A TALE OF 3 CITIES

8 Nov

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By JOHN DeMERS

In pursuit of launching Houston ArtsWeek to cover the performing, visual and literary art scenes here, I found myself in quick succession being shown around three other cities – Boston, Chicago and Dallas – to take a look at the art scenes there. And while each of those is smaller than Houston, each has something we might envy or, even better, emulate. You might say my visits gave us our homework. 

First off, when I say “emulate,” I don’t actually mean Boston, Chicago and Dallas have any single major category of art that’s absent from Houston. They have museums and galleries, but so do we. They have opera and ballet, but so do we. They have theater from commercial to avant garde, but so do we. And they have writers writing, but so do we. I suspect Boston and Chicago have more writers writing about Chicago and Boston than Houston does, but that’s probably a function of long memories fueled by buildings that aren’t constantly being torn down.

What I do mean is that in Boston, Chicago and Dallas, I saw qualities of mind, I saw behaviors that I wish Houston had more of. They are things that, without too much effort or money, Houston could actually do and have. 

Boston, of course, is totally cheating. As one of the oldest settlements in North America, it has more history on any nondescript street corner than most American cities have within their entire boundaries. What’s cool, I think, is that Boston makes the most of the history it has – it promotes and sells that history to tourists as a large part of the reason they visit. The Freedom Trail, for instance, is one way of tying together hundreds of historic sites, most from the colonial and revolutionary periods of American history, with nothing more than a line of bricks in the sidewalk. 

Especially impressive, however, is the way Boston treats its arts scene – partially an adjunct of being home to more and better universities than just about anywhere – as part of its tourism draw. I spent an hour or so chatting with a VP of the local CVB (that’s convention and visitors bureau, in industry parlance) and he could speak in detail about what each arts organization was doing, what its budget was, how it was faring in the recession and who the main players I had to meet were. 

Whew! I’m not sure how many CVB guys in the country could do that, since their business is always putting “heads on beds.” But Houston, which has long struggled and straggled to get any traction at all as a tourist destination, might come to realize that our arts scene is one of the best things we’ve got going. And while Houston had, until about a year ago, a print magazine called ArtsHouston (I should know, since I served as editor), Boston has ArtsBoston, a serious online resource that also involves selling half-price tickets like those stands with the lines outside do in New York and London. Many’s the day I wish we had one of those.

For all the wonders of the Art Institute in Chicago and its brand-new Modern Wing, as well as of its Lyric Opera, what used to be known as America’s “second city” (after New York) is now known most often as the city of amazing architecture. Almost every architect who gave us the look of the 20th century, from Daniel Burnham and his World’s Fair to Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and beyond, did much of his best stuff in Chicago. I took a boat tour along the Chicago River with one of the smartest docents I’ve ever heard discussing almost every building we passed. I’m told Houston has some incredible Art Deco downtown (there’s even a book on the subject), so why can’t we find a way of exciting people about that? Like I said: homework. 

And finally, Dallas. Who in Houston doesn’t enjoy bashing Dallas, a city whose Arts District is not only growing with restaurants, clubs, retail and residential but just added $300 million-plus in innovative, eye-catching performance spaces, including a new opera house? I know, I know – in Dallas, it’s always about the money, about spending more than you ever could or would, whether it’s for big hair or big opera. But I think, in this case, Dallas is getting it right. 

The Arts District, especially seen from my table at the restaurant called Stephan Pyles, is a treat. And while no one can not be impressed on nights that Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet are performing on either side of the Wortham, when the Houston Symphony is packing Jones Hall, when the Alley has shows on its two stages and when, just maybe, there’s some big-bucks touring musical at the Hobby Center, our downtown won’t feel as much like a real community as the Arts District in Dallas does virtually any night of the week. 

So… the arts are part of tourism, as in Boston. Architecture is part of the arts, as in Chicago. And yes, as in Dallas, the arts are central to building true community – not merely something to drive to at night before scurrying back home to the suburbs. Is this teacher giving us way too much homework, or what?

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Photos: (above) Skyscrapers along the Chicago River; (below) the Art Institite’s new Modern Wing.

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