A once-empty warehouse fills with hundreds of music fans who become philanthropists, bidding on art for charity. A mostly-vacant city block gets a new image as young creatives throw discounts to patrons who bike to their businesses. The Flaming Lips sign on to play an outdoor show in the center of a town whose musicians were once mired in battles with city leaders over crowds and noise.
Lovers of the arts in DFW's culture hubs of Oak Cliff and Denton have spent the last ten years learning to work within the limits of geography and city politics to make their neighborhoods colorful places where they want to live their lives, to raise their children.
By 2020, these areas could become more than just exceptions to the one-note suburban sprawl of North Texas. They could be the models we credit for improving the economic and environmental landscape of our area by wielding the arts as an agent for change.
Musicians, artists and their patrons in these pockets are already becoming empowered by new access to make important connections to audiences and each other -- not just for the good of their circles, but to anticipate the larger problems our area will face as it grows. Problems like running out of water, like homelessness, like increased poverty. Will city leaders and citizens value their approaches? Or will a greater chasm grow between frustrated artists turned inward and a public without patience for them?
Taking a cue from our arts advocates' productive exhange of ideas, we gathered four North Texans who use the arts to raise consciousness about social problems and the importance of preservation, whether it be environmental, cultural, or historical, in DFW. Though we recognize them as unique cases with mulitple contributions that can't be classified easily, for us, they came to represent four types of people that will be indispensable in ensuring a bountiful future for the arts in our area.
On a rainy Sunday, amid their deadlines and papers and self-directed projects, we met at the Texas Theatre.
THE PRESERVATIONIST: JASON ROBERTS
The sleeping historic venue on West Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, with its iconic "T-E-X-A-S" marquee sign restored and beckoning to the street, became a renovation project of the Oak Cliff Foundation when the City of Dallas Neighborhood Renaissance Partnership Program awarded the organization $1.6 million dollars to purchase and renovate the theatre weeks before September 11, 2001. Before that, the Art Deco landmark where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for the assasination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 had been vacant since 1995.
Not coincidentally, our tour guide is worth a mention.
Jason Roberts, outgoing chair of the Oak Cliff Foundation, opened the doors for us. When he took the helm of the group, Robert says, the conditions for nonprofits seeking funds weren't that different from the bleak period nine years ago. But Roberts, frontman for indie-pop band The Happy Bullets, had been taken with the theatre for years already. He and Sarah Jane Semrad hosted the first Art Conspiracy charity auction there in 2005.
"We would kind of see this old building all the time, and said it would be great to do something with the facility," Roberts says. "... I thought, 'I would love to perform in this space.'"
In the years that followed, Roberts co-founded Bike Friendly Oak Cliff and the Oak Cliff Transportation Authority. As he schooled himself on urban development, he was drawn back to the Texas Theatre as a beacon of change.
"I had done some research on old theatres and realized that they were part and parcel to helping redevelop a street block. They never really make money for an area, but they actually improve the quality of life and improve the land values of the property around it as well," he says.
He just went to one board meeting to ask how he could get involved, and two months later he was president of the organization. He's since orchestrated film screenings, concerts, and cultural events like Las Posadas del Pueblo, the Mexican Christmas celebration, at the space.
"Another ten years, I see it being more of a repertory theatre ... potentially a 5-day-a-week space. It's got a long way to go to get where it needs to be," Roberts says.
THE ORGANIZER: SARAH JANE SEMRAD
Not everyone with the tools to improve the quality of life in DFW will stay in the area until the year 2020. This is the first and possibly the greatest challenge North Texas faces: to recognize and value the people who can change it for the better.
Sarah Jane Semrad told us she still dreams of leaving the area for cities like Austin or San Franscisco. "My motivation for doing the work I do here is that I'm stuck here," she said candidly in opening our discussion.
It was that surprising charge -- or was it that surprising? -- that hovered over the stage as we continued talking. It seems for every arts pioneer that surfaces in North Texas, there are three that have moved to New York alone. (For Semrad, off the top of our head, we name nationally renowned musician Annie Clark, a.k.a St. Vincent, Paul Slocum of And/Or Gallery and experimental jazz guitarist and Addtract Consortium founder Lily Masse.)
Instead of simply complaining about the place where her family put down roots, Semrad threw herself into a career connecting Dallas artists and patrons to affect the social change she wants to see. In 2005, she co-founded Art Conspiracy, the non-profit responsible for the large scale, volunteer-run charity art auction of the same name.
In five years, the organization has raised over $50,000 for education and arts groups in North Texas. The year after Art Conspiracy came to be, Semrad co-founded La Reunion, which nurtures a planned artist-in-residency program on 35 acres in Oak Cliff and provides sustainable studio and gallery space at the site.
THE EXPERT: MICHAEL SEMAN
With the DART expansions planned for next year, neighborhood advocates like Jason Roberts can more easily link up with kindred spirits in far-flung communities like theirs. As Roberts was reading up on the impact restored theatres have on their neighborhoods, Michael Seman was studying trends of economic impact on communities who work to protect their centers of arts and culture in cities like Omaha, Nebraska. Seman is now a Research Associate at the University of Texas at Arlington's Institute of Urban Studies, where he is pursuing a Ph.D. in Urban Planning and Policy. Like Roberts, Seman is a musician who contributes his knowledge of urban development in meetings with city leaders.
