when ATTPAC came looking for a city bailout for its $15 million debt relief. We’ve also never heard that when any of the largest COP institutions have deficit problems and need additional funding. (I once witnessed the mysterious magic money materialize for a $600,000 utility overrun chalked up by the DMA!) I’m also sick and tired of the OCA current culture that has staff acting like patrons rather the public servants. One thing I could never tolerate was city staff not respecting the fact that OCA exists to serve the artists and arts organizations. They should never be anything short of champions for our arts and cultural organizations because without them, there is no need for an Office of Cultural Affairs.

Let me end by saying that all the planning in the world will not bring cultural and racial equity and parity if there is no genuine appreciation for what these organizations contribute to the Dallas cultural ecosystem.

Frankly, I’m sick and tired of having to make this point year after year.


» 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.









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Let's Talk Arts Equity (Again)
Vicki Meek looks at the Latino Cultural Center debate and wonders if our city's cultural leaders are really ready for racial equity and parity.
by Vicki Meek

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