After 25 Years, The Deep Ellum Arts Festival Remains A Horrible Annual Tradition, Not To Mention A Bad Appropriation Of The Neighborhood’s Cultural Cachet.
[Editor’s Note: Significant portions of the below article have been directly lifted from a piece we initially published on April 7, 2017 and then again on April 5, 2018. Since so many of the reasons why the Deep Ellum Arts Festival is garbage remain unchanged year in and year out, we don’t really see the point in re-wording all of our thoughts just for the sake of doing so. That said, this piece is by no means an all-out verbatim copy of those earlier stories, entitled “Reminder: The Deep Ellum Arts Festival Is Garbage” and “It’s 2018 And The Deep Ellum Arts Fest Still Fucking Blows.” Many of the details included in this piece have been updated to accurately reflect this year’s offering. And, because we loath it so, we also tossed a few new bangers about the festival into the mix. We hope you enjoy it — the article, we mean; not the lame-ass cash-grab that’s masquerading as some sort of champion of our city’s culture.]
Starting this Friday afternoon and running on through Sunday night, thousands of people will descend upon Deep Ellum to enjoy the best art, music and culture that Dallas’ hippest neighborhood has to offer.
Except, LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL, they really fucking won’t.
Because these people won’t be consuming the best of Deep Ellum at all. No, they’ll be experiencing the 25th annual Deep Ellum Arts Festival.
For these next three days, this event — which has mind-blowingly existed for a full quarter-century now! — will once again take over six blocks in the middle of the city to host row upon row of merchant vending booths, fair-like food offerings and visual artists exhibiting their wares. It will also feature multiple stages upon which various musicians will perform sets almost incessantly all weekend long.
On paper, yeah, it sounds like the kind of thing you might be interested in attending! But, in case you’d somehow forgotten, we’re here to remind you that doing so would be a waste of your time.
Yup, the Deep Ellum Arts Festival is the worst.
The art it showcases is almost uniformly bland, the food it serves is completely overpriced and the musicians it highlights are, while an improvement upon the offerings of years past, not exactly representative of this city’s, or this neighborhood’s, absolute best.
Perhaps worst of all, its reputation as some sort of showcase for local upstart artists and creators is an outright lie.
The Deep Ellum Arts Festival mostly exists as a celebration of Deep Ellum in name and location alone. Since its inception in 1994, it has been owned and operated by the California-based Main Events International Productions, which bears no current ties to Deep Ellum beyond its annual hosting of this event and its hiring of a few local on-site operators, far as we can tell.
Credit where it’s due: The folks behind MEI Productions are some crafty motherfuckers! They’ve somehow managed to convince people that their event is more than just some carpetbagging cash-grab that clogs up traffic (as if Deep Ellum traffic wasn’t already shit on the weekends these days), while perpetuating the notion that Deep Ellum is OK with business concepts and artistic ideas that haven’t progressed since the ’90s.
Let’s be clear about this: Only a fraction of the artists who are exhibiting at this year’s event — and paying $500 for the privilege! — could be argued as local at all, let alone “of Deep Ellum.” Hell, only 73 out of this year’s 196 exhibiting artists are listed as being from Texas at all, while a mere 51 of them claim a hometown that could be loosely construed as being in North Texas. Folks, that’s a paltry 26 percent — up from last year’s weak-ass 19.5 percent, but not by much.
Instead, the majority of the artists appearing at the Deep Ellum Arts Festival are, much like MEI Productions itself, from such who-cares distant home bases as California, Utah and Wisconsin. They exist as part of a dated traveling festival economic concept that shouldn’t be able to still exist without repercussion in this age of the internet; these people travel from city to city to events such as this one, selling their crappy dentist office-quality landscapes or tacky handmade leather satchels to unsuspecting locals like the snake oil salesmen of yesteryear, capitalizing on the masses who are not yet hip to their con before packing up and moving on to the next city so they can pull they same scam on some other poor saps.
Slapping a local neighborhood name on something and deeming it local is a ruse that one might perhaps expect to continue working in some smaller city where its residents are none the wiser, perhaps. But the existence of this very website is proof that Dallas — a major metropolitan area by any definition! — boasts a thriving cultural climate and shouldn’t be so naive as to fall prey to such a blatant bait-and-switch.
Because, make no mistake, the Deep Ellum Arts Festival is definitely that. It beckons crowds to Deep Ellum by asking people to come enjoy the local culture, then goes and cock blocks the actual culture by shoving a bunch of low-rent carnival bullshit down their throats instead.
