By Anyika McMillan-Herod
It’s been over two decades since a Black woman spearheaded the City of Dallas Office of Arts and Culture. The dynamic Margie Johnson-Reese served in this role from 1995 – 2001. Her leadership was to many, a game-changer. Since her departure, the City’s arts department that currently manages nineteen city-owned cultural facilities and promotes a robust artistic eco-system for area artists, organizations, and citizens, has seen five others take the helm. After a nation-wide search for new leadership, Dallas City Manager, T.C. Broadnax, announced this past November the appointment of New York native, trained dancer, former teacher, and highly successful arts administrator, Martine Elyse Philippe, as the Director of the Office of Arts and Culture.
Many are rooting for Martine (an Afro-Latina and daughter of immigrant parents from Haiti and Cuba) to lead our city at a critical time of growth, opportunity, transition, and demographic change to a majority brown citizenry. March 5th marked Phillipe’s 90-day milestone in her new role, and she’s already spelled out several priorities in regard to what she’d like to accomplish in her first year. This includes revamping the internal culture and climate of the Office of Arts and Culture, expanding resources for the ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) organizations the department works with across the City, and getting a project across the finish line this spring that is near and dear to her as an African-American studies major – the opening of the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House Museum, in South Dallas.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Philippe on a rainy Thursday morning at the historic Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas, home to the Office of Arts and Culture, and found her to be an enthusiastic champion for artists, arts education, quality arts programming, and the marginalized. “As a Black woman, I’m really grateful to be here, to bring my strengths and understanding, especially in a city that has a racial equity plan as a priority,” she shared. “That means a lot to me.” Her presence means a lot to others as well.
Enjoy some excerpts from our amazing interview.
MCMILLAN-HEROD: Let’s talk a bit about your family life, your background. How has it informed you as a human being and your career path?
PHILIPPE: My father is from Haiti, and we grew up in New York with many family friends close by (all of them also Haitian immigrants). My father and his friends moved to New York and started their private practice together and what they all had in common is that they were art collectors and they loved to party. So, growing up as a young person in these beautiful homes with beautiful art collections and every week we’re together fellowshipping (live music or not) hearing the language, folks dancing, getting to engage with artists was extremely telling for me. It’s just a common thread in my life.
It gave me a respect for the arts, a passion for the arts and for the people who are creating. I’ve always wanted to stay close to creators. It’s always about the people is what I’ve learned. Connecting, networking, building bridges, sharing resources, that’s what I saw growing up with my family and it’s what I’d like to continue to do with my daughter and as a professional – to focus on the people.
MCMILLAN-HEROD: How would you say your personal experience as an artist has informed your role as an arts administrator?
PHILIPPE: I trained in dance in New York at the Venettes Cultural Workshop. We were charged with aligning our artistic excellence with academic excellence and that taught me from such a young age that the way you present yourself matters. The way you perform matters. The way you practice and rehearse for your performance matters in and out of the dance studio. I’m the same when it comes to my professional career in arts administration. The way you prepare matters. The careful attention you pay to how you carry yourself matters. That careful attention to presentation and preparation, always having this standard of excellence really contributed to my success along the way in my career in arts administration.
Dance training taught me to set really firm boundaries for many reasons and to hold high expectations of myself. It also taught me how to handle ‘no’s’ because as you know if you’re in the audition life as an artist, whether you’re a performing artist in dance or theater or music, you get very used to things not necessarily working out the way you would like. Navigating your response to that and honing in on what it takes to continue to make yourself better prepared for the next opportunity that you’ll have is definitely key. I gleaned a lot of that from dance training as well.
Lastly, I would like to say for dancers we are trained to do difficult things in a graceful manner and that matters a lot in my career, especially in this role.
MCMILLAN-HEROD: What would you say your leadership strengths are?
PHILIPPE: I’m highly collaborative. Collaboration matters to me. Making sure that folks have a voice. Their voice matters, their perspectives, and opinions and thoughts and ideas – all of that – takes a lot of collaboration to be successful in the arts, especially in the cultural arts sector. Effective time management is also a strength of mine. I consider empathy one of my strengths. Treating folks as humans first: really trying to gain an understanding of who folks are, what drives them, what might be bothering them, what they need. I’m highly empathetic and I think that especially as a team leader, this has made me really successful.
MCMILLAN-HEROD: Dallas is now a majority brown city. What are your thoughts there, being an Afro-Latina coming to a city that has really changed dramatically demographically. How can you insert yourself in this particular moment through your new role?
