At this point, Dallas has plenty of places to see and enjoy art. On just about any given evening, you can enjoy an edgy new theater or a classical symphony. You could possibly do both in the same night, even. There is no shortage of talented artists in this city, and even the stodgiest of arts-world folks would have to admit that Dallas is doing pretty well in terms of providing a full calendar of engaging, crowd-pleasing events.
What they won’t admit, though, is that as diverse as this scene is in terms of subject matter and performance type, there isn’t as much variety when it comes to the people who actually make the art. Or at least, whose art is being supported — through exhibition, and ultimately, dollars endowed to artists to create the type of work that enriches our city. According to the South Dallas Cultural Center’s Vicki Meek, much of the structural support in Dallas doesn’t extend to the minorities that live, work and create in this city.
“There are always people doing things, from all walks of life,” says Meek. “But if we look at the amount of support, which is how I always judge it, it’s still pretty much Eurocentric. Given how large the Latino population is in this city, the proportion of money that goes to Latino organizations is not even close.” In her experience, Meek has also seen organizations of color undergo a starkly different funding process than “Anglo-focused” organizations.
And if there is anyone to ask, it would be Vicki Meek. Ever since landing in Dallas in 1980, Meek has been involved in ensuring that artists of color have a place in the Dallas arts scene. During the 1980s, Meek helped the City Arts Project, now the Office Of Cultural Affairs, develop programs that hoped to create what she calls “cultural equity.” “I’m not talking about diversity, I’m talking about these cultures getting the same weight,” says Meek. “Everyone’s culture is valued at the same level, and that’s not even beginning to be a conversation of note in Dallas. We’re just beginning to talk about race in an open way, much less cultural equity.”
She does note that The City of Dallas, the arts’ largest supporter, has attempted to make diversity a priority with varying degrees of effort and success. Ultimately, though, the development of the Dallas Arts District has stymied some of that progress. “You and I both know that this is the least important element in this city when it comes to art production,” says Meek. “That’s not where the artists are living or working because they can’t afford it, and it’s never going to produce the kind of arts ecology that is needed to keep the city growing from a cultural standpoint.”
Ultimately, Meek’s argument is simple: in order to create a more inclusive arts scene, you’ve got to be more inclusive from the jump. As a member of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Learning & Engagement Committee, Meek notes that the Museum has taken significant steps to entice the city’s growing Latino population into their doors. “The museums are heading in the right direction, by making admission free and opening the collections to communities that don’t traditionally come to museums,” she says. “But I’m always struck by the fact that we know that a large percentage of this community is Latino. There are no Latinos on that committee.” To further build barriers, few materials for museums, both on-site and in outreach, are translated into Spanish, or any other languages for that matter.
After nearly 40 years in the arts world, Meek will retire next March to focus on her own work as an artist, and she’s weary from the fight. “Lord knows I’m tired,” says Meek. “I’m done talking about it. At what point are we going to stop talking about what needs to be done and start doing what needs to be done?” It’s unclear when that day will come, but the fight will continue, and Meek leaves behind a talented staff of young and engaged arts professionals at the South Dallas Cultural Center to continue the work.
They’ll be joined by Benjamin Espino, General Manager of the Latino Cultural Center in East Dallas. Espino, who moved to Dallas to take over the Latino Cultural Center in 2011, takes a slightly more optimistic view of the city’s arts scene’s current level of diversity. Under the umbrella of the Office of Cultural Affairs, Espino notes that the City of Dallas supports more than 65 arts organizations. “We have everything from Indian dance to the Texas Performing Chinese Arts, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre,” says Espino. “I really do think there is a lot of diversity here.”
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In fact, Espino would argue that there is a sort of renewed interest in seeking out art from a variety of cultures, starting in the communities that these institutions serve. Espino notes that when the Dallas Museum of Art made admission to their permanent collection free, that eliminated at least one structural barrier that keeps people away from the arts — money. When he stopped charging for performances at the Latino Cultural Center, the number of people who engaged in the Center’s programming increased by more than 50 percent.
Espino is emphatic that people of all generations are interested in diverse arts programming. Right now, the Center is home to an exhibit from the Sour Grapes art collective. “When we opened that exhibit, the other half of the gallery was an exhibit of the artists’ teacher from high school,” says Espino. “A few weeks ago, we had the teacher and his students do a talk, and the juxtaposition of the younger and older crowds was really incredible. People have really embraced that their art has a lot of lettering, or what we would call graffiti, and it’s really quite beautiful.”
Now that the City of Dallas has (finally) decided to start funding independent artists — Meek says that this practice has existed in major cities since at least the 1960s — they can begin to do more to actually improve diversity, instead of just paying lip service to the concept. The second round of $5000 grants, announced yesterday, looks promising. One of the artists, Linus Spiller, will produce a script entitled “Pot Liquor,” which won the TeCo Theatrical Productions PlayPride LGBT competition this year. Another project from the Mexican American Historical League will explore the contributions of Latino veterans.
It is a long and constant throttle toward diversity, and history proves that the honest, equitable inclusion of marginalized and excluded voices comes even more slowly. If Dallas really cares about seeing a truly diverse slate of programming from artists who can afford to eat and live in this city, it means supporting these 60-plus cultural centers and institutions with more than just a Facebook like — you’ve got to put your money where your mouth (or eyes, as it were) is.