Armchair Leadership

For the past year, change has been brewing at Fair Park, located just a few miles from Dallas Heritage Village.  This remarkable spot in Dallas is home to the largest collection of Art Deco structures in the nation, the State Fair of Texas, and many museums and cultural organizations.  But many people think it’s completely broken and needs total transformation.  Some commentators have even suggested bulldozing the buildings and starting over–since the cost of rectifying the deferred maintenance is so high.

My museum career began in Fair Park, during a summer internship at the Dallas Historical Society.  This was in the late 1990s, just after Fair Park had been named to the National Trust’s Most Endangered List.  The fabulous Art Deco murals on the Esplanade were being restored, and it was so exciting to watch the progress.  I spent the next two summers at the Women’s Museum, both doing research on the history of the building and helping prepare for the grand opening in 2000.  Since joining the staff at Dallas Heritage Village, we have worked with the Dallas Historical Society on many projects, as well as Texas Discovery Gardens.  I am also a member of Texas Discovery Gardens.  I visit Fair Park often for a variety of events and frequently bring out of town visitors to see the remarkable architecture.  For me, it has always been a year-round destination.

I just sent a letter to council members, outlining some of my concerns about the current proposal.  For me, the big elephant in the room that isn’t being discussed is the future of the many resident institutions.  From the first plan presented at the beginning of the year to this most recent presentation, their voices have been silent. Each of these institutions has their own relationship to the city, whether it is through an Office of Cultural Affairs contract or a Parks contract.  How will those relationships change?  How will these institutions remain autonomous, even as they are part of the bigger picture of Fair Park?  Will they maintain their city funding or will those funds all be directed to the Foundation?  A change in the funding structure for these small institutions could have a dramatic impact on their financial sustainability.

But there are a few things I didn’t say to Council.  Namely, how deeply disappointed I am at the lack of visible leadership from the resident institutions.  Their voices just don’t seem to be a part of the conversation. And it’s also clear that they haven’t actively inspired their community of support.  When I read the online comments, people will occasionally mention Texas Discovery Gardens or Dallas Summer Musicals, but they rarely mention the Dallas Historical Society.  And I’ve yet to see mention of the African American Museum or the Children’s Aquarium–or the million of other things that happen regularly on these historic grounds.  Something is missing in the leadership of Fair Park.

Now, I know it’s really easy for me to say “If I was a director of one of those institutions, I would. . . and that would change everything.”  But I’m going to do it anyway.  If my institution was located at Fair Park, myself, a staff member or a board member (or all of the above) would be at every single meeting discussing the future of Fair Park.  I would schedule meetings with every council member.  I would keep my members up to date and encourage them to write their council members.  I would write editorials.  I would make sure that the powers that be know about my institution and our place in Fair Park and in the city.

Our voices may not make a difference, but silence will certainly not make a difference.  There’s a reason why developers are now keeping me in the loop on pending development projects in the Cedars–they know that I show up to things, ask questions and speak up.  They’re pledging to make sure that we’re a part of the overall vision for the neighborhood.

I just started reading a recent publication from the American Alliance of Museums, Cities, Museums and Soft Power by Gail Dexter Lord and Ngaire Blankenberg.  As they explain it, “soft power is the ability to influence behavior using persuasion, attraction or agenda setting.  Where the resources of ‘hard power’ are tangible–force and finance–soft power resources are intangibles, such as ideas, knowledge, values and culture.”  Of course, like any form of power, soft power isn’t an automatic–it has to grow through relationships and conversations.  It may be too late for Fair Park to start using what little soft power it may have, but it’s certainly giving me a lot more reasons to continue doing what I’m doing at DHV.  With the work I’m doing today, one of my hopes is that developers will never look at our land and ponder bulldozing everything on our historic park land to make something new and shiny.

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About Melissa

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. I've worked at Dallas Heritage Village since 2004, first as the educator, and became Executive Director in 2014.
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2 Responses to Armchair Leadership

  1. Pingback: Lessons from Fair Park | Redeveloping History

  2. Pingback: A short lesson on bonds | Redeveloping History

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