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Celebrating Collaboration in the Dallas Arts District
Episode 56

Celebrating Collaboration in the Dallas Arts District

CI to Eye with Lily Weiss

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Lily and Erik talk about the history of the Dallas Arts District. They also discuss why collaboration among arts organizations in the district is vital, and how auxiliary elements like parking, dining, and transportation impact patron participation.

Erik Gensler: Well, thank you so much for being here.

Lily Weiss: Thank you for having me, Erik.

Erik Gensler: So, tell me about the Dallas Arts District.

Lily Weiss: We are the largest contiguous arts district in the United States and visionaries in the late 70s really thoughtfully looked into the idea of bringing all the major cultural institutions in Dallas into one neighborhood. In 1983, they passed the ordinance that made the northeast corner of downtown Dallas the Dallas Arts District and in 1984, the Dallas Museum of Art was the first arts institution to move in.

Erik Gensler: And what are the organizations that are there now?

Lily Weiss: Dallas Museum of Art was the first to move into the Arts District and at the same time, the Meyerson Symphony Center was being built and it opened in 1989. It’s an I.M. Pei-designed building. We have AT&T Performing Arts Center that houses resident companies, and those are the Dallas Opera, Dallas Theater Center, they’re the main tenant in the Wyly Theater, and Texas Ballet Theater, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, and Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Then we have Moody Performance Hall and Moody Performance Hall, although TITAS Presents—who is the international dance presenter in town—although they have presented part of their season at the Moody, it is really meant for our local city arts organizations to either have an exhibit, there is a small gallery there, or … and it’s mainly used for performing arts. And then, we have the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Crow Museum of Asian Art. Outside of the actual ordinance, but we consider them as part of our arts and culture stakeholders, is the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, and of course our deck park over the freeway, Klyde Warren Park. Oh, and I forgot to mention our amazing Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

Erik Gensler: So, these are not just your run-of-the-mill ordinary buildings. When you go to the district, there’s some serious architecture happening, designed by some serious architects. Can you talk about the history of that, and how you got all of these amazing architects to all participate?

Lily Weiss: Well, it truly is an absolute vision walking through the Dallas Arts District. Most of the cultural buildings are designed by Pritzker Award-winning architects and the Dallas Arts District has the most number of Pritzker Award-winning buildings than any location in the world. Most all of the cultural organizations are … were public-private matches. So, the only ones that weren’t are the Moody Performance Hall was publicly funded, since that’s the city’s performance hall, and the Perot Museum was 99% privately funded. Everybody else was really a public-private, I wouldn’t say match. For example, AT&T Performing Arts Center, which is our largest complex, that project grew to $354 million and that was recently opened in 2009. So, when you look at the investment, the private investment from Dallas philanthropists and corporations, you can tell that there is a vested interest in these organizations, and in excellence.

Erik Gensler: I’m curious about the fundraising. How did the consultants and the team that put this together in the late ’70s, early ’80s go about fundraising for such an ambitious project?

Lily Weiss: Well, when the city passed the ordinance, while they committed to a neighborhood, they didn’t raise the money for these organizations. It was really the cultural institutions themselves that raised most of the money. Some of it was publicly funded and, for example, AT&T Performing Arts Center and other buildings that have done this in the past, it will be designed and privately funded and then it will be gifted to the city for maintenance purposes.

Erik Gensler: And I heard when I was there, I took a tour of the Opera House and I believe I had the tour guide of the year from, like, 2009. He was an amazing tour guide. And I don’t remember the exact numbers, but he said something like, “There was a goal when they first went out to raise money for that building” … I don’t know, say it was, like, $300 million for the whole project and like they got really far there with like, the first two gifts just from major philanthropists, so. The point is that people really got behind this.

Lily Weiss: That is very true. I mean, in Dallas at that point, when you really figure that the AT&T Performing Arts Center was the largest complex and one of the last to be built—although the Moody Performance Hall and Perot Museum of Nature and Science are our newest cultural buildings in the Arts District—AT&T Performing Arts Center was really housing many organizations at once. So, the city and corporate and mainly philanthropists got behind it and I don’t know the exact number, but I know that they had the most number of over-a-million-dollar donors to this project.

Erik Gensler: Were all these buildings with these particular prize-winners designed and built around the same time, or did it scale over time?

