The Annual, Culturally Laughable, Out-Of-State-Operated Event Continues To Get City Support Despite Legitimate Complaints From Local Businesses. What Gives?
Starting this 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, LMAO, they really fucking won’t be.
Because these people won’t be consuming the best of Deep Ellum at all. No, they’ll be experiencing the annual Deep Ellum Arts Festival — which, after COVID-related delays in 2020 and then again earlier this year, is finally and frustratingly back on.
For these next three days, this event — which has mind-blowingly existed for more than quarter-century at this point! — will once again take over multiple 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, right? Well, lest you’d somehow forgotten, we’re here to remind you: It’s really not!
The Deep Ellum Arts Festival is, in reality, a scourge on the neighborhood it purports to represent.
The art it showcases is almost uniformly bland, the food it serves is completely overpriced and the (unpaid!) musicians it highlights are, while better in some ways this year, 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.
Credit where it’s due: The folks behind MEI Productions are some crafty motherfuckers! They’ve somehow managed to convince people that their event — which owner Stephen Millard says takes 12 to 18 months to plan — is more than just some carpetbagging cash-grab that clogs up traffic 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 $550 (up from $500 in years past) for the privilege! — could be argued as local at all, let alone “of Deep Ellum.” Hell, only 80 out of this year’s 148 exhibiting artists are listed as being from Texas at all, while a mere 40 or so of them claim a hometown that could be loosely construed as being in North Texas. Folks, that’s a paltry 27 percent — up from last year’s weak-ass 26 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 Illinois. 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 expect to continue working in some smaller city where its residents are none the wiser, perhaps. But the existence of this very publication you’re reading right now is proof that Dallas — a major metropolitan area by any definition! — boasts a thriving cultural climate and shouldn’t be so naïve 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 one corner of its footprint and promote their items as being part of “Deep Ellum Texas Village.” But the last few years now, 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!
Meanwhile, Millard argues that his deal “does not compete with sales of the established full-service restaurants in Deep Ellum,” and that he has long invited as many Deep Ellum restaurants as want to join his event with a booth — in exchange for a $600 deposit to be held against an eventual 30 percent of their gross festival sales. Y’know, as if they’re not already paying rent on these blocks!
Consider, please, the very real competition and damage that Millard’s festival does to these actual rent-paying businesses that prop Deep Ellum up on an everyday basis. Might a select 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? Sure! But the regular customers who would otherwise fill these spots’ tables on any other weekend are generally discouraged by the closed roads and scant parking options that arise during — and this is important — not just the festival’s run but also during its booth and stage set-up and tear-down phases that take place on multiple days before and after the three-day event itself.
Making traffic matters worse this year is the fact that there’s been street construction taking place in Deep Ellum this week while the festival has been setting up. Hmm. It’s a little curious why neither the festival nor the construction workers were aware of the other before descending on the neighborhood, isn’t it? Well, there’s a reason for that!
This year, after years of complaining about the festival’s annual neighborhood takeover, a group of neighborhood residents and business owners began the process of trying to kick the festival out, or to at least force it to make some changes. Led by Deep Ellum 100’s Gianna Madrini, this group — including the owners of AllGood Cafe, Niwa Japanese BBQ, Local, Amor Y Queso and more — sent letters to city council members, held meetings with the City of Dallas’ Office of Special Events and protested to various longer-standing neighborhood associations about the carte blanche the Deep Ellum Arts Festival is given. (Full disclosure: Central Track is the media partner of Deep Ellum 100 and our offices are based in the neighborhood. We attended a few of these meetings both as reporters and as concerned neighbors.)
Among the complaints? That the fest is even taking place in the first place during a pandemic, that it takes over high-traffic areas in the neighborhood and blocks businesses with its booths when other stretches of land would better suffice and that, as crime continues to be a concern in the area, it has upped the number of bars it has where people can purchase alcohol to consume freely in the streets.
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Most city officials and neighborhood associations hemmed and hawed over this group’s concerns, stating that their efforts should be focused on making changes to the 2022 festival, since the 2021 version was already too far into its process to be altered or changed.
Thing is, that was never the case. Managers at Terry Black’s Barbecue, concerned over the festival taking over the street on which it resides, were repeatedly dismissed each time they asked MEI Productions to produce a permit showing that this year’s event was allowed to take place. They finally received an answer on Thursday when the city produced documentation showing that the permit was only approved on Wednesday — a mere two days before the event’s start! That’s it!
Put another way: People in the neighborhood, who have been consistently vocal this year about their issues and filed their complaints through all the proper channels, aren’t just having their complaints ignored; they’re being outright lied to about possible change. All in the name of… what, exactly? Supporting a supposedly too-big-to-fail venture from which no one locally really benefits?
Is it simply because there are some rubes who legitimately enjoy this all of this festival’s subpar offerings and eagerly anticipate its return each year, believing it to be a true representation of the neighborhood? People love supporting sucky things! So who cares? What about the concerns of the people that make this neighborhood what it is the other 51 weekends of the year? Shouldn’t those people be of greater interest to the powers that be than these interlopers from out of town and out of state?
Of course they should! How is that even a question?!
To that end, a plea: Don’t outright avoid Deep Ellum this weekend. Do 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. Spend your money with the neighborhood’s actual businesses, and help them continue to thrive in spite of the Deep Ellum Arts Festival.
Just don’t be tempted to throw any of your hard-earned cash the festival’s way itself. Since the property owners and city officials who OK this yearly atrocity can’t be bothered to stand in its way, then the only way to support the neighborhood itself is to stop feeding the Deep Ellum Arts Festival’s coffers. Because, so long as the festival keeps making enough money to justify its annual return, you can rest assured that it very much will.
With all the chatter going on these days about Deep Ellum losing its identity to increased development — founded or unfounded as those fears may be — it’s more vital now than ever to not let your support for Deep Ellum 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.
Simple fact is, Dallas can both literally and figuratively afford far better than the Deep Ellum Arts Festival at this point.
Deep Ellum is changing. We all know that. Most of us have accepted it.
What we shouldn’t accept is the Deep Ellum Arts Festival. This garbage and appropriative event finally losing its unabetted annual stranglehold on the neighborhood is one change that everyone around here should collectively embrace.
[Editor’s Note: While there are some shocking new revelations included in this piece, significant portions of this story have been directly lifted from an article we initially published in 2017, then again in 2018, and once more in 2019. We don’t really see the point in re-wording all of our complaints just for the sake of doing so. If the Deep Ellum Arts Festival and its supporters refuse to change with the times, why should we?]