Exit Interview: Longtime Dallas Arts Reporter Jerome Weeks Retires

Before retiring from KERA as senior arts-producer reporter, Jerome Weeks sat down with local All Things Considered host Justin Martin for a final conversation about the decades Weeks spent covering North Texas culture and culture-makers — from set designers to leather workers, novelists to choreographers.

Justin Martin: Jerome, you had 20 years at The Dallas Morning News covering theater and books and now 16 years here at KERA, covering all of the arts in North Texas. So the first question has to be over that time, what has changed here? Good or bad?

Jerome Weeks: OK, two things, one good, one bad, and I’ll start with the bad.

One factor that the North Texas art scene is always going to struggle with is sprawl. I was thinking about this the other day because I was driving through Deep Ellum, and it’s the opposite of sprawl. It’s a place of nightclubs and bars and restaurants all together.

It’s always been a kind of music center, but back in the ’80s and ’90s, it also had a substantial number of ambitious, young, innovative theater companies: the Undermain Theatre, which is still there, the Deep Ellum Theatre Garage [its founder, Matthew Posey, now works out of nearby Exposition Park with his Ochre House Theater], Theater Commerce, the Pegasus Theater [which has moved to Richardson].

Interabang Books was originally located in Preston Hollow, but after a destructive storm, it moved to West Lovers Lane

And that collection of theaters, nightclubs, galleries — that is very rare in North Texas. I didn’t fully appreciate that at the time. I didn’t realize I would never see that kind of cluster again — because we are so spread out. And because the rents across much of North Texas have been unaffordable for small arts groups and galleries for some time. Or the locations are in out-of-the-way places where it’d be difficult to get an audience.

We have this image of the solo genius artist, but there’s a reason that the Impressionists, the Abstract Expressionists and the Cubists, all of these artists formed groups. They shared their galleries, their agents and their breakthroughs. They became a kind of collective force, the kind of small explosion that happened in Deep Ellum.

And that’s the kind of thing that is very difficult to do here because Dallas Fort Worth is more than 9000 square miles.

In comparison, Greater London? 600 square miles.

It’s difficult to generate the kind of collective action and staffing and cross-support among any of the arts, particularly when the developers are at your back and you have to find a new place to move. That’s what’s happened in Deep Ellum, Bishop Arts, West Dallas, the Design District.

On the other hand, one of the good things that’s happened has been the return of independent bookstores. When I was the book critic at The Dallas Morning News, I was writing about their death all the time because of Amazon and the bookstore chains. Fifteen years ago, except for used bookstores, there were barely any left in the entire area.

But as the book chains have pulled back, they opened up markets. The best known of these new independents, of course, is The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff. But there’s also Whose Books and Interabang Books, Pan-African Connection, Monkey and Dog Books in Fort Worth, Deep Vellum.

Prefab warehouse used as a theater sitting in construction site with downtown skyline towers behind it

One of Dallas Theater Center artistic director Adrian Hall’s moves that paid off tremendously: In the mid-’80s, he had the DTC build a temporary warehouse theater in what was becoming the Arts District. The Arts District Theater, as it was known, stood where the Winspear Opera House is now.

And this is Katie Lemieux, who is co-owner of one of the newer ones, Talking Animals Bookstore in Grapevine: “Mostly, I wanted a place that didn’t exist for me when I was a young mom. I wanted people to come in and feel cozy. So I was like, I’m just going to do this. I will figure it out later.”

You know, looking back, do you have any favorite topics? Favorite artist shows? You know, things that you naturally gravitated to?

The great difference between print journalism on the arts and radio journalism on the arts is music. And music is tremendous. It just pops out of the radio at you, and so you’ll be hearing about war and political arguments and climate disasters, and then you suddenly hear the Reverend K.M. Williams playing slide on a cigar box guitar.

Whenever I had a chance to play with music on the air, I took it. That fun with audio is also true of theater, live theater. Adrian Hall, when he was artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center — Adrian sadly passed just last year — but when he was in charge in the ’80s, he was known for these epic productions, particularly his 1986 adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel All the King’s Men. He staged it in the Theater Center’s temporary warehouse space in the Arts District, all very raw, which I liked. And Adrian brought in Randy Newman’s music:

I’m really, honestly curious. What about the discoveries you’ve made? Like, does anything stand out for you?

The pleasures of watching artists develop.

Notably our local author, Ben Fountain. He made an impressive debut with a collection of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara. Then he became a nationwide bestseller with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was adapted into a movie. His new novel, Devil Makes Three is huge, a novel about Haiti and American involvement there. It is so much more ambitious than anything he’s done before, and all of that was wonderful to follow.

Two men in a recording studio standing, talking across different mics and computer screens

KERA senior reporter-producer Jerome Weeks and former reporter-producer Hady Mawajdeh at work recording the Gun Play podcast in 2020

Or Cedric Neal, who was a young guy from Oak Cliff who attended Booker T Washington, became a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s acting company, moved to New York and then to London. And last year he was in a hit production of Guys and Dolls, the musical.

One thing that I’m very proud of was a limited series podcast called Gun Play that Hady Mawajdeh and I developed. It was his idea to do a podcast on Cry Havoc Theater with director Mara Richards Bim.