Lily Weiss: It scaled over time. Dallas Museum of Art was in 1984 and then the Meyerson Symphony Center was in 1989 and then the Nasher Sculpture Center and then the Crow Museum of Asian Art is the only museum that’s within a corporate building and it’s within the Trammell Crow Center. It was the first corporate building to the Arts District in 1985. And they house … it’s the Crow Family Foundation, it’s their collection, and they house the Crow Museum of Asian Art.

Erik Gensler: Was there a master plan to go after notable architects?

Lily Weiss: Within each organization, yes. So, the boards of directors and the capital campaign chairs, they decide themselves as a board who they are going after in terms of an RFP and designers and, of course, just within even the two facilities, two of the three facilities of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, the Wyly Theater, separate from the Winspear Opera House, Sir Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas, those are completely opposites, right? And really incredibly iconic buildings. And I think that was the goal, is that each building has its own character, and it’s truly an icon in and of itself. And then, when you put it inside an entire neighborhood, it’s really quite wonderful to see the historic buildings right next to these Pritzker Award-winning designed buildings.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. It’s really remarkable. So, that’s a bit about the history. I’d love to turn to today and talk a bit about participation and how you think about audience development and your role in driving participation in people beyond the district now. Dallas has a big metro area and I’ve heard that a lot of cities have challenges in getting people to come downtown. I’m curious on your thoughts of how you think about that, and what you do around audience development and driving participation in the district.

Lily Weiss: Probably, I need to back up a little bit and explain the structure of our organization. The Dallas Arts District started off as a friends organization from the beginning in 1984. Then, it became an alliance. While we had our own 501(c)3, it really was more of an educational organization about the whole district. In 2009, when AT&T Performing Arts Center was opening, our collective board members, which is made up of cultural CEOs, our corporate representation, our historic church representation, and the park and the school are also represented on the board, they decided to reconstitute and hire their first executive director and that wasn’t until 2009. So, we’re ten years later and the purpose of this organization, because the board—existing board—actually had a study done on what’s next for the Dallas Arts District, how do you grow into an organization, to build an organization, that is gonna represent this iconic neighborhood? And so, what was decided at that point from this study is the Dallas Arts District really needed to operate as the Chamber of Commerce for the neighborhood and because there were such a mixed use in the neighborhood, mainly founded by the culturals, and actually the design of the neighborhood was probably not to have all the cultural institutions move in first, but that’s how it ended up. And while developers were purchasing the land in and around the Dallas Arts District, they hadn’t developed the land yet until recently. And so, Trammell Crow Center certainly was the first corporate in the Arts District and then, of course, we had the three historic churches and the school. But as we moved into acting like a Chamber of Commerce for this important neighborhood, the Board and the Executive Director set as priorities every two years, and I’m pretty sure this has been in the priority every single time, and that is accessibility to visitors from across the metroplex and bringing them into downtown. And you are exactly right; it is difficult in most major cities to get people to travel downtown because in the suburbs, they’re all building their own performing arts centers, even currently in our area, but no one has a district like the Dallas Arts District in our surrounding area. So, to plan events, both collaboratively with each other, with each of the cultural organizations and even in collaboration with our corporate development that’s in the district, has really been key. So, for instance, one, the museums, every third Friday of the month, they do a free late night and free late-night programming. In conjunction with that late night, twice a year, Dallas Arts District produces a block party. So, with that, with the museums … So for instance, in June, we’re doing our second annual Pride Month block party, and the museums are Pride-themed with their programs inside the museum and it truly starts attracting visitors, local visitors, local residents from across the area. Now, the challenge is to continue activating this area so that we have a more 24/7, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. That’s difficult. It’s not easy. But I will tell you that Downtown Dallas, Inc., which is the same type of organization as the Dallas Arts District, only they cover the entire downtown Dallas, they have truly led the way in what’s called the Dallas 360 Plan and Dallas Arts District has followed suit with our own neighborhood infrastructure plan to make the neighborhood ADA-compliant and to connect it to other neighborhoods and, truly, to make it more accessible. In doing that, street activation is key, but with street activation comes fundraising challenges. So, we have found the way to tackle it and to really meet those challenges head-on is to collaborate with the organizations and the organizations collaborating with each other and I will give you an example of that. Part of what we want to do is have our employees in the district and surrounding really enjoy the fact that their company has opted to lease in this incredible Arts District, so Dallas Symphony Orchestra has just this year started free lunch showcases. What’s incredible about these is not only does the Dallas Symphony, members of the Dallas Symphony, play at these showcases, they’ve also opened it up to our local arts organizations, whether they’re dance or a theater or … Booker T. is invited, the performing arts high school. Several organizations together make up these one-hour lunchtime showcases. Their organization has lunch available if people wanna buy it, or can people can just come to the lobby of the Meyerson and bring a lunch and enjoy these showcases for free. So, what we’re doing collectively is, really, re-imagining how we look at what we do and when we do it and see if we can’t gain more leverage and more impact in the entire community.

