Dallas has a way of doing big things in bad times. It passed the bond election for the Dallas Museum of Art in the midst of raging inflation in 1979. It opened the Meyerson Symphony Center during the collapse of real estate, banking and oil and gas in 1989, and now, in 2009, it’s about to launch the Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theater, in the middle of the chronicle of a crash foretold. Every ten years, with catastrophe on every front, Dallas has a way of renewing itself.
Not only are the Winspear and Wyly rising to completion, to join the Booker T. Washington School for the Visual and Performing Arts, happily concluded before le deluge, construction is about to begin nearby on underground parking for the City Performance Hall whose Phase I, a 750-seat auditorium, will follow, financed by $38 million in bonds already approved. (Anybody else in favor of naming the City Performance Hall for Stanley Marcus?)
There’s no doubt that the Arts District will be an architectural paradise. The only question remaining is this: how to bring it to life both night and day. Maria May of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts pointed out the prodigious efforts already underway –festivals in Sammons Park, envisioned like Millennium Park in Chicago or Bryant Park in New York, with tables and chairs all around, a movable feast; happenings in Annette Strauss Artists’s Square; a café in the Winspear; foot traffic from Uptown through Woodall Rodgers Park.
What’s more, the area has just received a brilliant champion in Veletta Forsythe Lill, set to run Dallas Arts District, a new organization committed to pressing for parking, safety, lighting, shops, restaurants and action in this section of the city. A veteran of the fight for the Arts District from her City Council days, Ms. Lill said that one of the most critical parts of her job will be to work with landowners nearby, urging them to develop their projects with an eye toward attracting lots and lots of people, not just tenants.
This means Dan Boeckman and his colleagues building Museum Tower; the part of the Belo Mansion currently occupied by Museum Tower’s Marketing Center; Craig Hall, whose block now is used for symphony parking; Spire, holder of the property between AT&T and Chase Tower; the south side of Ross, between the Cathedral and DART. All of these, said Ms. Lill, are opportunities for excitement. Lucy Billingsley has done her part at One Arts Plaza with varied and excellent restaurants. Now others must follow her lead.
Especially Ms. Lill is interested in Ross Avenue, which urban expert John Fregonese of Portland has identified has a possible spine of the Arts District. While Flora certainly will be the promenade for museum and theater goers, Ross offers a chance, said Ms. Lill, “to create a larger community.” Originally, she explained, the Arts District was conceived to be “more commercial, less artistic,” but that idea “has been flipped.” Now it’s important to shore up the merchant side of the equation.
But where to look for inspiration? Ms. Lill agreed that there’s no better place than West Village, which is always jumping. Why? Medium-priced outdoor dining at Taco Diner and Mi Cocina among others, plus Starbucks and Paciugo, also the Magnolia Theater, laid out in a simple pattern where they all complement each other.
One more thing: conductor Jaap von Sweden is transforming the Dallas Symphony. Everything we always wanted — Germanic repertoire, strings that shimmer — he’s accomplishing with astonishing alacrity. Better sign him to a long-term contract now, before he gets away. The Dallas Opera is giving us unusually radiant singing, and Kevin Moriarty is having a breakthrough first season at Dallas Theater Center, especially with The Good Negro and currently playing, In the Beginning, So, in spite of all, it is a very good year, thus far, for Dallas arts, which seem to thrive on bad fortune.