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District Champ

As the new head of the Dallas Arts District, Catherine Cuellar has plenty to cheer about.

New Dallas Arts District Executive Director Catherine Cuellar

For Catherine Cuellar, the Dallas Arts District’s ( new executive director, the world of fine arts is a lifelong passion. Her earliest art memories date back to her childhood, when she’d tag along to the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts at Fair Park with her mother, a docent there. She remembers being frightened by the large Rothko canvases—“I told my mom that gallery had monsters in it!” A pint-sized DMFA fixture, she got to know many of the museum employees. “My mom is still a docent at the museum,” she says, “and when I got the Dallas Arts District position in April, a lot of those same guards came up to her and said ‘Our girl got her job!’” And what a job it is. As executive director of the country’s largest arts district, she’s all about envisioning, developing, promoting, securing funding, facilitating collaborations, dealing with government officials and being the public face for the District. “I’m doing great,” she reports. “It’s a colossal challenge, but it’s definitely a worthy endeavor.”

Cuellar is a third-generation Dallasite, born here 39 years ago. A scion of the family that founded the El Chico restaurant dynasty, she has many fond memories: “The Cuellar family was so large that we had Thanksgivings at an El Chico dining room; I remember running around in the kitchen there with my cousins. But I steered away from kitchens because I didn’t want to get drafted into the family business. My grandparents really lived the American dream, and good citizenship was important to them, and civic responsibility was essential to that.” Her family’s still in the biz with El Corazon De Tejas, the oldest family-owned Tex-Mex restaurant in the city. “I eat there like three times a week,” Cuellar laughs. “It’s not good for my heart, but it’s good for my heart, if you know what I mean.”

Cuellar’s previous careers in journalism, communications, arts advocacy and public relations all play a role in her work with the district. She sees her creative writing degree from Rhodes College as integral. “I learned how to think and adapt,” she says, “and that’s served me well… whether I was writing about bands for The Dallas Morning News, or covering school board and county commissioners for KERA, or helping people to conserve and be safe around electricity with Oncor.” Cuellar’s also known in alt-art circles as co-founder of La Reunion TX, an artist residency program. Stay tuned—Cuellar cites upcoming collaborations between the Dallas Opera and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the TITAS presentation of Shen Wei Dance Arts, in collaboration with the Crow Collection, and a Dallas Opera simulcast of Carmen in Klyde Warren Park as a few upcoming highlights. “The Arts District may never be ‘done,’” she says, “but we’re getting there. And by the 2014-2015 season, we are going to be on fire.”