Arts Advocates: Funding in ‘Crisis,’ Dallas Cultural Policy at a ‘Crossroads’

At a meeting of local arts leaders yesterday, former Dallas City Council member and executive director of the Dallas Arts District Veletta Forsythe Lill didn’t balk at her evaluation of the current state of public funding of the arts in Dallas.

“The word crisis isn’t too strong a word,” Lill said during a panel at the 2010 Dallas Arts Advocacy Day held yesterday at the Winspear Opera House. “But we are also at a crossroads.”

It was a theme repeated over and over at Arts Advocacy Day, a gathering that doubled as an information session and a pep rally. The crisis extends beyond the need for cutting public funding to the arts in the 2010-2011 budget cycle, panel members agreed. The proposed cuts set a precedent for the city of Dallas’ future approach to public arts funding. The city’s priority is in funding the facilities that house arts groups and events, without complimentary funding for the programming and artists who provide the content in the public buildings, that is, the actual art.

That has left arts advocates looking to determine how to reshape public policy, a difficult task given the dearth of funds across all civic departments.

Although the City of Dallas does not provide the majority of funding to local arts organizations, about $1 in city funds matches $9 in raised funds per organization, Lill said, or more than 10 percent.  These funds come in the form of grants and assistance with paying for operating costs, like electricity and building maintenance.

The problem with Dallas’ approach to arts funding, said Margie Johnson Reese, a board member of Americans for the Arts and a former board member of numerous Dallas arts organizations, is that the city’s policy does not place an emphasis on the city as a direct patron of the arts.

“The city is not a grant maker according to its policy,” Reese said. “It is a contracting entity. The city’s number one priority is taking care of its buildings.”

This means that when there is a shortfall, cuts come from funds for cultural programming, such as the neighborhood touring program, which, Lill pointed out, is one of the few city programs that actual places grant money in the hands of practicing artists.

Shaping political priorities are also a challenge on the state level, said Michael Burke, Executive Director of Texans for the Arts. Burke said legislators will be forced to address a revenue shortfall and redistricting in the upcoming legislative session, forcing the arts to become a marginal issue.

“Our hope is just that we can keep funding where it is today,” Burke said.

Burke’s comments are indicative of the general feeling among arts advocates, who seem poised to enter crisis mode during these tough economic times, preserving funding where they can today while turning attention to reshaping policy for tomorrow.

A quick hand-raising poll of the room of around 50 arts leaders indicated broad support for a city tax increase to help close the budget gap at city hall. However, even the largest of the tax hikes currently on the table would only raise an additional $24 million in revenue for the city, while more than $100 million would be need to keep funding of city programs at their current levels, Lill said.

One suggestion for change was to question whether arts funding should continue to come out of the city’s operating fund, or to potentially switch to a “dedicated revenue source” for the arts, such as directing a portion of the hotel tax to cultural programming.

Reese, who current lives in Los Angeles, a city that utilizes a dedicated revenue source for arts funding, said there are ups and downs of both approaches, which present funding shortfalls under different economic situations.

She said that what advocates should really focus on is getting major arts patrons to participate in the political advocacy process. She scolded the community for the low attendance at Arts Advocacy Day, and wondered why many of the patrons that built the Arts District weren’t in attendance.

“The people who wrote the big checks should be here to make sure the programming in these buildings continues,” Reese said.