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Meadows Prize winner Will Power is helping students both at SMU (above) and in West Dallas understand that they can take risks and speak in their own voice.

West Side Stories

How a report, a bridge and a hip-hop poet connected SMU with the barrios of West Dallas.

Researched by Mary Guthrie

On October 15, 2009, the curtain was about to go up on the largest performing arts district in the world. The moment had been made possible by more than 20 years of work from dedicated volunteers and hundreds of millions of dollars contributed by Dallas arts supporters. But before the music began and the audience was wowed by the capabilities of the state-of-the-art Wyly Theater, SMU Meadows Dean José Antonio Bowen took the stage.

“Tonight, it is my great pleasure to announce a new Meadows award for this exciting new era in our city’s history,” said Bowen. “The Meadows Prize will bring the New York artist collective Creative Time to Dallas. Creative Time will come over the course of the next year to help us create a new plan for growing and nurturing our local arts community. They will lead discussions, identify stake- holders and help us agree on goals and a plan of action to bring together artists, collectors, gallery owners, arts organizations, urban planners, schools and city officials to make Dallas a world leader in both the performing and visual arts.”

Beginning in January 2010, Creative Time made four trips to Dallas over a 12-month period to meet with arts stakeholders throughout the region. After distilling everyone’s input, they released their report on D Magazine’s FrontRow blog in February 2011.

The report served as a springboard for dialogue between artists and arts leadership. The first layer outlined 13 basic elements that all arts communities need to thrive. Each element included a menu of recommendations to help Dallas build its arts ecosystem. The report yielded a broad spectrum of varied responses on the FrontRow blog about how best to proceed. But almost uniformly, all reactions expressed a common theme: Dallas needed change.

The discourse energized Bowen. The faculty and staff had been on the lookout for ways to take the classroom experience beyond university walls. The report’s call for urban engagement and creativity was a call to action. 

First Steps

In 2011, the City of Dallas began preparing for the opening of its latest architectural wonder, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. Designed by Santiago Calatrava to span the Trinity River, the bridge connects the edge of downtown to the barrios of West Dallas.

The Trinity River isn’t the only thing that separates West Dallas from the rest of the city. Many in the western sector have longed for the retail business, jobs and stable neighborhoods that urban development typically brings. Renewal has the promise of reducing entrenched poverty and crime rates in West Dallas. An alarming 37% of West Dallas families live at or below the poverty level, com- pared with 16% in all of Dallas. Unemployment in the district is 12.6% (7.9% in Dallas and 8.3% in the U.S.) and 67% of residents 18 and older have not completed high school.

But some residents of West Dallas are concerned that urban renewal and gentrification brought about by the bridge could end up burying the heritage and culture in the community. “We don’t want to stand in the way of progress,” says Albert valtierra, spokesman for the Dallas Mexican Ameri- can Historical League (DMAHL). “But we do want to educate the public on how Mexican Americans helped build this city, and we want to keep our Mexican American heritage intact.”

A community with such a strong need to preserve its cultural heritage and improve quality of life seemed to offer the type of collaborative possibility recommended by the Creative Time report. Bowen felt there was a clear opportunity for Meadows and West Dallas to work together. Out of the report’s 13 recommendations, he identified four that would benefit the residents of West Dallas and dovetail with Meadows’ drive to broaden student experience: 

Residency programs for national and international artists to create in Dallas. The report urges arts leadership to bring in fresh perspectives by creating residencies that allow national and international artists to engage with the city. It encourages forums, dinners and exhibitions that bring audi- ences in to both performances and discussions.

Public art to engage broad audiences and activate public spaces. The report urges arts leaders to present work in unexpected, unlikely, culturally rich and diverse places; to challenge notions of public versus private space; and to collaborate with community groups and neighborhoods throughout Dallas.

Civic championing of the arts through policies and urban planning. Healthy communities are those in which culture is considered a major factor in the success of a city. Creative Time said Dallas has room for improvement when it comes to urban planning and its ability to bring together–or keep fragmented–the populace of the city. Civic and arts leaders need to value and champion cultural production, which in turn contributes to building the city and its identity. Public art projects, the development of civic granting programs for the arts and creating live/work space for artists are all elements that should be ongoing considerations in the city’s urban planning.

Arts education in Dallas public schools. The report cites the fact that youth who have access to art education learn more, are better at problem solving and are less likely to fall into trouble. With dwindling public school budgets, Dallas finds itself relying more on organizations such as local arts advocacy group Big Thought, a national leader in connecting art programs with diverse and underserved communities. Creative Time recommends that partnerships be set up between schools and arts institutions, allowing students to serve internships at the institutions and allowing artists to work or volunteer in local schools at all grade levels.