PHILIPPE: What resonates the most with me, is a true understanding of marginalized community members and how intersectionality impacts everyone in this cultural sector. I can be a champion for folks with lived experience. I think that matters a lot. We here at the City are charged with tenets of our racial equity plan and the city’s cultural policy and cultural arts plan. There’s a desire to really move the needle along in what it’s going to take to ensure that folks who’ve been historically marginalized are getting the resources they need. I think in the past there’s been this careful pace to that end, to continue to grow the percentage of organizations and artists that we support to that end. I do really want to make some leaps and bounds as it relates to the provision of resources, like for our ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) organizations.
MCMILLAN-HEROD: What would you say professionally has been your biggest achievements and biggest disappointments as an artist and arts administrator?
PHILIPPE: Achievement wise I served as a dance educator for several years in the Atlanta public school system and outside the public school system, in a private studio. I always note that one of my biggest achievements was a piece – a twelve-minute piece – in commemoration of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. I happened to set it on some very young dancers, elementary school dancers and we were able to perform that piece in front of some of the family members who traveled to Atlanta to enjoy and be honored for that time. As a Black educator it was always important for me to find ways to use the arts and integrate them with other subject areas and on and on. It was just a beautiful piece.
As far as arts administration is concerned, aside from being appointed for this role because this role for me in career planning I’ve always wanted to have this role! I’m also really proud that I was part of the founding of Atlanta City Council’s first Arts Task Force in District 12. I worked with Councilmember Antonio Lewis to pass the legislation to get that arts task force formed. I’m proud because that particular group of folks was a diverse group of stakeholders who were working together to ensure that one of the most marginalized sectors of Atlanta gets beautiful artwork installed, opportunities, funding for artists not only to beautify the neighborhood but to use the arts to build bridges, to heal traumas. District 12 is a food desert with instances of violence and on and on. We were really using the arts as a bridge to connect the dots and to solve some of those issues across that district.
As far as disappointments are concerned, no matter where you go especially when it comes to government, folks find that the arts aren’t always prioritized and that’s always disappointing because, arts saves lives, and again builds bridges, helps us learn about each other, helps us connect with one another, (kind of like sports). We see sports elevated all the time and it’s always just this underlining disappointment. We want to be elevated like any other priority for city government, for state government, for federal government, and hopefully we’ll get there.
MCMILLAN-HEROD: Let’s talk about Dallas. You’ve been all over the country in your career and now you’re in the Big D. What are your thoughts on Dallas – it’s culture, it’s people – what have you gleaned so far?
PHILIPPE: So far, I’m impressed. I am new to Dallas and one thing I’m doing to help learn the lay of the land is meeting one on one with our arts and culture commissioners in their districts. It’s helping me learn and tour and see the city. So far, the things that pop out, I really enjoyed the tour of West Dallas. I went to the 10th District, visited artists there. You hear a lot about the arts district downtown but its so good to get to other neighborhoods and see what’s happening there as far as the arts sector is concerned. Recently, I had a tour of Dallas Black Dance Theater that I thoroughly enjoyed and a cohort from Atlanta Public Schools came to visit Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and I crashed that trip. What a beautiful school! We had a robust conversation around equity, even in the auditioning process for students because that matters a lot to me.
I recently went to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra where they presented a Tchaikovsky and Drake mashup. It was phenomenal. As a former ballet dancer that used to have do warmups to Tchaikovsky, and now to hear the composer (Steve Hackman), just the beautiful way he incorporated Drake’s music was beautiful. The audience was so diverse. It was great on many fronts. There are just so many different ways to engage with the arts here in Dallas. So many different things you can do. I’m interested in reducing barriers so that folks can do what I do – get out and have a good time in the arts.
MCMILLAN-HEROD: Let’s fast forward to 10 years down the line. What is your hope for our city’s artistic landscape in that time frame?
PHILIPPE: Overall, I just want the arts experiences to be accessible through and through for all. It’s my life’s work to continue to reduce barriers that prevent folks from having access, even if it has to do with information around how to receive grant funding from our office, how to know what’s happening around town, how to get to a particular side of town for an arts experience. I want to see reduced barriers in meaningful ways. I want to see careful attention paid to diverse audiences and how we’re engaging folks. I want to see the same for how we engage the community in our public art practices. Ensuring that folks have a say in what’s happening, what’s being installed around town, so people can ensure they feel represented when they engage with the City’s art collection.
Ten years is a long time. So much can happen in a decade but again, I want to see that needle move regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion and I really want to have that be part of my legacy in this world.
MCMILLAN-HEROD: Who are some artists that excite you right now?
PHILIPPE: Honestly, I’m all about young folks. Young artists and arts programs that expose the youth to quality experiences in the arts. Sparking an artistic flame for young people is significant. It teaches them career pathways, gives them an outlet for how to manage themselves and their emotions, and of course there’s that physical element (if you’re in the performing arts) of finding something healthy to do. It also builds global citizens who have a very different way of thinking and seeing things. That’s important. Young artists (and folks who are in support of young artists) are my thing.