Erik Gensler: So, you mentioned that the district started by the … organizations building the venues and I know that one of the elements that really helps drive participation is the auxiliary elements of the experience, like parking, dining, easy access to transport. How has that evolved in the district and how do you think of those elements in terms of encouraging participation?

Lily Weiss: Well, how it’s evolved is, again, this whole idea of collaboration and I’m thrilled that our district leaders and our CEOs feel the exact same way, that it is only through collaboration that we’re gonna reach our goals together. The parking is probably the number one issue that visitors to the district or patrons to these organizations say that they have a problem with it. And part of it is our job to get that message out. We all know that we live with our devices, and that’s what gets us there. It is also going to have the parking and its price, in terms of where in the area is parking, and it will have the DART stops that come in, public transportation that come into or close to the Dallas Arts District. Each of our organizations are dedicated to putting the parking map on their websites, as well. And we’ve added a lot more restaurants. Since our corporate development has really taken off, I mean, HALL Arts alone has … They will—once the hotel and residences is finished at the end of this year and beginning of next year—they’ll have five restaurants just in that complex alone. And then, One Arts Plaza, where you were recently, Erik, has four restaurants. So, we’re adding more restaurant and retail and in doing that we’re really counting on our retail and our corporate collectively to help us inform their patrons, as well as our patrons, on how to get in and out. Most of our cultural organizations have their own parking garages.

Erik Gensler: You meet with the leaders of the Dallas Arts organizations regularly and obviously, everyone is trying to drive people to the district to participate at their organizations. Do the different organizations look at each other as competition, and how do you foster a collaborative environment?

Lily Weiss: I think that in any city, or in any organization, we’ve all experienced life in silos. What is great about the Arts District right now probably has the strongest leadership that I have seen in a long time, collectively, at the same time. And they have the same goals. Not separately, but collectively. Not only do we meet as an executive community and a board, as most non-profits do, but we have quarterly CEO lunches where hot-button topics are discussed and activation was- is one of ’em, audience development has been one that has been … everyone’s trying to share whatever the best practices are, both in our entire city and within our own district. At one point in time, I do- I would say, yes, they probably thought of themselves as competitors. I don’t think that is true right now in Dallas. Yeah, I think in Dallas, we are really trying to work together and I will tell you, part of that is we’re reaping the benefits of the momentum of a year’s work to develop the new cultural plan policy for the city of Dallas. So in doing that, not just leaders in the Dallas Arts District but leaders collectively in- in the entire city, for arts organizations and individual artists and residents came together to really dialogue about what is needed in the future, and what are the priorities? So I truly believe that after a year’s work … And it was passed unanimously, which is unusual in our climate, but it was passed unanimously by our city government, our council and our mayor at the end of last year and I really do believe that we are determined to keep that momentum of collaboration going, to try to support each other. I really do think collaboration is the key. I don’t think we can reach our goals individually very quickly at all.

Erik Gensler: How is the district and your organizations within it looking at bringing in more diverse audiences as the demographics of the country are changing?

Lily Weiss: I think all of them have truly been magical about curating their programming, curating their season, and attracting audiences from all walks of life, all ages. And I really believe that programming is key. You cannot just continue to curate the same programming from twenty years ago and think that you’re gonna attract new audiences.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. It really does, I think, come down to programming. So, what is your history with the district? How did you get to the role where you are now?

Lily Weiss: Well, if you had asked me when I first started (laughs) in the district as a teacher, as a dance teacher at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts—and I started there in 1978—if you had asked me that this is the role I would have … you know, however many years later, I would probably have told you there is no way that that was gonna happen. At that time, I was and I still am passionate about arts education and I love what the arts do for students. I worked at Booker T. in the Dance department, headed the Dance department, and then moved into the Artistic Director position before the board asked me to put my name in the hat to be considered for Executive Director, and that was three years ago.

Erik Gensler: Very cool. So, what would you say are the biggest challenges of your job?