“Meadows began exploring partnerships and initiatives that would allow students to put their skills into practice working as artists and listening to the community,” says Bowen. “Using these four Creative Time recommendations as our blueprint, we began venturing beyond class lectures and into the neighborhoods west of the Trinity.” 

A path between SMU & the barrios

Associate Professor and Chair of Art History Janis Bergman-Carton was visited by representatives of DMAHL, which was scrambling ahead of the opening of the Calatrava bridge to capture the Mexican American story before the barrios were forever changed. The group had begun interviews of its older residents, who described how Mexican Americans helped build the city; they had collected hundreds of photos, letters, newspaper clippings and mementos. But their resources only went so far. They needed help digitizing their collection so that it would last for decades to come. Could SMU help with their efforts?

Bergman-Carton saw the opportunity for DMAHL and SMU students. “I took the best practices and recommendations of Creative Time and used it as a scaffolding to build new curriculum,” says Berg- man-Carton. “The course allowed our students to put their disciplines to use–dance, journalism, theatre–and assist DMAHL at a critical time.” The new course, titled “Artspace: Mapping Sites of Social Change,” attracted 17 first-year Meadows Scholars, all of whom began working with members of the West Dallas community, filming oral histories of elders and learning the history of the barrios.

Student Abby Marchesseault (Dance & Advanced Physical Therapy, ’15) says the students were care- ful not to impose their “outsider” way of perceiving things. “We wanted to be able to tell their story without the filter of our own perspectives,” she says. “We learned as many facts as we could about the area and the people, by listening to the residents and learning from them.” At the end of the course, Bergman-Carton and the students showed the fruits of their labors through an art/performance event, “Artspaces 2011: Las Huellas: Footsteps in West Dallas,” held at West Dallas Community Center and at SMU’s Doolin gallery.

DMAHL’s Valtierra is pleased with the efforts. “The steps that SMU has taken into West Dallas have been beneficial to the kids and to a number of residents,” says Valtierra. “Janis Bergman-Carton sees the passion that we in DMAHL have and I sense her belief in it as well. Others from SMU that I have interacted with seem to be as sincere as Janis, and so I do believe that this can be a mutually beneficial collaborative effort. In the long term, that can only help those in the West Dallas area as well as SMU.” 

SMU hip-hops across the Trinity

Will Power, 2010 Meadows Prize winner and renowned hip-hop theatre artist, posed this question to SMU students while working to create an original play that explored a collision of cultures: “What happens when you’re from one culture and you bump up against something entirely different?” 

Power, who has been hailed as “the best verse playwright in America” (New York Magazine), spent four weeks in Dallas during the fall of 2011 creating a new work from the ground up with Meadows student actors and designers. Reflecting Power’s artistic interest in adapting an older work and giving it a modern spin, the group chose the classic tale Alice in Wonderland as a starting point for their play, which became Alice Underground.

During his residency Power also created a workshop just for the students of West Dallas’s Pinkston High School, working with nine teenagers on break dancing, rhyming and emceeing.

He asked the Pinkston students to build a deeper understanding of what they can do as hip-hop artists. They took a historical look at hip-hop and considered how the political and social occurrences of the past affect them today as black and Hispanic men and women. The students learned how to better reflect upon their neighborhood and to use their art as a means to uplift and inspire.

“It's important to harness that brilliant energy of teenagers,” says Power. “They create new forms
of music and culture and new political and social movements.” Power urges artists to engage with their neighborhoods and cities. “Why shouldn't community artists be the best artists in the world?” he says. In winter 2012, he returned to SMU and began a series of focused conversations with local arts and culture leaders on artists and community engagement. 

“Will Power has given us a terrific example of what the Meadows Prize can do,” says Bowen. “He demonstrates that it is possible to work with a community, bring multiple art forms together, experiment and also produce great art. Will is helping students both at SMU and in his work in West Dallas understand that they can take risks and speak in their own voice.” 

Continuing Partnerships

“This is just the beginning,” says Leila Grothe, assistant director of external affairs for Meadows School of the Arts. Grothe facilitates external partnerships for Meadows and was integral in the Las Huellas and Will Power projects in West Dallas.

“We are excited to have more projects on the horizon that allow Meadows to tackle the issues addressed by the Creative Time report,” says Grothe. “Bernardo Diaz, a recent Meadows M.F.A. graduate, is teaching an ‘Art as Social Practice’ class that takes undergraduates into West Dallas to work with elementary students. And voice professor virginia Dupuy has been introducing music programming to students at Pinkston; that relationship has helped Pinkston budget for a choral director for 2012–13.”

“It’s a dream come true that these efforts are resulting in such thrilling work with these incredibly deserving, talented students at Pinkston and the feeder schools in West Dallas,” says Dupuy. “We have a long way to go, but thanks to great communication, cooperation and especially trust, we’re privileged to be a part of an emerging partnership.” 

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