“I still pinch myself, very excited to come to work,” Jennifer Scripps, the new director of Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA), said as she reflected on her first 100 days in the job.
The former vice president of revenue operations for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and Dallas native is eager to tackle the creation of a new master plan for the city’s arts and culture community and is inspired Dallas’ cultural growth.
“It has been such a thrill growing up in Dallas to see the transformation in the arts over the last 10 years. It’s like someone has given us the keys to the Corvette. We have an amazing economy in Dallas. We have an amazing city. What do we do with it? How do we create a robust, exciting, vital artistic community that’s producing wonderful art rather than just presenting it?” Scripps said.
That’s the essential question as Scripps begins to the process of updating the master plan known as the “Culture and Policy Program” that was last updated in 2002, seven years before the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center and a decade before the opening of Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
Scripps calls her first 100 days a “listening tour” as she has met with artists, arts organizations and OCA partners and learns their concerns about the future of Dallas’ arts ecology.
“There are broad themes emerging. How do we provide infrastructure and support for artists and small artistic groups? There is a dearth of black box theaters. It’s a testament to the success to Deep Ellum and the Design District that those spaces are fully occupied,” Scripps explained.
The question of available space for small arts groups and artists bubbled up to Scripps’ attention this summer after months of Dallas’ fire marshal shutting down several small arts organizations because they often did not have the correct Certificate of Occupancy.
Dallas lacks available and affordable space for arts groups and smaller arts organizations want flexibility to use vacant spaces, but the city’s rules do not allow that. Scripps has discussed the issue with the fire marshal, there is an ongoing conversation with groups of artists about what help they need.
The OCA recently created a new position, an artist resource coordinator, to further develop relationships with artists and arts organizations and help them navigate the city’s complicated system of permitting, licensing and code compliance.
Scripps wants the OCA to be a resource for the arts community as they face critical issues. “The OCA is learning about being more intentional about reaching out to the artists,” Scripps said.
Cultural equity became a priority during the city’s budget process when a proposal for the city to pay $1.5 million to the AT&T Performing Arts Center for next ten years to help pay down the cultural institution’s debt became controversial.
Several arts groups argued that $15 million would be better spent if used to nurture emerging arts organizations. The OCA grants over $6 million a year directly to arts organizations and last year, the OCA piloted a cultural vitality grant program.
The OCA is currently refining the program and Scripps is excited about the program’s future. The development of the Dallas Arts District is impressive, but Scripps is concerned about cultural deserts. Supporting the artists interested in working in those neighborhoods is the most effective way to eliminate those cultural deserts.
Scripps wants to help arts organizations develop an effective business infrastructure to strengthen the arts community as a whole. “The OCA is very open to building partnerships to help cultivate pipelines for board members, open up and incent organizations to perform and do programming in all neighborhoods with an eye towards long-term sustainability in Dallas,” Scripps said.
In addition to learning what different communities need, the budget process has given Scripps an opportunity to learn more about Dallas’ political system. Transparency is important, but communication is imperative.
“We have to continue to refine ideas and give lots of information so everyone feels informed. It’s important to remind people where we are in the process and what’s coming up,” Scripps explained. Arts funding is up for the 2016-2017 budget year with the OCA’s operating budget set at $21.2 million.
She enjoys working with Dallas’ Cultural Affairs Commission because the commissioners know their districts well and she values Dallas’ scrappy artistic pioneers who have poured blood, sweat and tears into creating art in Dallas. However, she recognizes everyone’s eagerness to move beyond the budget process to a greater vision.
Scripps reminds herself, her commissioners and arts leaders that developing a new cultural plan requires pacing. “We have to help people involved understand what it takes to do this right, allowing time and space for those interactions and feedback sessions and feedback loops. That conversation will take time.
As a comparison, Boston’s plan involved 5,000 citizen inputs and Houston’s plan involved 7,000 citizen inputs. That community conversation and that political conversation at City Hall is heavy lifting. It’s not impossible, but a quick fix won’t get us there,” Scripps said.
Scripps hopes a comprehensive facility assessment in anticipation of a bond election in spring of 2017 will put the critical needs of the OCA in context. She would like to see the city take a more inventive approach to public art by developing temporary art installations to feed into selfie and social media culture.
In three to five years, Scripps wants to see Dallas citizens engaged in the city’s cultural offerings throughout the city. “I want to see a true strategy around neighborhood driven arts and truly a healthy ecosystem to support the creative groups, artists, collectives in the creation of art. And how do we at the OCA serve both their needs as well as the needs of institutions? It shouldn’t be an either/or situation,” Scripps said.
In only 100 days, Scripps has learned that balancing the needs of large cultural entities and supporting the development of smaller organizations and individual artists is the key to Dallas’ cultural future.
Kimberly Richard is a North Texan with a passion for the arts. She’s worked with Theatre Three, Inc. and interned for the English National Opera and Royal Shakespeare Company. She graduated from Austin College and currently lives in Garland with her very pampered cocker spaniel, Tessa.