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Changing Gears At Dallas’ Office Of Cultural Affairs 18

It’s a high-pressure time at Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs. The city is planning a major bond issue next year – even as its arts facilities have a multi-million-dollar backlog of seriously neglected repairs. And last week, Jennifer Scripps started work as the OCA’s new director, just as budget time comes up with the City Council. KERA’s Jerome Weeks sat down with Scripps Thursday to talk about the arts, budgets and what she brings to the job.


Jerome: Jennifer Scripps, welcome.

JSThank you, I’m glad to be here.

You’ve been in your office only one week, but I’ll ask anyway. How much input did you have on the new budget for the Office of Cultural Affairs?

JSWell, thank you for recognizing that I’m on Day 5 of my new gig, if you will.  And prior to my arrival, we had a very strong interim in David Fisher, and he along with our budget director had already taken the first swipe at the budget, and so we are in good stead going into the next budget review, which will be next Wednesday, as they really start to close the gap between expected revenues, which luckily are going up, but so are expenses.

You worked at Lincoln Center in New York and, of course, at the Perot Museum. But your appointment was sharply criticized by those who argued you’ve no ties to the local arts community and there was a much more experienced candidate available. How do you respond?

JSIf you look at my history, I had worked at the Dallas Museum of Natural History prior to going to Harvard Business School so I was the first full-time employee hired to help build the Perot Museum. I probably would have stayed at Lincoln Center gladly. I never wanted to leave. But I got the call to come back to my hometown and help build the Perot Museum.

And I think that I do come at all of this with a general manager’s perspective. I am not an artist.  But my job is to make them sustainable and successful. And so I think there are people who saw me as a bit of a change from maybe what was the traditional head of the OCA. But I think working with the OCA we’ll be able to make Dallas a vital artistic city serving artists, nurturing artists and being an attractive place to work and live.


Jennifer Scripps of the Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs at KERA. Photo: Jerome Weeks

So what arts do you yourself enjoy? And don’t say ‘all of them.’

JSOh, I won’t! Well, my mom was a music teacher, so I probably had the most exposure to music. I took 12 years of piano. But working at Lincoln Center, I really got into American theater. I saw some amazing, amazing works. Pretty much anything I could see on Broadway, but anything I could see off-off-off-Broadway as well. And I enjoy dance but probably know the least about it, so I always tell dance experts, ‘Please educate me. Help me understand where this fits in.’ In a week or so, I’m going to tour the Dallas Black Dance Theatre and sit down with them because I’ve been to some of their performances and recently saw them in ‘Show Boat.’ But I really want to get more acquainted.

When you were hired it was said your first priority will be a new master plan for the arts in Dallas. The current one is 14 years old — meaning it doesn’t even reflect the huge changes in the Arts District let alone things like the completion of the  Oak Cliff and Latino Cultural Centers. So what does a master plan for the arts do?

JSWell, you’re definitely correct that it is overdue. They generally max out at a decade. It is taking a look across all domains and looking at how can we, as the city’s artistic arm, exact the most positive leverage – whether that is looking at underserved neighborhoods, so how do we take the arts to them, maybe it’s more grants directly to artists.  So the range is large. I think if done right, it’s a conversation with the community and with the institutions on the front line.

But the City  Council has been told repeatedly we have a crumbling arts infrastructure all around the city because of years and years of deferred maintenance. We’re talking $58 million in needed repairs just to get things up to par. How are we going to do this?

JSI think that that will definitely be part of the next bond offering, and we did see a city council briefing yesterday. There’s no question that while the arts facilities have had deferred maintenance, so have our streets. And there’s a huge pressure to get on top of all of that, so working through that to prioritize what can be done with that bond money will be a top priority.

But bond issues are normally reserved for major projects not regular city services. To put day-to-day maintenance into a bond issue is heavily resisted by some City Council members.

JSAbsolutely, and that was discussed at length yesterday, that do we look at this to try to catch up on operating obligations because there’s no question that there are lot of people who are like, How do we get on a more pay-as-you-go structure for the city? The other thing that can’t be off the table is looking at more of a public-private partnership and are there opportunities for some private money to look at supporting some of these facilities.

Beyond catching up with long-needed repairs, there are also longstanding plans that have been backburnered – like, a second phase for the Latino Cultural Center. Or the two small theaters that were always supposed to be added to the Dallas City Performance Hall. Can we expect items like that to be in next year’s bond issue?

JSAhh, that’s probably above my pay-grade for my fifth day on the job. I’d love to see it happen, I just don’t know that it’s going to happen in the next bond issue.