He and his wife Jenny moved to Denton from Hollywood, California in 2002 after their neighborhood gentrified to edge out the indie-rock friendly culture that had made it attractive to the couple, who play art rock as Shiny Around the Edges.
“I was at a point in California where I could have moved anywhere, and my wife and I actually did go to places such as Salt Lake, Portland, Seattle, and looked into different places to live," Seman says in our talk.
"But we knew we wanted to live in Texas. We really wanted to live in Denton, because there seemed to be a reckless exuberance of life there. And we were enamored by that, we didn't find it anywhere else. And with a background in economics, I knew that North Texas is really a frontier waiting to happen and is already continuing to happen, and I wanted to be a part of it."
THE FAN WITH A MEGAPHONE: SARAH CRISMAN
The mainstream press has had no choice but to include experimental acts on the fringe of our arts scene, namely bands and musicians that lead North Texas in garnering national attention for their work. And as the blogosphere dominates our well of information, more press outlets have begun to let the voice of the writer matter as much as the story that's told. In Sarah Crisman's case, her voice reveals a deep-seeded connection with the musicians she covers, a connection she says led her to Denton in the first place.
Crisman is a music writer and advocate of the North Texas music scene who was hired by PegasusNews.com in August after an editor contacted her via Twitter. Crisman has a background in social media consulting and research, which she applies to her understanding of the superfan phenomenon in the forthcoming book Pup Culture, a collection of essays about how Denton jazz-funk fusion outfit Snarky Puppy changed her life.
When asked what would entice her to stay in DFW until the year 2020, she replies with hopes to keep a key group of innovators in our region:
"The jazz musicians that are being brought in by [The University of] North Texas, that are being trained by the university to become working musicians ... I wish that they could gig here," Crisman says.
"I wish that Denton could hold down a jazz club. I wish that there were more than three jazz joints in Fort Worth, and that it was more than just playing a couple of standards for some steak customers in Addison. Our jazz musicians, they leave. They go to Brooklyn, they go to Chicago, they go where they can get work ... If the jazzies could stay, I'd stick around."
THE HOSPITABLE NEIGHBOR: KEVIN RODEN
The civic-minded, arts-loving individual has a pivotal role in changing DFW for the better. Take Kevin Roden, for example. He and his wife Emily regularly open their three-story, 95 year-old home across from Texas Women's University in Denton to upwards of 50 people for performances by local musicians, civic meetings, and discussions on the human condition, including the role of art in society, as part of a series called Drink and Think.
"There has been a lot of serious reflection on the place of the arts throughout history. Some of the most interesting times for this, for me, took place in the 19th century: Schiller, Nietzsche, Wagner, etc.," Roden writes.
"There was the idea of the absolute necessity of art to cure the ills brought on to modern man -- many saw the arts as a sort of savior of their culture’s increasing madness. I tend to think there is good reason to think that this is true. In a day made cold by our allegiance to science and our unquestioning of technology, in a day where our concept of our humanity is confused, the possibility of art to instill wonder, awe, hope, dignity, and transcendence in our culture is a needed conversation."
Recently, Roden invited friends and neighbors of the nationally-renowned Denton band Midlake to a listening party for their album The Courage of Others, which comes out in February on the Bella Union label. Guests sat through all eleven songs in order, following along with lyric sheets and sipping on wine provided by the Rodens. A week before, a freelance journalist stopped by a house show at the Rodens' featuring Seryn, Matthew Gray and others while researching the town for a story about Midlake.
Other guests of the Roden home have included Mark Burroughs, mayor of Denton, and Seattle singer-songwriter David Bazan. Roden is the Assistant Director of Student Life for the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas and serves on Denton's Historic Landmark Commission. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Dallas.
After our meeting (view some highlights in the video that accompanies this piece), Roden wrote to us with some concerns that speak for another side to this arguement, a conflict Roden himself says he's struggled to reconcile.
"I think there is an absolute neccessary role for the artist in our culture, but I'm not sure our artists have spent much time thinking through this. They merely assume they have a role, but they rarely have a sense of why they do," he writes.
"To put it even more concretely: no other occupation in our society has the luxury to demand their "place" or "respect" from others without first having a product that meets a very real need. Imagine a lame dentist crying that no one comes to his dental clinic or a bad chef that no one comes to eat his food -- that would be absurd. Yet the artists often talk like this."
The merit of art is by nature subjective, at least in part. But, as Seman, Semrad, and in a way, Crisman and Roden, will continue to prove, the merit of artists can be inarguably quantifiable, through, say, the gifts they collect for charity at concerts and auctions, the national attention they garner for a place through press, and for the economic development that happens when young creatives flock to a region.
So then, as much as it's up to DFW to listen, it's up to these artists to make their mark beyond aesthetic, to translate their skill to meet a need that others recognize. And that need could be as simple as the common desire to unite and improve the towns and cities of DFW.
"North Texas is a wasteland; in a lot of ways, that's exactly its appeal," Semrad says in our roundtable discussion.
"There are so many wonderful people, and organizations, and ideas, in this part of Texas in particular, that have the opportunity to stand up and be seen, and, in Dallas especially, you have the opportunity to be a revolutionary."