Lily Weiss: Probably the biggest challenge is sustainability and potential for growth, really growing that model. And creative development and fundraising. And I have really discovered, over many, many years of even being in public school, how to be creative with trying to get support for whatever your passion is. And right now, my passion is the Dallas Arts District. And so, in order to do that, I really think that my challenges are solved if I build relationships. In order to do that, I have to be patient, and anyone who knows me knows that that’s probably the most difficult challenge of all. I also know that in building relationships, that takes time. We’ve gotten some really great partnerships, and a project that is really birthed by an idea that Craig Hall, in building the hotel and residences, wanted to give back to the Arts District. So, the project that we all came up with … And Dallas Arts District gives micro-grants to local arts organizations as part of our programming and in order to raise money for that particular entity, which we all believe is very important to one, bringing new audiences in and two, supporting our local artists, he committed to having a local photography adjudication, adjudicated by our directors of all of our museums, one of the collectors, Howard Rachofsky, and our mayor. There were over a thousand entries and out of that, 92 were chosen for a coffee table book that … I’ve seen it and what I love about this coffee table book, it’s called Through the Lens: Dallas Arts District. And basically, what it is is to portray a day in the life in this beautiful neighborhood and these photographers have captured some incredible moments of people experiencing and discovering the Arts District. And what I also love about it is that these are all local artists, all ages and all levels of expertise. So, we have students in there, and we have professionals in the same book and that will be in every hotel room in the new HALL Arts Hotel, opening in November, and it will be in all the gift stores in the district and we’re looking at how we can move that out into the city a little bit so that we have a wider spread. All the proceeds, because that was … We were able to get sponsors. HALL Arts was dedicated to getting sponsors to underwriting that book, the entire cost of the book. And so, all the proceeds will go to the foundation funds that award micro-grants to local artists.

Erik Gensler: Are there other districts that you look to for collaboration or for inspiration? What other cities have a similar district and, perhaps, are doing things that you try to model or learn from?

Lily Weiss: Well, we’re part of an organization called Global Cultural Districts Network and globally, across the world, arts districts are members. We share … There are pre-reads in terms of information about other arts districts. They also do research. The most recent research was on governance. You can participate or not participate. When they contact me, I always participate, because I want to see the measurement against other organizations across the world. But in our own state, I probably look to Houston and Austin. And Houston, right now, has more of what we have. They just don’t have a contiguous arts district. They have a museum district and they have a theater district. One of the programs that the theater district does very well is their district open house and that is their one day at the end of August—which is the hottest time of the year in Texas—but it is the one day that they do these free showcases of all the organizations that perform in the major theaters and they sell subscriptions. And from what I understand, it is extremely lucrative to all of the organizations and I know for a fact that friends and relatives of mine in Houston, they go to the district showcase every year because that’s when they can get the specials on the subscription series and they know that to be true. Interestingly enough, when Harvey happened, I asked my sister, “How is that working?” And she said, “Well the Opera is actually … Many of the organizations, they are doing it online and they’re giving us the same special that we would have had if Harvey hadn’t happened and they would have been able to do the showcase and it was good until midnight.” But from what I understand, Miami does that same thing and I would love … That’s one of the things that the leaders have looked at, that we would do a district open house. We would collectively have our local institutions here, as well, and it would be free, fifteen-minute showcases that the community can come to. That right now is kind of an organizational (laughs) nightmare in my mind, but I really do want to work with the Houston district and see how they do it. What are their best practices and what are the pitfalls to stay away from?

Erik Gensler: We’ve come to your last question and this is your “CI to Eye moment” and the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and board of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Lily Weiss: Probably, what I have learned, first and foremost (laughs) is take long, deep breaths. And that has helped me tremendously and I haven’t always done that, but if I can do that, then I can hold for a moment and be patient with anything and everything that’s happening around me. And then what would say is, learn from everyone, whether that is a friend or a foe, someone you like or you don’t like, because I think it’s within that experience that we discover the true meaning of building relationships and really for the benefit of the organization. I would also say, surround yourself with dynamic leaders. Don’t separate yourself, get out, be open. Find a mentor and someone you trust that’s gonna tell you the truth. In doing that, I think that we discover more about who we are, and who we are as leaders.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much.

Lily Weiss: Absolutely, Erik. Thank you.

About Our Guests
Lily Weiss
Lily Weiss
Executive Director, Dallas Arts District

Lily Weiss is the Executive Director of the Dallas Arts District, the largest contiguous arts community in the United States. Six different Pritzker Prize-winning architects have designed buildings in the district, which spans 19 blocks in the northeast corner of downtown Dallas.

Read more

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