Culture

Dallas’ arts landscape is in pandemic recovery mode, but optimism and the Cultural Plan endure

In June 2020, less than three months after the onset of a global pandemic, the iconic statue of a Texas Ranger — which had been a fixture at Dallas Love Field since 1963 — was taken down and rolled out of the building.

At the time, Jennifer Scripps was director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, which played a major role in the statue being removed.

The lone Ranger, as it were, was hardly alone.

Scripps’ office was also directly involved in removing the 1935 statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Lee Park, which, without the general, now has a new name.

In completing a triple play, her office also removed a Confederate monument, which had stood in place since 1961, steps from Dallas City Hall and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.

The disappearing statues were symbols of a bygone era, when Dallas was a much different city, politically and demographically. According to data from the US Census Bureau, the Dallas of today is 28.8% “white alone,” 24.3% “Black or African American ,” and 41.5% “Hispanic or Latino.”

In other words, the Dallas of 2022 is a lot like the city portrayed in the recent adaptation of Our Town by the Dallas Theater Center.

Dallas’ displaced statues are symbols of a wave of dramatic change that took place during Scripps’ nearly six years at the OAC, which recently appointed an interim director.

Her resignation takes effect April 1. She will then become the CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc.

As architect of the city’s Cultural Plan, she designed the car that others will have to drive. The $600,000 plan, adopted in late 2018 and then interrupted by a global pandemic, will offer the city an artistic road map for decades to come.

A Phoenix 1 Restoration & Construction crew removes ‘One Riot, One Ranger’ by Waldine Tauch from the main lobby inside Love Field airport on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News)(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)

The setup she engineered, her colleagues say, was closing the gap between haves and have-nots, between arts groups large and tiny. And now, they say, the synthesis will have to endure for Dallas to continue turning the page in its cultural history .

“Jennifer was able to forge relationships with community leaders in ways we hadn’t seen before,” says Teresa Coleman Wash, the founder and executive artistic director of Bishop Arts Theatre in Oak Cliff.

As a result, the city’s arts groups are in a much better place now than they’ve ever been — more colorful, more compelling and far more diverse.

Teresa Coleman Wash, executive artistic director and founder of Bishop Arts Theatre Center...

Replacing Scripps is Benjamin Espino, whom City Manager TC Broadnax appointed interim director of the Office of Arts and Culture on March 24. On the same day, Broadnax appointed Anne Marie Gan as interim assistant director.

“Jennifer is a visionary leader,” Espino says, citing “the work she did with the Cultural Plan, among other major accomplishments. But the Cultural Plan was the trophy.”

Espino credits Scripps for “the 21st century model” she created by “working through the lens of equity, by reaching out to everyone in the arts community, from the individual Latina artist to such institutional partners as the Dallas Museum of Art and the AT&T Performing Arts Center.”

What she leaves, arts leaders say, is nothing less than a blueprint for the future.

Following the blueprint

Now 44, Scripps took over what was then the Office of Cultural Affairs in May 2016.

“All that I walked into,” she says with a sigh. “Dallas had not done any citywide arts and culture planning since 2004. It was very clear to me that we had all of these tremendous assets in our community, and I don’ t just mean AT&T Performing Arts Center. I mean the cultural centers. I mean the funding community. I mean the artists.

“Within that eco system, the list is so rich, right? And yet, we didn’t have a plan. In the absence of any vision or agreed-upon priorities, we were, quite frankly, fractured.”

Jennifer Scripps, director of Arts and Culture for the city of Dallas, inside a suite at The...
Jennifer Scripps, director of Arts and Culture for the city of Dallas, inside a suite at The National Residences in downtown Dallas, on Monday, March 7, 2022.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

In response, Scripps presided over a reimagined Cultural Plan, which the City Council adopted without a single nay three years ago. The last such plan? 2002. The $600,000 needed for the new version included city money but also $300,000 that Scripps raised from private foundations .

