There is not a doubt in my mind that the $354 million cost of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts is money well spent. So why is its opening coincidental with such angst in the arts community?

While the new bright lights gleam upward from the Arts District, I sense black clouds almost everywhere else where art is shown and talked about. Four galleries have closed so far this year. The city has cut funding to the arts 20 percent, considered merging its cultural office with the library system, and reduced the number of people assigned to it. Did the new center soak all the oxygen out of the air? Do big-name architects and brilliant new buildings mean the old Dallas mindset—glitz over substance—is back to haunt us? Will the current re-entrenchment damage the prospect of a thriving, working artistic community in Dallas? These questions come up whenever I meet with people who care about art in the city.

A relationship between hard times in the arts community and the opening of the performing arts center is hard to find. Four galleries may have closed in Dallas, but so far 20 galleries have closed in New York and 13 in Santa Fe. Recessions have cut into art sales before, and each time art comes back with bigger sales and more commissions than ever.

It is important, however, to understand that cuts in public funding will never come back. If anything, they will deepen.

Public support of the arts, it may surprise some to learn, is not a necessary thing. It may not even be a good thing. The argument in favor usually begins with the Renaissance. We are endlessly told how the Medicis and the popes patronized art. Most of these stories are heavily glazed with a history-revising romantic tinge. Cosimo de’ Medici hired Brunelleschi not out of any love for his art but because his parish church needed a dome. Brunelleschi was the only one who could figure out how to build it. Pope Julius II hired Michelangelo because he needed a ceiling painted. Michelangelo was selected because he was already on the payroll on a construction job. Dispel the romantic haze, and we might remember that Leonardo da Vinci was famous in his own time not as an artist but as a military engineer.

Patronage is a precarious thing. A tyrant can turn testy. A democracy can be fickle. Instead, the real lesson of the Renaissance may be that the best art is made when it is the most useful.

This is a hard lesson to accept. From the Impressionists and the dawn of the Modernist era until today, the idea of the artist as the lonely visionary, interpreting the world as he sees it, has taken hold of the contemporary imagination. It is not for the artist to appeal to us but for us to make whatever discoveries we can from his art. It is the viewers’ work to make meaning, not the artists’.  The artist pursues what he sees. Whether we see anything of value is up to us.

In an odd way, this freedom places a heavy burden on the artist. With the universe as his subject, with neither convention nor a particular space nor a commission to limit him, the artist is left with nothing but the marketplace to judge him. The high aim of art becomes dependent on the drudgery of commerce. Because for an artist to make art, the artist first has to eat.

Architects, the artists’ first cousins, learned better from their Renaissance forebears. They avoided the problems of freedom by never indulging it. Their work must be useful from the start. Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, and da Vinci would have felt right at home in a conversation with Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas.

It is a conversation that echoes through the centuries, with its most current turn taking place in our very own Arts District. If we listen­—and carefully store away some of our modern prejudices so that we may listen well—we may hear how art with purpose is the finest art of all.

Write to wicka@dmagazine.com.