If art is the soul of a community, Oak Cliff’s fledgling La Reunion artist residency project is poised to become a leading source of inspiration and sustenance for that soul.

KERA reporter Catherine Cuellar, president of La Reunion, kicked off the artist residency project in January 2006 alongside executive director and art photographer, Sarah Jane Semrad. Ten months later, both are hard at work, realizing their dream of creating a permanent place in Dallas for artists from around the world to live and work, interact with the local community, and stimulate follow-on artistic and creative endeavors.

Something Old, Something New

Semrad and Cuellar, both Cliff dwellers, plan for La Reunion to become part of the nationwide Alliance of Artists Communities network, offering a unique focus on the conversation between traditional media (paintings and sculpture, for example) and new media (things like digital video and music that people can access via cell phones, PDAs or other electronic devices). Artpace San Antonio is Texas’ only existing Alliance program thus far. And, while La Reunion will share Artpace’s commitment to hosting artists and fulfilling community obligations, the Oak Cliff facility program is being designed from the ground up to be more accessible to a wider variety of participants, inviting applications from local, national and international artists rather than hand-picking potential residents.

Thus far, the two have been wildly successful, already securing the donation of 35 acres of land along West Jefferson, next to Chalk Hill Trail and across the street from the Dallas National Golf Club. “I approached Sarah Jane with the idea of creating an artist residency program, and she was immediately on board,” Cuellar states. “By May she had already secured the land, and by July we had our first volunteer party to clear the property.”

They’ve filed La Reunion’s 501 (c) (3) paperwork seeking non-profit status with the IRS, and are actively recruiting business and community leaders to serve on the program’s Board of Directors and Advisory Board. They were also able to raise the funds needed to cover the fee for filing for nonprofit status with the IRS.

Welcome Addition

La Reunion has also been busy forging alliances within the local art community, garnering the support of organizations like Oak Cliff’s Ice House Cultural Center, Arte Oak Cliff, and Art Conspiracy, the annual benefit concert-and-art-exhibition event at the Texas Theatre that’s rapidly become a fixture on the Oak Cliff holiday scene.

Things don’t appear to be slowing down for La Reunion anytime soon. Cuellar and Semrad have recruited a building committee of advisors and directors who are brainstorming ideas for both the project’s facilities and ways to fund the costs of its design and construction, which are expected to run about $500,000. The two hope to build residences and facilities comprising at least two studios – one for new media and one for traditional media.

Fundraising efforts for the artist residency program are pressing forward as well, with this year’s Art Conspiracy at the Longhorn Ballroom benefiting La Reunion. “It’s crazy,” Cuellar says. “I’m not sure things could go any faster if we wanted them to.”

Favorite color:
Green. La Reunion needs $500,000 to construct two artist residences and a central “living room” exhibition space. The facility is also being designed from the ground up as a “green” space, making the most – and taking the best care – of its wooded location.

Favorite history lesson:
“We named the project La Reunion after the French utopians who established a colony in the 1850s along the banks of the Trinity River, just west of what is now downtown Dallas,” explains Cuellar. “It’s the perfect name for celebrating the arts in Dallas and Oak Cliff.”

Favorite place in the Cliff:
The non-profit’s newly secured, 35-acre tract along West Jefferson, by Chalk Hill Trail.

Deepest secret:
The family who donated the land. “They’ve asked to remain anonymous, and we’re strictly observing that request,” Cuellar says. “Suffice it to say, they’re extremely generous. We can’t thank them enough.”

Next big thing:
Art Conspiracy, at the Longhorn Ballroom, Dec. 1, 7 p.m. Proceeds of the event, which will feature five local bands and the work of more than 100 artists, will benefit La Reunion.