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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.

  • Truthiness

    “[T]he neighborhood of Dallas identified as a top ‘art place’ was number two on the list, ranking just below Brooklyn and just above Hollywood.”

    Uhm, no. Dallas, in an alphabetical list of twelve cities, “ranked” number two, between Brooklyn and Los Angeles. There is no ranking of the Top 12 ArtSpaces or disclosure of each ArtSpace’s individual score. Judging by the factors, though, Dallas would fall well behind the ArtSpaces in Brooklyn, Portland and Philadelphia, and possibly others.

  • Yehoodi

    I walk at lunchtime every business day and have for 15 years, marveling at the endless changes in Downtown Dallas and adjoining areas. It sounds as if you may not have tried this. If you do, you will find that these areas not only flow together, they are remarkably walkable and you can enjoy art along multiple routes and even the occasional grocer. What does “Arts District that ghettoizes it artistic marketplace” even mean? Is there a commodity scale for artistic merit? And there’s no mention of the Dallas Museum of Arts now offering free admission, which seems to be an egalitarian move. Maybe your goal should be to take a thorough look around and recognize that we’re 10 years further along than you credit. What a lot of sour grapes.

  • Tim Rogers

    The term “sour grapes” comes from a fable by Aesop. In it, a fox can’t reach a bunch of grapes and then says he doesn’t care because the grapes are probably sour. So one expresses one’s sour grapes about a thing that one cannot attain. “A.J. McCarron’s girlfriend is probably high maintenance. I’d never date her.” Something along those lines. (You’re welcome.)

    You will not find a writer in Dallas who supports the arts more than Peter does. Sometimes that support means writing something critical, whether it be about an effort born in Dallas or an assessment of the city that misses the mark a bit. Also, dude walks around the city A LOT.

  • BradfordPearson

    By “grocer” do you mean “7-Eleven with green oranges?”

  • Peter Simek

    @Truthiness: Fair enough. Alphabetical. So fine, top 12, maybe 8 or so. Who knows; not the main point.

    @Yehoodi: I didn’t say that here haven’t been changes or that the Arts District isn’t doing a pretty good job realizing some of the goals its set out for itself. I am just putting this idea of neighborhood vibrancy in perspective and making the case that Deep Ellum and Expo can’t really be considered part of the same neighborhood as the Arts District (sure you can walk it, but I wouldn’t say that you would stroll it). And if they can’t be considered part of the Arts District, then the Arts District doesn’t fair as well in this study based on the criteria set forth.

    I would, however, quibble with your 10 years further along comment. If that’s the case, Craig Hall’s project should be built by now and there would be a whole lot more residential projects, on Ross, perhaps – Two Arts Plaza would also have been built.

    But here’s the main point: my concern is that reports and lists like these re-enforce the attitude on the part of some (and particularly those who patron big ticket projects in Dallas) that this is “mission accomplished” — that we wanted to buy a vibrant arts neighborhood, and by golly, we did. But that’s just not how this stuff works. Good stuff going on, for sure, but ‘miles to go before I sleep,’ all that stuff.

  • LDR4

    These areas are linked. Peter knows this but giant highways dividing the areas make some see them as quite disparate and different. The Green Line is a good connection between the areas but it is doubtful that anyone who chooses to reside in Museum Tower would ever consider it as a viable means of transit. However, those in Expo and Ellum will be more familiar with the rail.

    As for the Arts District, it remains a destinations rather than a viable neighborhood. It is an amalgam of towers and monoliths, as well as one who is scared of light, with few choices on the ground level to entice patrons and visitors to take a stroll down Flora after they have left a museum or venue.

    That said, compared to what the district was 10 years ago (parking lots) it has grown by bounds. It is on the right path and should be even more impressive in the coming decade. Institutions alone cannot sustain the district. Until more is done it will remain a cultural West End, a destination not a neighborhood.

  • Jerome Weeks

    I think Peter’s analysis of the weaknesses of ArtPlace’s assessment of Dallas’ Arts District (and whatever nearby neighborhoods can be roped in to make our numbers look good) is spot-on. My only objection would be the comparison to LA and NYC. Comparing any other American city to those two is not helpful; it’s distorted. No city in America has such a sizable concentration of for-profit arts industries and, in the case of NYC, such an outlying support system of nearby towns, universities, etc. Ergo, LA and NYC continue to attract and support a disproportionately large number of not-for-profit artists — who can live there primarily because one film production design gig, one TV commercial voiceover or semi-regular magazine writing will pay their bills and permit them to paint their gallery work, write their novel or act on stage. And that way, they enrich the non-profit art scene far beyond the bright, immediate glare of the media conglomerate that employs them. When a pop cultural powerhouse on the order of Sony or Time Warner is headquartered here, then we can talk about how art in North Texas might ‘matter to the general American public’ as much as anything in NYC.

    More sensible comparisons are to the other city areas on this list, most of which — surprise — are older, funkier, city-core neighborhoods that did not see their building stock wiped out (downtown Oakland, Mission District, Pike Place Market). What’s striking about this list — as the ArtPlace report notes — is how Dallas seems to be the only one that’s trying to artificially manufacture such an ‘arts neighborhood’ from scratch, having almost systematically destroyed much of what would be attractive about such a place.

    So I absolutely agree with Peter about this: “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.”

    But that statement reverses the intent of this list. It’s not about ‘art makers.’ It’s about art and ‘creative industry’ types making a place where OTHER people ‘want to be’ — by making a place gentrified or cool or simply pleasant and accessible and dense with city pleasures. In which case, a healthy economy and a decent real estate market are factors as well. Artists are no different from anyone else — they go where the jobs are. But like anyone else, they also consider things like public schools, cost of living, etc. So Dallas DOES have some real attraction in those regards. It just seems that the extremes in the Arts District (high concentration of art institution jobs coupled with upscale condo dwellers right next door in the Uptown area) skew the numbers, making the area seem more appealing as a ‘neighborhood’ than it actually is.

    And talking about neighborhood turf, why isn’t this discussion on FrontRow?

  • Peter Simek

    @Jerome – well put. I agree on the NYC comparison, pretty much pointless, but LA and Chicago make decent models for vis arts and theater respectively. There was time when LA was backwater in terms of visual arts, of course, when no self-respecting collector would purchase a drawing out of an LA gallery. Might be worth visiting this in detail with the Ken Price show coming up.

    As for FR vs. FB turf, not to get too under-the-hood yet, but let’s just say that we’re also thinking about ghettos, culture, conversation, organization, connectivity, and the rest. Stay tuned.