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Getting Cultural Districts Connected – Trading Ideas At The New Cities Summit

by Jerome Weeks 18 Jun 2014 8:48 AM

Inside the New Cities Summit, the think-tankish talk-talk about our urban future that’s going on in Dallas, there’s a smaller conference about arts districts. And however big-idea they both might seem, they are, essentially, old-style trade shows. That’s a good thing.



The New Cities Summit is in Dallas, with people talking about making cities more internet-connected, more eco-friendly. And making them into real cultural hubs. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, it’s no accident the Summit is being held in the Dallas Arts District.

  • The New Cities Summit is being live simulcast in the Dallas Museum of Art’s Horchow Auditorium. 
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The New Cities Summit at the Winspear Opera House this week is not your typical trade show. It’s an international gathering of some 800 thinkers, mayors and businessmen talking about how our cities will have to work better – if our future on this planet is going to be any better.

But inside the New Cities Summit, there’s a much smaller conference. Only about a dozen people from around the world are here as members of the Global Cultural District Network. These are leaders of culture centers like the Dallas Arts District, and Maxwell Anderson, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, heads up this network. It was formed just last year. In fact, Anderson says it’s so new, they haven’t really defined what’s a ‘cultural district.’ They just started with the biggest, most obvious ones – in places like Brooklyn and Hong Kong.

“You really want the leading institutions in order to get the attention of everybody else,” Anderson says. “So thinking about key cities in Asia, Europe, the Gulf and the Americas seemed to us a first step.” At the same time, he adds, they had “kind of an agreement here in Dallas, going forward, let’s define those terms.”

But Anderson doesn’t really want narrow definitions. The fact is arts districts vary widely – from public-private projects such as the Dallas Arts District to grand, historic landmarks in Europe and brand-new, centrally-planned complexes in China. With such a network, the more members you have, the more different they are, the more you might learn from each other.

Now, all this may sound more “think tank” than “trade show,” but it turns out, the New Cities Summit and the Global Cultural District conference are both much like your typical, old-fashioned, hand-shaking, sales-booth trade show. As is so often the case with Dallas: The conferences are partly about bringing people here, and then selling them on the city.

“A big part of the excitement,” Anderson says, “is to have all of these influentials fan out to their respective cities with a different story about Dallas” — and that story can be about DART or the business climate or even the city’s major investment in culture. “Selfishly, I’m interested because I want to drive cultural tourism to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I would like these new non-stop flights to be filled with people who are not just changing planes but who are saying, ‘Before we head to Mexico City, LA, whatever it might be, let’s experience what is on offer here.'”

Having this conference in Dallas brings another trade show advantage: The arts economy is a barter economy. Museums swap art works, they exchange exhibitions, operas and theaters collaborate on shows. Bring arts leaders here and show them what you’ve got — they might find something they want to trade for.

“I’d love to see the Dallas Arts District set up relationships with other districts,” Anderson says, “and for us to be at the table is the core of making that happen.”

shutterstock_159259808When it comes to such cultural barter, Michael Eissenhauer (left) would seem to have it made. He’s in Dallas for the conference, he’s the director general of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, aka the National Museums of Berlin. Together, these 19 buildings hold one of the largest, most important art collections in the world, comparable to, even exceeding, the Met in New York or the British Museum in London. The first of these museums was built in 1830, while today, Museum Island in Berlin – where five of the museums are concentrated – draws 3-4 million visitors a year.

“So,” Eissenhauer notes, the entire complex was more or less ‘organic’ in its development. “It grew over centuries, and the experience is — it worked.”

Then why would Eissenhauer come to Dallas? What does he need the Global Cultural Districts Network for? Well, there’s that other museum complex he runs in west Berlin. It’s called the Kulturforum or Culture Forum. It was started in the 1960s, when Berlin was divided by the Cold War. And the layout of the Culture Forum may sound a little familiar to North Texans, indeed, to many Americans who live in big cities where arts palaces have been plopped down the past three decades or arts organizations have been used for urban renewal, trying to revive a dead downtown.

The Culture Forum, Eissenhauer says, is full of striking, solitary buildings designed by acclaimed architects, such as Mies van der Rohe. But they sit among vast parking lots and wide streets. The entire area, he says, “is not linked to urban amenities. You’ve got very small restaurant districts around that, you have no areas where you want to stay and spend your time. So looking back to the last 50 years, we have to admit, this doesn’t work. It’s just isolated.”

He’s aware, he says, that Museum Island, like many older cultural districts, especially those in Europe, wasn’t consciously planned over the years. It simply made sense — in the nation’s capitol — to cluster arts facilities in the part of the city where people lived, where the government administration was and thus where mass transit, restaurants and other retail outlets congregated. Voila, an unplanned urban efficiency, and the development of an excellent infrastructure to support a cultural district.

Culture Forum, on the other hand, is what he calls a “green field” idea. One might call it a ‘clean slate.’ Just start it over there, and all the people, the residential areas, the support facilities — they’ll naturally come later. Or we’ll make them come later

Eissenhauer is well aware of these fundamental differences, he says. The question now — the same question that faces the Dallas Arts District to some degree — is how do we make this work anyway? We’ve really got no choice.

Anderson says that the kind of retail ‘in-fill,’ the urban density, the Arts District has sorely lacked since its inception more than 30 years ago is — like the Seventh Cavalry — finally arriving on the scene. In the next few years, thanks to the free market and enlightened developers like Graham Greene, we’ll see Flora Lofts and Two Arts Plaza go up, along with the Hall Arts Tower, which is currently being built across the street from the Meyerson.

But these are — to borrow a favorite expression of the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News — a drop in the bucket. The News just published a special urban study section, Future Dallas, a fine follow-up to its Tipping Point report ten years ago. And the News finds that Dallas is becoming hollowed out. The income inequality we’ve seen growing in America is a real estate fact in this city. There’s less and less middle-class housing here; Dallas is becoming a city for just the rich and the poor — the middle-class has fled to the suburbs. The Dallas Arts District — with its millionaire condo towers like One Arts Plaza and Museum Tower, next to its subsidized housing for artists in Flora Lofts — is a perfect illustration, even a magnification of that urban problem.

So … can a downtown or a culture district really survive, let alone flourish, like this?

Funny thing is, Eissenhauer says, much the same has been happening in downtown Berlin. Only the wealthy can afford to live there. Which means, no matter how different big-city cultural districts are in their funding or their history or their market thinking, many face similar problems precisely because — they’re in big cities.

So this conference is also about getting together and swapping some hard-earned wisdom about urban life.