In many respects, the power behind the arts in Dallas has proven to be old, white, rich and male. A look at the boards that make up its elite arts organizations goes a long way toward proving that.
But the city is changing, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Cultural Plan being formulated by the Office of Cultural Affairs.
“We don’t live in a Camelot world any more,” says Jennifer Scripps, director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs. In contrast for today’s generation, which embraces multiculturalism: “It’s all about Hamilton.”
For that reason and more, “equity” is the driving force behind the Cultural Plan, which is almost complete. The Office of Cultural Affairs will conduct a citywide round of public meetings, concluding Tuesday, the first being Thursday night at the Bachman Lake branch of the Dallas Public Library.
OCA will present the plan to the City Council for final approval in late October.
Jennifer Scripps is the director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and the architect of the city’s Cultural Plan. But even the rough draft, available on the Office of Cultural Affairs website, underscores the outline of a changing Dallas. City support for the arts “started during the 1980s,” Scripps says, “as a way of overseeing the traditional Western canon of arts. They were traditionally called the Big Six, which received more than 90 percent of the funding — at that time.”
But the world is changing. As she sees it, “If you don’t plan, you plan to fail.”
Hence the necessity for the plan, which was updated 16 years ago, when the city was much different. Politics alone offers evidence of the change. Fourteen years ago, George W. Bush carried Dallas County with 50 percent of the vote to Democrat John Kerry’s 49 percent, in the 2004 presidential election.
In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Dallas County by 26 percentage points, over her opponent, Donald Trump.
“Sixteen years ago,” Scripps says, “no one was checking online for arts listings, taking selfies in museums or sharing Facebook updates, because we didn’t have smartphones or social media 16 years ago. The world has radically changed. If we don’t embrace all of that, we’ll get left behind.”
Dramatic change is already under way in the arts landscape, where Scripps says a “new generation of executive leadership” has taken over at the Dallas Symphony, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Opera and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
“Don’t we want to be like Hamilton?” she says. “Don’t we want to be more like Black Panther? Our children today take it for granted that culture includes this richer, more exciting, more diverse offering. And if you don’t embrace it, you get left in the dust.”
The Cultural Plan costs $600,000, with half that coming from the city’s general fund and the other half from private donors, which include major foundations.
They, too, seem to get it that equity and diversity are the no-brainer elements of the revised Cultural Plan, whose outreach began last September. Since then, Scripps and her team have conducted “meetings, webinars, focus groups, interviews, surveys, mapping exercises, national research on peer cities,” and now, she says, “what I think we have is a good plan for the next seven to 10 years.”
Any such undertaking produces unexpected discoveries. It’s called doing one’s homework, as in luck is a product of being prepared. So, for one, Scripps labels as “really cool” how the plan has identified no fewer than 600 previously undiscovered cultural spaces. That can mean buildings, though not entirely.
“It’s the poetry reading at your neighborhood coffee shop,” she says. “It’s the small theater in the basement of your church where they stage Agatha Christie plays.” A perfect example, she says, is Uncle Calvin’s Coffeehouse at NorthPark Presbyterian Church or the artistic offerings at the Jewish Community Center.
All of those, she says, enhance equity and diversity, which make up the engine of the plan.
Here’s another change: For the first time ever, Scripps says, Dallas’ Cultural Plan hopes to elevate the role of individual artists.
She sees the plan as being able “to nurture artists at every stage of their career. We graduate tons of talented people every single year from Booker T. Washington [High School for the Performing and Visual Arts], but the question is: How do we retain them? How do we help them make a life, a living, as an artist — in this city?”
Money is another issue. Dallas’ cultural economy is “growing and booming,” she says, “but we want it to grow faster than the overall economy, which is, of course, a heavy lift.”
To further its equity-diversity mandate, the plan has burrowed in on so-called neglected communities, one being Pleasant Grove.
Scripps and her team made trips to every single council district to host “dedicated meetings. It’s the first time ever that Dallas has done this on arts and culture.”
They “explored ways to activate” black box theaters in many of the city’s libraries, such as the new Dallas Public Library branch in Pleasant Grove.
Nothing made her happier, she says, than when Dallas Black Dance Theatre traveled to Pleasant Grove and performed in the black box theater of its new library branch.
Tamitha Curiel, a poet living in Pleasant Grove, has done a series of readings on Saturday nights in the same black box theater.
It’s events such as these, Scripps says, that the plan hopes to champion. She says it’s a way to let the city take a thorough inventory of its resources in the arts and how to apply them.
And a big first step, she says, is realizing that we really are living in a post-Camelot Hamilton world that embraces the whole city.
Dallas Cultural Plan feedback and activation workshop #1 is Thursday, Sept. 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bachman Lake Library, 9480 Webb Chapel Road. Free. Register for this session and get details on the upcoming sessions at dallasculturalplan.com.
Originally published on September 6, 2018 on www.dallasnews.com.
Photo credit: Dallas Morning News
About the Author: Michael Granberry was born and grew up in Dallas, where he graduated from Samuell High School in Pleasant Grove. He moved on to Southern Methodist University, where he worked for the student newspaper, The Daily Campus, serving as editor in 1973. Between his junior and senior years at SMU, he interned at The Washington Post during “the Watergate summer.” After graduating from SMU, he worked in Alaska, spent two years on the staff of the Sunday magazine at The Dallas Morning News and worked for 19 years at the Los Angeles Times. He returned to The News in 1997, writing features and covering arts and entertainment.