Dallas — Wow, I leave Dallas for two months and all hell breaks loose! The current debate about the AT&T Performing Arts Center bailout and the targeting of arts spaces for code violations is so in line with last month’s ART-iculate because everything about these debates relates to political clout. You can read about the issue in this post in the Dallas Morning News.
Certainly there should be no surprise that a venue in the Dallas Arts District is going to take precedence over small, mid-sized organizations and individual artists. This has always been the modus operandi of our city. The recommendation that millions of taxpayer money be used to resolve a deficit created by a major cultural institution is not a new thing. All during my early tenure with the city in the 1980s, when we were just creating a strong infrastructure for the arts and cultural communities, it was common practice to “fill in the funding gaps” for Dallas Ballet, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (now DMA) and the Shakespeare Festival (at the time, it was considered a major institution). The boards of these institutions knew that this would be done so their incentive to live up to their board responsibility, i.e. be good fiscal stewards, was minimal. It wasn’t until Jerry Allen began to limit this “end of year coming to the city funding trough” that we even knew how badly managed some of these institutions were.
So here we are in 2016 and facing another situation where a major arts institution’s board has come up short on its fiscal responsibilities and the citizens are expected to shell out big bucks to bail them out: the arts equivalent of too big to fail! I’ve heard the argument expressed on numerous Facebook posts that this is not the same money as what OCA has available to dole out to the arts community and technically that is correct. However, I know that whenever city dollars are needed to save one of the majors, money miraculously appears in the city coffers, a phenomenon that never happens when the entities needing saving are anyone other than the majors. Indeed, to me this whole situation underscores the lack of commitment Dallas has to grow, with significant funding support, the very entities that make for a healthy arts ecosystem: the artists and small and midsized arts organizations.
My hat is off to Giovanni Valderas, David Lozano, Darryl Ratcliff, Lauren Woods, Carol Zou, Chesley Williams and all the Next Gens who are saying “hell no!” to business as usual! I applaud them for realizing that the only way to make change is by standing up and saying NO, we will not be cowed into silence nor will we accept that business has to be conducted this way. The only way our city will see significant changes in the way arts & culture gets support is by the people who truly care about these aspects of our community organizing and fighting the powers that be!
This goes back to what I proposed last month about getting politically savvy about how our city works so that we begin to elect people who will represent our best interests around the horseshoe but also who will appoint people to important boards like the Citizens/Police Review Board, City Plan Commission, Civil Service Board, Community Development Commission, Environmental Health Commission, Judicial Nominating Committee, Landmark Commission & Task Force, Municipal Library Board, Park and Recreation Board, Redistricting Commission, Senior Affairs Commission, Youth Commission and Zoning Board of Adjustment (yes I listed them all with links so you can read what they do and understand why they’re important!). The workings of a city are far more complicated than most of us think but not beyond comprehension. Giovanni is proof that once you understand how the system works (his tenure on the OCA Commission gave him unique insight into what is and what is not real where arts funding is concerned) you can better strategize on how to make changes.
I want to end this month’s musing on one more point that I hope everyone is paying close attention to and that is the entire conversation around privatizing aspects of arts funding and Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds. I’ve seen posts on Facebook about how HOT funds should be used to support the arts and I understand how attractive this new pot of money looks to everyone posing this argument. Houston indeed uses a larger portion of its HOT allocation for the arts, primarily because the arts aren’t funded from the General Fund. (More about that here.)
However, it’s critical that HOT funds be only seen as supplemental to a budget that already addresses the total needs of an arts community because HOT monies are always temperamental given their tie to the economy. Houston’s arts community suffered greatly when the bottom fell out of the Houston economy in the late '80s and many of the smaller groups never rebounded from that hit. Likewise, the privatization of any part of the arts budget that should be a line item in the general budget should be avoided like the plague.
If Dallas is serious about cultural equity, facilities maintenance, individual artists and its small and midsized organizations, why is it waiting for private dollars to fund a cultural plan? Why is it leaving the future of its creative sector up to developers who we all know will err in favor of the top dollar offer every time? Why, if it says artists are so important to our cultural landscape, are they the first to get the boot when a shiny new development project needs land or a building? It’s time for the arts community to realize that no one has our best interests at heart more than we ourselves, so once again I implore you to ORGANIZE politically because mere protesting never made systemic changes to any ecosystem. Show up and show out at budget meetings that are hosted by YOUR city councilmember. Get your supporters to do the same and watch how fast some things turn around!
» The Change.org petition for an alternative proposal for use of the $15 million the city might use to bail out ATTPAC.
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
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