Through the Lens of Equity: Jennifer Scripps and Terry D. Loftis on Dallas Arts Month 2021
This time last year, we didn’t know whether or not we were supposed to sanitize our groceries. We certainly didn’t know what the future of the arts community looked like, and whether cherished annual city-wide celebrations like Dallas Arts Month (DAM) would ever return.
Now, as the world slowly crawls toward something that looks familiar, arts advocates are able to gather in celebration of a month that holds great meaning and importance to our community. Even though this Dallas Arts Month won’t look exactly the same as years prior, Jennifer Scripps, Director of the Office of Arts and Culture for the City of Dallas, says it still symbolizes the great cultural shift our city is experiencing in how we cater to the arts.
“Dallas as a city has been so focused on building buildings. That kind of hyper-focus caused us to overlook the smaller groups that were doing all the innovation and nurturing of artists. COVID forced us to hit pause and focus on arts and culture, but this time through the lens of equity.”
Jennifer and Terry D. Loftis, TACA’s Donna Wilhelm Family President & Executive Director, have seen the ebb and flow of what the arts mean to Dallas from a vantage point that not many others share. As arts leaders, getting them together to talk shop led to a conversation on everything from arts as an economic driver for the city to broadening the arts to appeal to more diverse audiences. In what we’re calling our ‘Leaders on Leaders’ series, we’ll share all of their insight-packed dialogue, starting with their take on what Dallas Arts Month means to an almost post-COVID Dallas, and what it’s like managing a team through something none of us were prepared for.
TL: You had quite the undertaking ahead of you at the Office of Arts and Culture back when we first met.
JS: Right, I know. And that was without the added element of the pandemic, which has actually been a blessing in disguise for us. We had so many building projects that we were able to push forward in an uninterrupted way.
TL: Are you talking about the cultural centers?
JS: Yes! It’s a lot of work but it’s exciting. We have a seven to ten-year plan and even though there’s no “good time” for a pandemic to hit, we made a lot of good strides because the wind was at our backs. It really helped us start strong with our work on revitalizing the Latino Cultural Center and the Bath House Cultural Center. We actually just had our ribbon cutting for Bath House.
TL: I’ve always loved that building. I can’t wait to see it.
JS: It was sort of like the kick-off to everything we have planned for Dallas Arts Month.
TL: I can’t imagine how planning that has been. How is this year’s celebration different than prior years, given that we’re still living in this odd new reality?
JS: Dallas Arts Month this year feels reflective of the moment we’re living in. It’s only happening because so many arts venues have just reopened for the first time since the pandemic. A year ago, everything was shut down. In 2020, we were focused on PPP loans and getting paid, and the pandemic was all so new, so we decided to cancel DAM. I’m thankful about timing this year and that we were able to pull it off. We’ve had to adapt to COVID and some of those new ways of transporting arts lovers to a venue – like streaming. This year, DAM is really a hybrid of in-person venues – by appointment only – and virtual venues. Gradually, we’re getting back to normal.
TL: Do you think some practices, like streaming arts events, are here to stay?
JS: People have definitely grown accustomed to it and make decisions today about what they’ll stream and what they’ll do in person tomorrow. I don’t know if that will change as we look ahead. But I am glad that for Dallas Arts Month this year, our four neighborhood cultural centers are open – though by appointment – and using their spaces creatively to curate one combined show. Echo Theater has staged a socially distant video play, and the Bath House has moved events outdoors. Honestly, I’m just excited to see people again. The Bath House ribbon-cutting was a good example of how in-person gatherings can come back in a safe way. We have artist programs coming up at Annette Strauss Square and at the Fair Park Bandshell. We also just had our Arts Advocacy Day Luncheon, which came together wonderfully. These are the events we had to cancel last year, and I think they’re desperately needed now. What are your feelings about where we’re at right now as a community?
TL: I’m really excited, not only about Dallas Arts Month but about the shift in creative perspectives across Dallas as a whole. I believe we’re going to see incredible new work across all disciplines in the years to come. COVID and the upheaval of systemic racism – these things have changed society forever. We’ve all been impacted by these things and for art to be a part of helping us heal from those experiences, it will mean major changes in programming, the way we think about audiences, and ensuring equity for arts and artists in Dallas. It actually stirred a conversation for us at our board level about bringing back our New Works program, but if we do, we’ll need to re-invent it.
JS: I would love to see that. Some of my favorite work came as a result of TACA’s New Works program.
TL: So, your office took an early hit because of COVID in terms of budget and staff. How’d you respond to that?
JS: It’s been tough, obviously. At the worst period, we had furloughed about fifty percent of the Office of Arts and Culture. But I will say this for the city of Dallas, we were extremely creative. I got to hold on to a lot of people, but instead of the typical lift, they were doing critical work in the housing department helping people avoid eviction, or, as of late, I’ve had staff working in our vaccination site at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. I’ve had staff handing out pallets of water at rec centers after the February flood and, I guarantee you, nobody ever came to work at the Office of Arts and Culture thinking I’m going to run a mass vaccination site. It’s really a credit to my team because they stayed focused on the core of what we do, and that’s elevating the quality of life for people across the city of Dallas. That’s been our attitude.
TL: That must be so hard. We’re such a small team at TACA and luckily, we didn’t have to lose anyone. But that hard shift we were all forced to make wasn’t easy to make sense of for a long time.
JS: We’ve been really lucky, thanks to COVID relief and federal funding, we’ve been able to bring back the vast majority of people we furloughed, with the exception being the ushers at the large venues, who I just love and miss so much. We’re hopefully bringing them back very soon as those venues begin to reopen. Hopefully, if we can kind of “stay the course”, we’ll be back to something that feels normal soon.
Photos courtesy of the Office of Cultural Affairs