What Should We Take Away from the Mayor’s Dallas Arts Week Panel?

I hate “the arts.” It’s a catch-all term that refers to a whole variety of things — cultural industries, public financing, auctions, cine-plexes, demographic studies, tax write-offs, theater electric bills, charity fundraisers, commissions, agencies, councils, grass-roots, avant-gardes, painters, planners, teachers, tom-tom players, advocates, activists, agents, ticket booking softwares, luncheon table settings, popcorn teasers, trailers, tabby cats, tombstones, and so on and so on. Art rarely finds a place within conversations about “the arts.” But this is Dallas Arts Week, a city-branded moment that coincides with Dallas’ most art-crammed part of the year, and as he has for two years running, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings hosted a panel to discuss “the arts” and give them their moment on center stage.

The mayor’s panel was called “Re-imagining the Arts,” and he invited five of the brightest people active in Dallas today, including Undermain Theater’s Katherine Owens; artist, Mountain View College Gallery administrator, and Cultural Affairs Commission appointee Giovanni Valderas; artist and Semigloss founder Sally Glass; artist and UTD professor Morehshin Allahyari; artist Linnea Glatt; and artist Leticia Huckaby. In case you’re keeping a running tab on gender and ethnicity, as some people have been wont to do, that’s five women, one man, one African-American, a Hispanic, a Jew, an Iranian, a Catholic, and an Anglo-American. He left out Latinas, but then called an audible at the close of the night, pulling a plaque out of his back pocket and giving it to Anita Martinez. The mayor was trying to make up for last year’s all-male panel. Martinez, brilliantly, used the platform to plug her upcoming performances at the Winspear.

And this is one of things that I find tedious about “the arts” – people get all in a huff about things like the representative demographics of seven people on a stage. Sure, there is a lack of diversity in Dallas galleries, as has been recently pointed out, but that lack of diversity likely extends into every other aspect of Dallas life. There’s a lot of nasty history in this town, and lingering social and economic echoes of that discriminatory legacy. And let’s just say it: there’s a bit of subterranean, subconscious, internalized racism in Dallas. Maybe the mayor’s blindness to his all-masculine panel is a symptom of latent chauvinism, but still, a Dallas Arts Week panel feels like a silly venue for gender score-boarding. It’s too important an issue to trivialize it like that. But that said, I’m a man (last I checked), or at least I identify as one at least 75 percent of the time. So who am I to say?

See what happens when we talk about the arts? We don’t talk about art. During the panel there was a similar situation. The mayor asked the panelists to pick the best and worst of the Dallas art scene, and diversity was a run-away winner in the worst category (keep working it Darryl!). So we all agreed last night, one year later, diversity is still an issue. We also talked about being a female artist, and most of the panelists said they weren’t too hung up on it. We talked about “arts education,” which is, again, one of those fuzzy-feeling catch-alls that could refer to anything from a Montessori paint/work station to the fact that we don’t have enough renowned artists in our area university’s MFA programs. Those are very different problems and conversations, but “arts education” scoops them up in one big bucket.

On the good side, panelists said Dallas is ambitious, entrepreneurial, and its young artists are tearing it up. They’re mounting shows, throwing down art in funky spaces, and kicking it in fancy institutions. This is good. We like energy, and the self-confidence and resolve of this brave new Dallas art world is exactly what this city needs. But public art, unfortunately, is still bad. After Leticia Huckaby, who is currently working on a city-funded public art project in Oak Cliff, threw the city’s public art program under the bus, the topic got tossed to Glatt. Glatt doesn’t mince words. She called-out the city for throwing Tom Orr and Francis Bagely’s public art piece under the bus, criticizing the city for running a program that doesn’t allow artists space to think. “Artists are thinkers,” she said. I think that was my favorite quote of the evening. It’s amazing how often people who like to talk about “the arts” forget that.

My least favorite quote of the evening came in the form of a question from the mayor, which, actually, should have been my favorite question of the evening. It went something like, “what’s better, grassroots art or good art?” I know what the Mayor was getting at. Is it better to stuff Aurora with everyone who owns an extension cord and pat ourselves on the back, or should we have some bloody standards in this town? Or maybe he was trying to get at the fact that there are various strata to Dallas art, and the people who buy Angel Otero paintings at Goss-Michael benefits don’t think they should bother with the people who prop up sculptures in West Dallas warehouses. Or maybe he was trying to see if there was an “underground” in Dallas – an avant-garde. This, encouragingly, seems to be a real concern for the mayor. “Dallas is not a very radical place,” he said, with that kind of exasperated candor that is Rawlings at his best. He might as well as invoked Christina Rees and shouted, “Why don’t you kids fuck more shit up?” Regardless, the question about critical acumen and grassroots artists framed a false dichotomy, namely, that “local artists” make “local art.” Everyone on the panel agreed that we’ve moved past this situation, or at least they’d like to think so.

This is a good thing, and it was also a good thing that the panel had a feeling of general malaise. Part of the problem was the format: nothing gets delved into too deeply when seven people sit on a stage and try to have a conversation. That format can only really gather talking points. But the panel also had a feeling of redundancy, and it lacked the sense of urgency and desperation that similar panels have had in the past. These were all indicators to me that, as many of the panelists attested, Dallas really has grown up in the last five years or so. There was a time when we were having these kinds of discussions all of the time. Hell, I was moderating some of them. There used to be a feeling that what Dallas needed to do was talk about its “arts,” to air its grievances and anxieties like some a polyamorous swingers club in marriage counseling. Some of those conversations sparked necessary impetus or catharsis; some of them came to nothing. But what is clear is that Dallas has entered a come into another mode of its “arts” existence. These days, the panel discussions in town are about the material nature of photography, or artistic practices in conflict zones. We’re tired of a talking about ourselves in broad, sweeping generalities.

Not that we’re there yet – Dallas is no “art city.” We’re still, first and foremost, a sports town, and our civic investment priorities reflect that. There are still issues and obstacles, like markets, patronage, universities, public funding, and audience. But we moved past playing patty cakes about “the arts.” It is a nice gesture that the mayor gives the arts a place on center stage each year, but I hope he – and the rest of us — come away a desire to follow up on a few ideas. We need more ways to offer grants or jobs to artists shut about of a ridiculous art market. We need to invest in more residencies, push our universities to be better, and fund art spaces that are better networked into the international art conversation. We need to continue to work to developing audiences and the next generation of collectors and cultural philanthropists. The city needs to be less asinine in its approach to stimulating the “cultural economy,” restoring budgets for public art maintenance, removing red tape around commissions, networking support from the private sector, connecting with a broader cross-section of more progressive arts organization, while extending the reach of cultural centers into communities. Oh, and can the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs bring their website into the 21st century and stop sending out press releases at 7:30 p.m. on Friday evenings? Then we might actually be able to figure out when their events happen and where. See, it’s the simple things.

And so, the arts. Cue applause. Now get to work.