What ensued was “a yearlong planning process, engaging 9,000 Dallas residents in all ZIP codes, working to get feedback from people, who would say, ‘I don’t really like the arts, but I want my grandkids to take dance lessons or to see the children’s theater,’ and so, we talked to people in their communities about what it is they wanted — how they experienced the arts in Dallas.”

No surprisingly, she found gaps — enormous gaps — made worse in her view by “profound inequity, in how we fund the arts and how we procure space. We were compelled to focus in new and different ways, which opened up everybody’s mind to, ‘Let’s look at things. What worked in 1989 — hey, that doesn’t work anymore, and we can change it.’ ”

It takes money, of course, and Scripps is bullish on the fact that, during her tenure, the arts in Dallas scored a dramatic increase in funding from the city’s hotel occupancy or “HOT” tax — from “2.6% to 7.5% for next year. And it will grow to 12.5% ​​by [fiscal year] 2025.”

And that, she says, is “the best news ever for the arts.”

Anyika McMillan-Herod, co-founder of Soul Rep Theatre Company, appears at the African...

Scripps applauds the involvement of the Moody Foundation in paying down the capital debt of the AT&T Performing Arts Center and establishing the Moody Fund to create an annual endowment for small arts groups, one element being the acclaimed Elevator Project at the Wyly Theatre.

And while everyone wonders about the pandemic and the lasting hurt it may have inflicted, Scripps sees it as an opportunity.

“It opened up the community,” she says. “The word pandemic was never mentioned in our Cultural Plan, but groups working together was. Nothing focused our groups more — the collaboration that emerged from the pandemic.”

Silver linings

Silver linings include the new black box theater at the Latino Cultural Center, where Teatro Dallas and Cara Mía Theatre Co. are now fellow resident companies.

“It was shocking,” she says, that despite the city’s exploding Latinx population, “Dallas did not have a Latinx arts group as a resident company. Now, we have two.”

She’s looking forward to the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House in South Dallas being fully restored as another new center for the arts and eagerly awaits the Dallas Theater Center developing a master plan for the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kalita Humphreys Theater by the end of the year .

“Such an opportunity!” she says. “That’s a gem of a theater.”

The cast rehearses for Dallas Theater Center's production of
The cast rehearses for Dallas Theater Center’s production of “Our Town | Nuestro Pueblo,” which runs Jan. 27 through Feb. 20 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas.(Dallas Theater Center)

But theaters were dark for most of 2020 and much of 2021. The pandemic, she says, made her work “all the more urgent,” allowing her time to focus. And what she chose to focus on, she says, was what she calls “a glaring lack of equity” in the city’s cultural landscape. It happened not just in Dallas, she says, but all over the country.

“The whole nation has had a reckoning with equity. The pandemic laid bare all the inequities in health care and education — and the arts. What I’ve seen in our arts organizations, quite recently, is, for one, the embrace of boards that are now far more diverse.

“Arts leaders in Dallas have become, I believe, far more committed to broadening how they present art — what stories are being told on our stages, what artists are being shown at the Dallas Museum of Art. In other words, I think you’ re seeing a lot of groups working really hard to serve our community. And, yes, the Cultural Plan and the pandemic both played an enormous role in that.”

Frida Kahlo,
Frida Kahlo, “Sun and Life,” 1947, oil on masonite. The work was part of the 2021 exhibit “Frida Kahlo: Five Works” at the Dallas Museum of Art.(Courtesy Galeria Arvil)

Which raises the question: What now?

“There are areas of Dallas that are still suffering from a lack of dedicated arts venues,” she says, listing Pleasant Grove, Southwest Dallas, and even Far North Dallas as prime targets.

“Change is never easy, but I’m super excited. We have such a great team, and we have such an amazing arts community. I look at what these groups and these artists have managed to accomplish, and innovate, and do the last two years, and frankly, I am in awe.”

Vonda Bowling, at the keyboard, helps singers rehearse during an Aug. 4 rehearsal for Public...

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