ART/CITY: Noah Simblist

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “ART/CITY” on March 16, 2012. Participants have been invited to respond to the prompt “in relation to the arts and civic life, the question I am wrestling with right now is…” in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Noah Simblist, Associate Professor of Art at Southern Methodist University.

What is the role of the university in a city? Are we, as an institution, cultural producers providing the city with content such as exhibitions, lectures, or public projects? Are we organizers, facilitators or interpreters of civic life? Or is our primary role to train students to be cultural practitioners that can either act as cultural workers in our city or elsewhere? This last question can often become a significant choice between encouraging students to stay and act locally within Dallas or to travel to major global cultural centers such as New York, Los Angeles, London or Berlin.
Right now both Dallas and my institution, Southern Methodist University are at a particular crossroads in terms of these questions. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in an arts district populated by buildings designed by blue chip international architects such as Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, and OMA. Next to these buildings is a new city park that is being built on top of a highway to add green space to the area. In addition, The Trinity Trust project seeks to redevelop the long neglected waterway that runs next to the heart of downtown Dallas into a major public park. A Santiago Calatrava designed bridge, which connects the arts district, park, and waterway with a neighborhood called West Dallas is about to open.
With this as a backdrop, SMU invited Creative Time to spend a year in 2010 to study the cultural landscape in Dallas, essentially to see as outsiders what the relationship between the arts and civic life looked like. At the end of this process, Creative Time produced a report that was published in an online forum of D magazine: In addition to the report, SMU worked with Creative Time to address some of the most pressing issues coming out of the ambitious civic projects mentioned above through a conference in 2011 entitled The Freedom of the City: Models of Urban Engagement & Creativity in the 21st Century.
Toward the end of Creative Time’s visit, SMU had been approached by developers that owned a good deal of property in West Dallas to rent from them. They wanted us to build a presence of artists in the neighborhood through exhibitions or performances. After some discussion with Creative Time, we decided that rather than export artists from our campus to West Dallas, we should engage community organizers in the area to see what they wanted and needed. As a result, this past year, we sponsored an artist in residence to engage two community centers together with some of our students through social practice classes.
We are also hiring a new position, an Assistant Professor of Art and Urbanism to begin working with our students to address this radically shifting local landscape within the global context. Through this search it has been interesting to note that artists have addressed these issues from multiple backgrounds in architecture, urbanism, social practice, documentary film and photography, alternative publications, and experimental music. So, something at the forefront of our minds right now is, what is the best model for us to use for our students and our city?
Some helpful links: