When I saw Catherine Cuellar at the District 14 city council candidate panel discussion on the arts in the Arts District last week, she whispered that she might be soon accepting an executive director position. I pressed her to find out where to no avail. Turns out, it was for the Arts District itself, where Cuellar will step in and fill the position left vacant by Veletta Lill after she retired.
Cuellar has big shoes to fill. Lill brought to the position years of experience in city government, and one of the defining legacies of her time as head of the Dallas Arts District was cutting through the red tape at city hall to allow for more food trucks to operate in the Arts District. Cuellar’s background includes journalism, with stints locally at KERA, Pegasus News, and WFAA, and in public relations. Most recently she worked for Oncor, where she managed public relations, employee communications and social media for the electric utility. Other credits include her appointed to served on the Cultural Affairs Commission and serving as founding board president of La Reunion Artist Residency. Cuellar’s local roots run deep. Her family founded El Chico and has owned and operated restaurants in Dallas for decades.
It will be interesting to watch how Cuellar handles her role as executive director. It is a loosely defined position, and my hope is Cuellar leverages her experience in public relations and journalism to help shape how this city promotes its cultural attributes. The Convention and Visitors Bureau should be on speed dial.
Here’s the full release:
DALLAS ARTS DISTRICT NAMES NEW EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Former Journalist and PR Professional to Head Nation’s Largest Arts District
The Dallas Arts District (DAD) today announced the selection of Catherine Cuellar as executive director of the 4 year-old nonprofit organization. Cuellar, a longtime arts critic and advocate, is stepping down from her position at Oncor, where she managed public relations, employee communications and social media for the electric utility.
“Downtown Dallas has never been more vibrant in my lifetime — and it’s still improving, thanks to all the exciting things going on in and around the Dallas Arts District,” said Cuellar. “The District defies stereotypes of Dallas and Texans, while opening the minds of people who live here to new ideas and experiences. It’s a prime time to tout Dallas’ reputation as a regional, national and international destination.”
Cuellar will helm the 68-acre Dallas Arts District, which sits in the heart of downtown Dallas and is home to most of the city’s major cultural institutions. In addition to arts venues and organizations, its stakeholders also include high-rise office towers, corporate headquarters, restaurants, churches, residential properties, an arts magnet high school and more. As executive director, Cuellar will help bring together the District’s diverse stakeholders to create public events, market the district, handle public safety, traffic and infrastructure issues and attract economic development. Cuellar, who begins April 15, replaces longtime arts advocate and former Dallas City Councilmember Veletta Forsythe Lill, who helped create the organization. Lill stepped down at the end of October.
“With the great foundation laid by Veletta and our stakeholders, we are ready for the Dallas Arts District to move to a new level raising its profile, and the city’s profile even higher. And with her communications skill sets and cultural background, we feel Catherine is the perfect person to help us do that,” said the Dallas Symphony’s Debi Peña, who helped lead the search committee.
Cuellar is a familiar name to many in Dallas. Cuellar began her career as a freelance pop music critic for The Dallas Morning News. She later joined the newspaper’s staff as community arts columnist. After cofounding GuideLive.com in partnership with WFAA, she moved to Los Angeles in 2000, freelancing for E! Online and Yahoo! Movies. After a period working for National Public Radio affiliate KCRW in Southern California, she returned to Dallas in 2003, working as a reporter for KERA and managing editor of PegasusNews.com. She also hosted the literary series “The Writers’ Studio.” Cuellar also served on the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission as an at-large member, and then Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings’ appointee. Cuellar is also an author and chorister.
Catherine began her art education as a toddler at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in Fair Park, where her mother Susan was a docent. As a child, she saw the cornerstone laid at the DMA’s new home in the Arts District. Now she’ll lead the umbrella organization for the Arts District, which represents more than $1 billion in public investment and is setting new attendance records every year.
In addition to top-ranked museums and world class performing arts venues and organizations, new District stakeholders also include the neighboring Klyde Warren Park and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
Photo Credit: Clare Dempsey/77 Prints