Ignite/Arts Dallas is All Fired Up

The Mitotiliztli Yaoyollohtli Aztec Dancers joined six other community dance and music groups to perform in the 2017 inaugural Public Works Dallas production of The Tempest, a collaboration of Dallas Theater Center, SMU Meadows, ATTPAC and Ignite/Arts Dallas.
The Mitotiliztli Yaoyollohtli Aztec Dancers joined six other community dance and music groups to perform in the 2017 inaugural Public Works Dallas production of The Tempest, a collaboration of Dallas Theater Center, SMU Meadows, ATTPAC and Ignite/Arts Dallas.

With Ignite/Arts Dallas, the word “non-traditional” comes up a lot. Launched in 2015, this innovative program at SMU Meadows covers a wide amount of territory.   

by Lauren Smart

The official mission of Ignite/Arts Dallas: A Center for People, Purpose + Place is to challenge the imagination of students and citizens to foster more just and vibrant communities through art and cultural experiences. If it sounds open-ended, that’s intentional.

“We’re an interdisciplinary initiative,” says Clyde Valentín, the program’s director. “We work with students and faculty in all the various units of Meadows – visual arts, performing arts and communication arts – emphasizing collaborations and focusing on community engagement. Every one of our projects involves partnerships with outside groups, some local, some national. We want to develop meaningful cultural programs that benefit Dallas and connect to other creative communities.”

Closeup of Sandboxing exhibit by Quilian Riano at Jubilee Park as part of Meadows Prize-funded New Cities, Future Ruins curatorial initiative
Closeup of Sandboxing exhibit by Quilian Riano at Jubilee Park as part of Meadows Prize-funded New Cities, Future Ruins curatorial initiative

In the same breath, Valentín will discuss a four-year curatorial initiative focused on the extreme urbanism of the Western Sunbelt, and a public theater project using professional and amateur actors to perform a musical version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Both of these projects originated with winners of the Meadows Prize, an award presented every one to two years by Ignite/Arts Dallas. And the projects are representative of a sea change at Meadows: The new emphasis on off-campus civic engagement serves to amplify the school’s reputation for high quality education and cements Meadows’ role as a convener for the arts in Dallas and beyond.

In addition to the Meadows Prize, two other key initiatives that Ignite/Arts Dallas oversees are P3, which focuses on presenting touring performances in the city of Dallas, and the Dallas Arts Project, which will launch in fall 2017 and support two local arts projects each year. While all three differ in approach and targeted results, they coalesce into a program focused on artistic growth, cultural engagement and art as civic practice on university, city and national levels.

Clyde Valentin, Former Executive Director of the New York City-Based Hip-Hop Theater Festival, joined SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts staff in 2013
Clyde Valentin, Former Executive Director of the New York City-Based Hip-Hop Theater Festival, joined SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts staff in 2013

Ignite/Arts Dallas: The Beginning

The rumblings of change at Meadows had already begun when Valentín was hired in 2013 to lead Ignite/Arts Dallas, which was originally called the arts and urbanism initiative. Previously, Valentín had been the co-founder and executive director of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival in New York, where he oversaw its transition to become Hi-ARTS, an arts organization fostering creative, multi-disciplinary work, outreach and education through the hip-hop art and culture movement. Considered an innovator in socially engaged art, he brought to Meadows more than a decade of experience in creating programs that integrate the arts with their communities.

The Meadows Prize was one of the changing programs Valentín was brought in to oversee. Its predecessor was the Meadows Award, which from 1983 to 2003 annually honored an artist at the pinnacle of his or her career. In 2009, the award transformed into the Meadows Prize, focusing on up-and-coming, pioneering artists who would receive $25,000 stipends to conduct three- to four-week residencies in Dallas, work with Meadows students and leave a lasting legacy in the community.

One of the first winners of the new award was Creative Time, a New York public arts organization. The group’s residency in Dallas resulted in a yearlong study of the Dallas art community, concluding in spring 2011 with a report that identified strengths and potential areas for growth. The report also inspired Meadows to create more opportunities for students to work in the community.

Ignite/Arts Dallas evolved as one of those opportunities. In the past two years, the program has begun to realize its vision in phases, giving Valentín time to become immersed in the city to better understand possibilities of effecting change.