This is particularly egregious on the food side of the equation, which has only gotten worse in recent memory. In the past, the fest would shove local food vendors into a corner of its four-block footprint and promote their items as being part of “Deep Ellum Texas Village.” But this year and last, the fest hasn’t even bothered with that much. Instead, it’s just slapping a whole bunch of fried dough and frozen lemonade stands along the street — and asking you to fork over some cash to the ticket vendors first if you want in on any of that action. Y’know, because heaven forbid this affair operate on a traditional cash economy basis where foods aren’t priced at weird ticket values specifically designed so you will leave the space with extras, the money you dropped on them now lining MEI Productions’ pockets instead of yours.
On the other hand, consider the damage that the festival does to the actual businesses that prop Deep Ellum up on an everyday basis. Sure, a few of the suburbanites who file into the neighborhood this weekend might end up checking out one of these restaurants once their clogged arteries begin begging for something — anything — to eat that is neither fried nor sugar-based. But, odds are, the regular customers who would otherwise fill these spots’ tables on any other weekend are going to be discouraged by the closed roads and scant parking options, and just pass on dining in the area over these next few days.
We’re not the only ones pointing this out, either. Last year, we saw a number of Deep Ellum businesses — among them AllGood Cafe, Braindead Brewing, Deep Ellum Art Co. and Niwa Japanese BBQ — expressing on social media similar concerns about their bottom lines being hurt because the crowds of this weekend-long offering are scaring their usual clientele away.
They’re just part of a growing contingent that’s finally seeing the light. Earlier this week, yet another Dallas traffic sign hacker took over a Deep Ellum traffic sign meant to warn people about this weekend’s street closures and appropriated it into reading “Deep Ellum Art [sic] Fest Not Good For Deep Ell [sic].” That whoever was behind this prank ran out of space for their message to be read in its entirety before running out of characters doesn’t really matter; their point remains.
It’s not hard to understand why these people feel this way: Traffic and parking are a problem that Deep Ellum already faces on the weekends, with most available spots gone by 8 p.m and with cars proceeding along Elm, Main and Commerce streets at a snail’s place between the peak hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.. Now, imagine how things will look with six blocks of Main (and all of its cross streets from Exposition to Malcolm X) shut down all day and night long this weekend so that this shitty appropriation of the neighborhood’s name and actual culture can operate. (Spoiler: It’s not going to be awesome.)
We’ll give the Deep Ellum Arts Festival this much: This year’s music lineup is, for the second year in a row, a major step up from its previous year’s offering. We genuinely enjoy a number of this year’s acts, actually!
But here’s something to keep in mind about the 100-plus performers playing the festival: None of these musicians are being paid for their efforts. Instead, the performance agreement they all sign only promises “on-site exposure as well as the opportunity to sell Contractor’s CD’s [sic] without a venue commission in exchange for Contractor’s promotional performance.” Wow, that’s so kind of the festival to not take a commission out of the band’s merch sales when it’s not paying them anything else!
What a joke.
Listen: There’s a reason why the vast majority of performers at this annual event are hacks who are so hard-pressed to score a gig in the neighborhood on any other weekend of the year that they jump at the chance to shove their Stevie Ray Yawn-like noodling into your ear holes at this three-days-too-long affair without being paid.
It is indeed a cruel but fitting coincidence that the Deep Ellum Arts Festival’s acronym is DEAF.
Perhaps the craziest thing about this whole deal, though, is that there are people who legitimately enjoy this shit and eagerly anticipate its return each April. They’re a sad and somewhat tough-to-understand lot, but the fact that they exist isn’t exactly a surprise. After all, people love supporting sucky things, especially when they’ve sucked for so long that their suckiness can be misconstrued as charm or defended as tradition.
Of course, none of this is to say that you should outright avoid Deep Ellum this weekend. Quite the opposite, actually. There are a ton of great events happening in the neighborhood over these next few days featuring — a number of which you can find listed right here. Those are the kinds of events that are worthy of your love and support — on any weekend, but especially on this weekend, as it can help the neighborhood’s actual businesses continue to thrive and, just maybe, teach the property owners who OK this yearly atrocity that the Deep Ellum Arts Festival is just no longer worth the headaches that it brings.
With all the chatter going on these days about Deep Ellum losing its identity to increased development, it’s more vital now than ever to not let your support fall on DEAF’s ears, but rather upon the ears of those who make this part of town so great day in and day out.
Fact is, Dallas can both literally and figuratively afford far better than the Deep Ellum Arts Festival at this point. It’s time everyone stopped supporting such garbage.
(The pet parade can stay, though.)