Dallas — As many of us are looking towards 2017 with a certain sense of dread after the last election, some of us are as concerned about our local situation as we are about the national one. My column last month spoke to the importance of neighborhood cultural centers and how they help define communities. I laid out the history of the concept behind these centers, illustrating how central many were/are to the creative development of many youth in this country.
My reason for writing that column centered on the recent conversation many artists of color were having about the need for ethnic specific cultural programming in communities of color. Little did I know when I was penning my column that I would need to turn around the next month and discuss our Office of Cultural Affairs cultural centers’ need for adequate funding for their critical youth education programs. But it seems that’s the hot button for this coming year because just before the holidays, the center managers were informed that there would be no funding coming from Big Thought for their summer programs. To receive news of this nature six months prior to their programs’ start is devastating because it leaves precious little time to raise money from outside sources.
What really burned me up was the nonchalant way this was done and the seeming lack of concern OCA leadership displayed once this news was delivered It wasn’t until I wrote a Facebook post decrying this action and Dallasartsequity.com issued a press release making the situation known, that some remedies were sought (and announced on the OCA Facebook page). But make no mistake about it; the problem is not solved, not by a long shot.
I want to make one thing abundantly clear and that is that I do not view Big Thought as the problem. Big Thought is an organization with a mission to serve the arts education needs of the entire city so concentrating its funds in the OCA cultural centers defeats that mandate. From the outset, I questioned the wisdom of having important programs like the centers’ youth education program funded by outside sources. Given that the centers are city facilities and staffed by city employees, it stands to reason that the program dollars should be a part of the overall budgets of these centers. To have them be at the mercy of private donors says, in my view, that they are not essential since we all know how fickle private donors can be. This coupled with the fact that none of the centers have a development officer, a position that is critical to any organization/institution that needs to raise significant dollars, spells disaster for these programs.
In 1997, when I took over the management of South Dallas Cultural Center, I had a $98,000 program budget. Although I considered that a modest budget (I was never satisfied with less than $150,000, but then I had very ambitious program ideas!) in addition to the programs for adults, I was able to mount a substantive summer program and a modest after school program, two programs I felt the South Dallas community desperately needed. When SDCC sustained its first budget cuts after 9/11 (all city departments suffered cuts) that program budget shrunk by $20,000. The Summer Arts at the Center program was forced to reduce its offerings from eight weeks to five weeks but still offered a 5-day-a-week, 9-hours-per-day program that included a hot lunch and two snacks to the South Dallas children in attendance. When the city suffered an additional budget shortfall in 2009, once again the SDCC program budget took a hit and this time it also lost a critical staff person, the Education & Outreach Coordinator.
This is the year Big Thought stepped in to partner with SDCC to present its summer program and it subgranted $33,000. In addition, Big Thought subcontracted with SDCC to do after school programming in one of its target schools that allowed SDCC to extend its reach into Pleasant Grove. Over time, Big Thought’s funding for the many outreach efforts it initiated began to diminish, a situation that led to their necessity to realign resources in order to attain its goals. Consequently, it needed to end its funding support for the OCA cultural centers, leaving them to seek the portion of their budgets previously funded by Big Thought from other sources.
When the city finally rebounded from the budget woes of the early 2000s, OCA funding saw a modest increase, allowing the Cultural Operating Program institutions to be restored to their funding levels prior to the second budget cuts. The cultural centers, however, are still operating with less money than the pre-2002 budget cuts, at least I know this is the case with SDCC, even though it got its staff position restored. I had to secure outside funds to be able to present a summer program that maintained the quality I established in 1998 when there was adequate funding. I did this because I felt strongly about not shortchanging the children of South Dallas who cannot afford to attend high priced summer programs outside their community, but deserve the best nonetheless! The current manager, who feels no less of an obligation, is being asked to undertake this same task, without benefit of staff equipped to raise the $66,000 needed to mount a solid summer program.
So what do I think is the answer to this problem? Well, I just saw our city “find” $15 million to bail out AT&T Performing Arts Center from a debt its board incurred at a time when the cultural centers are being told there is no extra money for summer programs and other youth programs. So I am demanding that $280,000 be “found” to secure the youth programs at OCA’s cultural centers. I am demanding that this money be a part of each center’s annual budget so that the already overextended managers do not have to spend their time fundraising and their Friends groups can concentrate on raising funds for ancillary needs, not their core programs. In essence, I’m demanding that OCA and the City of Dallas signal to the children of Dallas that allocating these funds says they are important and deserve the best cultural education our tax dollars can buy!
» 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.
- Vicki Meek ART-iculates (April 2016)
- On Dallas and Cultural Equity (May 2016)
- Equity vs. Diversity (June 2016)
- An Arts Super PAC? (July 2016)
- Too Big to Fail? (August 2016)
- It Isn't Us Against Them (September 2016)
- Another Missed Opportunity (October 2016)
- Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea (November 2016)