My Dallas: Catherine Cuellar, Arts District Leader

The executive director of the Dallas Arts District shares some of her favorite places to hang out and chow down in The Big D

Nearly a year ago, Catherine Cuellar stepped in to helm the largest arts district in the nation. Prior to that prestigious appointment, Ms. Cuellar had built up her arts-world street cred by working as a community arts columnist for The Dallas Morning News, being a KERA reporter and managing editor of Pegasus News, and serving for years as an at-large member of the city’s Cultural Affairs Commission. Here, she talks about the hopping Dallas art scene and what she loves about the city.

You began your arts career as a teen docent at the Dallas Museum of Art. In the years since, how have you seen the arts community change?

The Dallas literary, visual and performing arts communities and downtown have never been more vibrant in my lifetime than they are right now. Since I was a teen, north Texas has been the lifeblood of Texas' recording industry, launching the careers of dozens of diverse nationally recognized and critically acclaimed music acts including (Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts magnet high school alumnae) Erykah Badu, Norah Jones and Edie Brickell & New Bohemians; Dixie Chicks; Kelly Clarkson; Old 97's; Polyphonic Spree; Leann Rimes; Reverend Horton Heat; Lisa Loeb; Ben Kweller; Sarah Jaffe; Larry g(EE); The Relatives; and the Toadies. Our leading literary lights include nationally renowned authors like the award-winning Ben Fountain, best-seller Kathleen Kent, and rising star Merritt Tierce. And the film industry is taking hold here, having launched spirited independent actors Owen and Luke Wilson and directors David Gordon Green and Shane Carruth. There's also a growing community of talented visual artists represented by the Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas and Dallas Art Dealers Association with new artist studio and gallery spaces in the Cedars/SouthSide, Oak Cliff, Exposition Park and the Dallas Design District.

Where do you see the Dallas arts scene heading?

Dallas has become a leading international destination for creative professionals and arts patrons because of our beautiful facilities, gifted people, affordable amenities and hospitable community. When the DART light rail station opens at DFW airport and Love Field airport is open for more nonstop flights later this year, Dallas will be even more of a magnet for cultural tourism. Whether you like or want to discover opera, classical, Broadway shows, dance or contemporary art, you can see the world's best current and future talent here, and local companies like the Dallas Theater Center and Undermain are producing world-premiere shows that are being launched from local stages to national acclaim.

What are some of your favorite places to visit in Dallas?

I love the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff, a really warm, intimate listening room where I met my husband (producer, recording engineer and musician Paul Williams) and have seen touring acts from Jake Bugg to Shuggie Otis. 

The rooftop at the NYLO Hotel SouthSide has the best view of the downtown Dallas skyline.

Where do you love to eat out?

People might not expect a landlocked city like Dallas to have great seafood, but Tei-An in One Arts Plaza is an authentic and delicious Japanese restaurant with superb sushi, and the Dallas Fish Market on Main Street has wonderfully fresh oysters. I take out-of-town visitors to Stampede 66, which is kind of like the celebrity chef theme park version of Texas cuisine, but my favorite is probably Stephan Pyles' namesake restaurant because the cuisine is so artful, and it is matched by marvelous ambience including work by Dallas artists Sherry Owens and Rusty Scruby on display. LARK on the Park also has great food and terrific ambiance like chalkboard murals by local artists changing seasonally.

What is your favorite Dallas landmark?

Both The Zodiac Room in the flagship Neiman Marcus downtown and Fair Park hold lifelong memories inspiring me to return every time I visit, but a less well-known favorite is Sons of Hermann Hall—a century-old authentic Texas ballroom with salt-of-the-earth, no-nonsense volunteer bartenders who are actually dues-paying sons (and daughters)—members supporting their lodge. You can dance to honest-to-goodness western swing music (in the tradition of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys) or just drink ice cold Shiner beer and play shuffleboard.

My Perfect Day

I love exploring Dallas via public transportation and there are so many attractions to discover along DART's new free dLink bus which runs every 15 minutes Monday-Saturday from 11 am to 11:30 pm. The new GoPass smartphone app for DART passes also makes riding light rail a breeze. 

10 am, Start in the Arts District, of Course
Winspear Opera House

Start in the Dallas Arts District. The Dallas Museum of Art, Klyde Warren Park and Crow Collection of Asian Art are always free, and the Nasher Sculpture Center is free on the first Saturday of every month, when the AT&T Performing Arts Center also offers free tours every half-hour from 10 am to noon. Stop at the AT&T Performing Arts Center information center to buy tickets to upcoming shows or just drink delicious gourmet Pearl Cup Coffee and behold stunning views of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theater Center—each designed by an architect who won architecture's highest honor, the Pritzker Prize. Stroll through Klyde Warren Park to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science—if I remember to purchase tickets in advance (it sells out)!

Noon, Lunch in Oak Cliff

Then I'll hop dLink or ride my bicycle to Oak Cliff for lunch. Depending on my mood I might get authentic Tex-Mex at El Corazon at Davis at Beckley across Zang from the Bishop Arts District; Texas barbecue at Lockhart Smoke House; Mexican seafood at La Calle Doce on 12th Street; or fresh-squeezed juice and salad at Bolsa Mercado if I want something fresh and healthy.

4 pm, Get Pampered

A "perfect" day for me would include relaxing in a spa or otherwise getting pampered. Renee Rouleau in One Arts Plaza has amazing facials; Bliss at the W Hotel has wonderful private eucalyptus steam showers; the spa at Le Meridien's Stoneleigh Hotel has oversized sunken spa tubs for soaking; YaYa Foot Spa in Bishop Arts offers intense reflexology; and Nail Bar in the West Village is good for a traditional mani/pedi.

9 pm, Concert Time

I'd end up at a concert, probably in a dive bar like Lee Harvey's in the Cedars, The Foundry in west Dallas or Adair's Saloon in Deep Ellum.