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Bursting the Bubble: Does Dallas Really Boast a Top ‘Art Place?’

Today Art Place America, a collaboration of 13 national and regional foundations (including groups like the National Endowment for the Arts, The Ford Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation), released its list of “America’s Top ArtPlaces 2013” – an “art place” being a neighborhood “where the arts are central to creating places where people–residents and visitors–want to be.”

And, yes, Dallas made the list that includes places like part of Brooklyn, the Mission District in San Francisco, Hollywood, CA, and others. In fact, the neighborhood of Dallas identified as a top “art place” was number two on the list, ranking just below Brooklyn and just above Hollywood (CORRECTION: The top 12 cities were not ranked, the neighborhoods with the top 12 scores were just listed alphabetically.) What Dallas neighborhood, you ask? Well, the Arts District, but also Deep Ellum and Exposition Park thrown in for good measure. And that broadly-defined definition of our great arts neighborhood as three not-so-connected individual neighborhoods should send up the first red flag about the report.

If you’re skeptical, there’s good reason to be. For example, one of the six indicators of a vibrant “art place,” according to the report, is walkability, and Dallas’ hybrid-hood scored a 91, meaning it is “walker’s paradise” where “daily errands do not require a car.” I suppose that means that the people who live in the luxury high rise residential unit currently open in the Arts District don’t go to places like, well, a grocery store while running their daily errands.

But snark aside, another issue is that the artistic vibrancy of these neighborhoods is measured by a set of criteria that includes the density of creative businesses, non-profits, arts related jobs, so-called indicator businesses, and independently-owned restaurants and the like. You can begin to see how Dallas’ hybrid-hood inched up the scales. The Arts District does provide a density of creative jobs in an area relatively free of chains, and it boasts a density of non-profits. Expand that out to Deep Ellum, as the study has, and you can lump in a handful of galleries and places like CentralTrak, 500x, Undermain Theatre, etc.

But here’s the problem: While the criteria seem to be developed as a way of locating places where a variety of artistic activity has sprung out of a dynamic community, it rewards an area like the Arts District that ghettoizes it artistic marketplace.

For example, population density isn’t a criterion for vibrancy, nor are factors of connectivity and services outside of the creative sphere. The differences between a place like Fort Greene, Brooklyn, number one on the list, and the Arts District couldn’t be clearer if you took your eyes off the statistics and just took a stroll around the two neighborhoods. In order for Dallas’ hybrid-hood to even rank, the report needed to rope in a lot of disconnected areas of town, including Main Street, the financial district, Deep Ellum, and Expo Park. So the report is successful in showing that there is a concentration of creative activity in and round the central business district, but the word “vibrancy” is misleading.

What’s also misleading about the report is its overall relevancy to how we understand Dallas culture. Let’s look at it this way. According to ArtPlaces, Dallas’ most vibrant artistic neighborhood falls between New York and Los Angeles neighborhoods in terms of their overall health as vibrant creative places. But what if I asked if what happens in Dallas — in its galleries, on its stages — mattered as much to the general American public as what happens in New York or Los Angeles. For example, does it matter that the Arts District is more of an ArtPlace than Hollywood when Los Angeles launches the careers of far more visual artists than Dallas does? Does it matter that Chicago didn’t make this list or that it remains one of the most important theater towns in the United States?

Cities are culturally relevant not only because they have vibrant locations, but because their broader economic and cultural ecosystems — which include not just streets, jobs, and non-profits, but culturally influential universities, media, audiences, etc. — attract and sustain art makers. A list of the nation’s top places for Art Makers, now there is a list where I’d like to see where Dallas ranked.

But don’t get me wrong, there is some upside to winning a prominent spot on this list. For one, it helps draw attention to the cultural activity that is increasing and deepening in Dallas, from the programs of this city’s institutions to the stages and walls of our smaller theaters and art spaces. The list also does well to point out that Dallas’ cultural project is still very much a work in progress; specifically, the report says we need more residencies in the Arts District.

I would go further than that: our goal should be that by the ten year anniversary of this list, the Arts District can rank without the help of Deep Ellum and Expo Park, and that Deep Ellum and Expo Park can rank without the help of the Arts District. If that happened, then we might really be looking at some dynamic, diverse, and creative neighborhoods in our city. Maybe, then, this list will reemphasize to those invested and investing in the Arts District that investing in the arts that happen in Deep Ellum and Expo Park is just as important to the people keeping score.