Cry Havoc folded up shop recently, but the idea behind the theater company was finding teenage actors to create their own shows on topics of interest to them. And the one they created was a play called Babel, and it was about gun rights and gun violence. And what made this particularly powerful was the fact that these were teenagers who are investigating issues like adolescent suicide but also their own experience with active shooter drills.

There’s no way at this point to go into all the homes across America and take those guns out, you know, like we’re way too far in,” said Cara Lawson, who was a senior at Booker T Washington at the time. “But, you know. Is that the kind of power that a civilian should wield?”

Shadowy figures stand in a darkened room with swirling, watery images projected all around them

Established in 2010, Aurora was one of the new cultural groups the past two decades that brought a different flair to the North Texas cultural scene, in particular with public art.

I also have to say that when it comes to ‘discoveries,’ there were so many visual art shows that turned my head completely around — about a particular artist, sometimes about just what a museum exhibition could do. Shows like the Dallas Museum of Art’s Turner exhibition in 2008, called simply, J. M. W. Turner. It was, I believe, the largest exhibition of Turner’s paintings up until then, and it was colossal.

It changed not just my ideas of Turner’s art but what an art museum could really do. I’d seen big shows like it at the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Art Institute of Chicago. But this was the first one here. It was epic and heart-breaking, the bleakness in Turner’s last works.

The same impression of ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’ was true of the Kimbell’s Samurai exhibition in 2014, a number of its famed Impressionist shows, notably the 2015 show on Gustave Caillebotte and the recent one on Pierre Bonnard.

What about the big ticket items like, say, what kind of change with the Arts District?

Well, now we get into it.

Four people on stage in a modern auditorium for a panel discussion

For the first time, the directors of the major art museums in Fort Worth’s Culture District were on stage together for the initial State of the Arts panel discussion with KERA’s Jerome Weeks hosting. L to R: Eric Lee of the Kimbell, Marla Price of the Modern and Andrew Walker of the Amon Carter

The Dallas Arts District is just a microcosm of the growth and expansion that’s happened after the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meyerson Symphony Center. Who knew that within 25 years, we would have the Winspear Opera House, the Wyly Theatre, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Perot Museum and the Moody Performance Center?

In other parts of Dallas, you had the African-American Museumopen, theDallas Contemporary found a new home, the Dallas Arboretum expanded in major ways. The Crow Museum of Asian Art opened — and is now adding a substantial, new facility at UT-Dallas.

Of course, Dallas had other significant, political-cultural-infrastructural shifts going on the past 30 years. But nothing really compares to this tidal wave of new facilities.

And meanwhile, the exact same thing was going on in Fort Worth.

The stunning Modern Art Museum opened. The Kimbell Art Museum had a whole new pavillion added. The Amon Carter Museum underwent a major upgrade. Bass Performance Hall opened downtown. Stage West and Amphibian Productions put down stakes in the Near Southside. And coming soon will be the National Juneteenth Museum plus, the transformation of the old Ku Klux Klan Hall on the Northside into a multicultural and community center.

In the suburbs, there was the Eisemann Center, the Addison Centre Theatre (home of the Water Tower Theater), theArlington Museum of Art just moved into a new home and coming up next is the UT Dallas Athenaeum.

But then you start adding the big music venues: American Airlines Center, Dickies Arena, the Toyota Music Factory, Dos Equis Pavillion, the return of the venerable Longhorn Ballroom.

Longhorn Ballroom and Kessler Theater owner Ed Cabaniss standing in the Longhorn in November 2021 when renovation was just beginning

Longhorn Ballroom and Kessler Theater owner Ed Cabaniss standing in the Longhorn in November 2021 when renovation was just beginning

And in all that, I know I missed significant additions to the cultural scene, but this list can go on only so long.

So what has all that brought us, Jerome?

Well, they’ve brought us a lot of art, theater and music, obviously.

But because of new facilities like the Moody Performance Center, there’s also been new groups establishing themselves in the past 15-20 years — partly because they now have places to showcase their art. Bruce Wood Dance. The Aurora festival. Avant Chamber Ballet. Pegasus Contemporary Ballet. Verdigris Ensemble.

And with that, a long overdue uptick came with diversity. To the longstanding groups like Teatro Dallas, Cara Mia, Jubilee Theater, we now have the Bishop Arts Center and Soul Rep Theater.

Whatever difficulties the arts face here, and I don’t mean to minimize them — North Texas still can’t keep enough young musicians, dancers, artists, directors. They’re here after college and then they’re gone to LA or New York. And considering the major populations of Asian-Americans and Muslim Americans living here, increasing diversity in performances and public art is not just enlightened, it’s inevitable.

But whatever difficulties there are, it’s plain from that decades-long boom in cultural construction that there’s a tremendous amount of energy and wealth in North Texas. And we know there are a lot of new audience members arriving all the time, many of them wanting to know, ‘What’s good here? What’s worth discovering?’

That kind of ferment can cause serious instability for cultural groups, the constant need to win over new people because the audience you thought you had has moved on.

But that kind of ferment is characteristic of all great cultural centers in history. For better and worse, they are not static. They are not immobile.

And neither is North Texas.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

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