Arts & Culture News

The Deep Ellum Arts Festival Is Done for Good, and Many Artists Aren't Sad About It

Deep Ellum's yearly arts festival has ceased to be, but not everyone regrets its demise.
Deep Ellum's yearly arts festival has ceased to be, but not everyone regrets its demise. BrittyGriffy/Wikimedia Commons
One of the longest-running events in Deep Ellum won't be back this year, but not everyone is mourning the loss.

Deep Ellum Arts Festival founder and executive producer Stephen Millard announced on Monday that the annual arts gathering would not be returning next year, after 28 years.

"The Festival has had a great run but with the current economic conditions, along with security concerns affecting all major public events, producing a free-to-attend art and music festival in Deep Ellum has become too costly and arduous to continue," Millard wrote. "We have always been dependent on support from the local community, national sponsors and in-kind media and I have become unable to move forward at this time without taking on unjustifiable personal financial and liability risks.

"Under these circumstances, the Festival has simpl[y] — and sadly — become unsustainable," Millard added.

The yearly nonprofit festival showcased vendor booths for local and out-of-town artists, and stages with dozens of music shows. The arts vendors paid to display their art in booths, and musical acts were unpaid.

Dallas illustrator and graffiti artist Abel Garcia says he has fond memories of participating and attending the annual arts gathering in Deep Ellum between 2015 and 2017.

"It was great," Garcia says. "There's just a lot of people and it was just really cool. It was the best representation of Deep Ellum where everyone was coming together under the banner of art, whether it was music, dance, graffiti, fine art, sculpture. It was really cool."

Steve Wick of the Dallas electronic music medium Hologram Dagger, who played the Deep Ellum Arts Festival with other groups like Folium and Never.Our.Land, has only one word to describe the news about the festival's demise: "Happy."

"When we did good one year, they'd stick us in a shit slot like 10 a.m. on Sunday morning the next [year] when no one's out," Wick says. "We'd always get shafted on the booths and it just seemed really unfair. It seemed like they didn't care about you or anyone, not even the headliners."

Wick and other artists expressed frustration over Millard's tenure as the principal organizer under the banner of his event coordination company Main Events International, of which he was president.

"In my opinion, he wasn't a man of his word," says artist and musician Izk Davies. "He would promise certain things and on the day of would change his mind. He would minimize and shrink the local areas year after year, make it more difficult for us to set up and complain about the volume of our sounds and stages. My band [Blunt Force] was banned from performing. He said the material was too political and too adult, which wasn't the first time I've encountered that but he was aware of our content and our material prior to booking us."

Garcia says he participated in the festival because the Deep Ellum neighborhood gave him his start as a career artist with his first sold-out show at Life in Deep Ellum in 2015 and he "just wanted to get involved with Deep Ellum, which was really cool because of its history of music and art."

However, some of the artists say Millard's annual festival didn't seem to realistically reflect the tone and flavor of Deep Ellum's contributions to art and music.

"It's like the equivalent of taking the State Fair of Texas across America and expecting everyone to be excited about it," Davies says. "Deep Ellum is already artistic and cultured. We have amazing food, amazing music, amazing artists and murals. It doesn't make sense that locals don't get to participate."

The festival presented logistical problems for local groups and artists due to high fees for booths and stages. It also dominated blocks and sidewalks, limiting access to local restaurants and businesses. The festival could also not make assurances for artists' losses if it was rained out, which happened several times over the years.

Just getting to a stage during the festival was "a pain in the ass," Wick says.

"Parking was a mess," Wick says. "They didn't offer any kind of solutions, even for us unloading our gear. We had to park on the opposite end of the festival and walk multiple trips just to play for free."

"Deep Ellum is already artistic and cultured. We have amazing food, amazing music, amazing artists and murals. It doesn't make sense that locals don't get to participate." –Artist Izk Davies

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Of course, it's impossible to assess the "exposure" that benefited unpaid performers, as well as the store owners who gained potential business after first-time visitors became familiar with the neighborhood. Social media for the festival is flooded with people mourning the end of a Dallas tradition.

The end of the Deep Ellum Arts Festival could be an opportunity to get it right and create an annual gathering with a more local presence that doesn't inconvenience the people involved and the businesses around it.

"I would believe it's doable but I also believe it should be produced with business owners within Deep Ellum and maybe even sponsored by the city," Garcia says. "Almost like a rebranding in a sense."

Garcia says he'd like to see more than just local artists and business participating in such an event. He thinks it would need "a lot of local sponsors who want to be associated with those brands."

"I would like to see all the culture centers like the Latino Cultural Center and the Dallas Library. I would like to seem them help contribute to it because they're in the art world," Garcia says. "They understand the presentation and agenda and they're nonprofit. I would actually push for Denton to be a part of it and the [Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts] downtown. Give them a crack at having performances at The Factory. Show these different worlds of art because it's all flying under the banner of the arts."

Davies says the organizers of the next incarnation of the Deep Ellum Arts Festival should make it a priority to work with the businesses in the area and make sure they benefit from their presence.

"It really does come down to the business owners, the people who put in blood, sweat and tears into their businesses and to have a separate vendor literally right in front of theirs was never a friendly extension to how we could work together," Davies says. "It was always, 'We're coming. Deal with it.'" 
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.