“I see an emerging consciousness among a lot of Dallas artists across disciplines about what community means here in the city. We can be a part of that fabric,” says Valentín. “Our students have amazing training, interests and passions, and want to use them to connect with local neighborhoods and organizations, especially with groups who likely never had a relationship with SMU.”

Ignite boldly crosses that divide, bridging innovative aesthetic pursuits with profound social impact,” says Lozano. “The time is ripe for this in Dallas.”

Juarez was followed by a presentation of Junebug Productions of New Orleans’ hybrid storytelling and dance performance, Gomela/to return: Movement of our Mother Tongue, which took place in April 2017 at the South Dallas Cultural Center. That piece brought together ancient art forms of African dance and drumming with contemporary jazz, spoken word and hip-hop to tell the stories of the African American communities of New Orleans.

Conferences and Connectivity

In the past three years, Ignite/Arts Dallas also has brought important conferences to the city. One was Latina/o Theater Commons, a national organization interested in updating the narrative of Latina/o theatre in the United States. Another was the Alternate ROOTS Weekend, which focused on bringing together artists and activists from Texas and other southern states whose work cultivates health, safety and sustainability in and with their communities. For Valentín, it’s important that these discussions happen in Dallas, as a way to reflect the realities of the population makeup of the city.

“I think we’ve been able to foster some connectivity among local artists and bring them closer to feeling that they’re part of a center,” says Valentín. “As Dallas increasingly designs itself creatively, it’s crucial that we’re bringing people to the city, connecting them to the South and Southwest. Dallas is a part of these broader conversations now.”

A Boost from the Mellon Foundation

Valentín’s vision for Ignite/Arts Dallas has not gone unnoticed. In 2016, SMU received a three-year grant totaling $300,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the program. The grant supports P3 and the Dallas Arts Project, as well as various special projects.

In October 2017, the Dallas Arts Project will open its first round of applications for local artists working on projects that involve social, civic or public practice issues. Selected artists will receive both a $5,000 award and a project budget of up to $10,000.

These awards are designed to assist Dallas artists with completing work and obtaining public attention. The winners will be selected by a local and national five-member committee.

The Mellon grant will also support projects already in progress, including the Creative Solutions summer camps for at-risk teens, run by Dallas education nonprofit Big Thought and hosted at SMU for over 10 years. Ignite/Arts Dallas brings in visual artists to work with the teens, and Meadows students regularly assist with the camps.

In addition, the grant will help fund an ongoing partnership with the Creative Capital Foundation, which has provided its nationally recognized Professional Development Program to SMU graduate students and individual artists. The program’s acclaimed curriculum is designed for working artists and covers such topics as strategic planning, business management and marketing.

The grant will also support Ignite/Arts Dallas’ partnership with the trans.lation project, founded by MacArthur Fellow and former Meadows adjunct lecturer Rick Lowe in Vickery Meadow. One of the most diverse neighborhoods in Dallas, Vickery Meadow is home to refugees from over 130 countries. The trans.lation project has become a community centerpiece, providing art classes, community events, pop-up exhibits and more. Ignite/Arts supports trans.lation’s current artist-in-residence, Carol Zou.

Meadows Prize winner Lear deBessonet and Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty confer on The Tempest
Meadows Prize winner Lear deBessonet and Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty confer on The Tempest

A Partner for the Future

“In its short history, Ignite/Arts Dallas has already transformed the relationship between the Meadows School and many of the smaller arts organizations in Dallas – not to mention the major collaboration with Dallas Theater Center to launch Public Works Dallas,” says Samuel Holland, Algur H. Meadows Dean of the Meadows School. “As a result, Meadows is a better neighbor, partner, collaborator and resource to artists and the communities in which they work. Dallas still has a long way to go if it is to become an environment that is friendly to early- and mid-career artists, and Ignite/Arts Dallas has a role to play in advancing that goal.”

In just two years, Ignite/Arts Dallas has furthered the University’s reputation for innovation in arts education. Certainly it’s sparked innumerable conversations on and off campus about the role of the arts in building an inclusive city. More importantly, the work of Valentín and the program have demonstrated SMU’s commitment to contributing time, money and resources to evolve the culture of Dallas.

“There’s even more work to do both on the campus and off,” says Valentín. “Our plan is to continue contributing to the fabric of the city and connect Dallas to the country in meaningful ways.”

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