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Local Government

In Long-Awaited Rewrite of Cultural Plan, A Battle Emerges for Dallas’ Soul

It's a familiar existential quandary for the city these days: Continue the status quo that favors large institutions, or free up money to nurture artists and organizations?
By Darryl Ratcliff |

It’s been 15 years since the city of Dallas has revisited its cultural plan, a policy document that, among other things, establishes how public money gets dispersed among arts institutions and defines the role of the Office of Cultural Affairs. The policy itself states that it should be reviewed every five years; the last time that happened, President George W. Bush was sending the men and women he would later paint into war. And so last Tuesday was a long time coming. City officials gathered at the Latino Cultural Center for the first Cultural Artists Affairs Commission workshop, a series of which will eventually result in an update.

In many ways, the writing of the cultural plan will be a battle for the city’s soul, a reflection of who we are as a city and what we hope to become. The document establishes how public art is commissioned and maintained. It sets a path for how to manage and build new cultural facilities. It reaches into Fair Park and the Arts District. It sets directives for neighborhood cultural centers as well as the city-owned classical radio station. In all, the office controls $21.3 million.

For many, it may be surprising to learn that Dallas has a cultural plan at all, especially when it’s factored in that a place like New York City is creating the first in its history. Dallas’ city officials are clearly hoping to learn from its past. At the Latino Cultural Center, commissioners called for greater transparency and improved communication with city residents; for instance, not only should there be an improved strategy for notifying the public of meetings, but they should be streamed and archived online. They also called for more transparency as it pertains to contracts with organizations like the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, and the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Each of those receive around $2 million from the city in a public/private partnership. While their construction was funded largely with gifts, their maintenance falls to the city.

Dallas provides indirect support for maintenance, utilities, and operations for the buildings managed by those legacy institutions. That topic is making its way into meetings beyond those dealing directly with cultural affairs. One of the largest moments of applause during a Monday night Dallas Examiner City Council candidate forum occurred when Councilman Casey Thomas was asked why he couldn’t secure a vote for his district opposing a charter school but supported giving $15 million to the Winspear Opera House, outside of his district. Those public/private partnerships appear like they’ll be given the most scrutiny as the city tackles the plan update. It’s not just the principle of giving taxpayer money to a wealthy institution. It’s more born of a concern that Dallas has concentrated a disproportionate share of resources into a specific geographical area of which most Dallasites do not live near. Too, many residents do not have access to city-supported cultural spaces in the neighborhoods in which they reside. The Arts District alone, for instance, accounts for a third of the entire cultural budget. (Full disclosure: In 2015, I was awarded a $5,000 artist grant by the Office of Cultural Affairs; I’m not a current recipient, nor have I ever worked directly for the office.)

Many of the cultural affairs commissioners see it as a priority to address the problem of cultural deserts. And one possible way is removing the maintenance of city-owned buildings from the Office of Cultural Affairs’ budget, which would free millions of dollars to support more neighborhood programs. Another way is to dedicate more of the hotel occupancy tax to the cultural budget. Currently, just 2.6 percent from the hotel tax goes to cultural affairs; the state allows for cities to provide as much as 15 percent without applying for an exemption. Jumping that ratio would need buy-in from the leaders of the Dallas Convention Center and Visitors Bureau, the city, and the convention center itself.

For comparison’s sake: Houston applied for an exemption with the state of Texas to go above the 15 percent threshold. It now dedicates 19 percent of its hotel tax to supporting the arts.

There are other questions that need addressing. Should the city of Dallas add direct grants to artists and small organizations in addition to its current model, which contracts for specific services provided? Should the 25 percent cap for organizations be changed or removed specifically for smaller organizations and/or ethnic-specific organizations that work primarily in communities of color? And what should the role of the Cultural Affairs Commission be in this process?

Jennifer Scripps, who became the director of Office of Cultural Affairs last April, said her No. 1 priority has been to update the city’s cultural plan. In fact, her first major fundraising effort will be seeking private money to pay the estimated $500,000 consulting fee for one of three finalists: The Cultural Planning Group, Lord Cultural Resources, and the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. The consultants are key to gathering public input and having the voice of Dallas residents in the final product. There should be a series of town hall meetings, focus groups, one on one meetings, and an online survey. Scripps says that Dallas residents should expect the impact of this process to be felt in the 2018-19 fiscal year budget.

One thing that the eventual consultant will need to overcome is the skepticism of some in the artist community and in communities of color concerning the city’s commitment to achieving cultural equity. Recent programs like the Special Support Program for individual artists and the Community Vitality Program have demonstrated an awareness and desire to address these issues. However, an inability to communicate and connect with artists and people of color have hampered the success of both of these efforts. Perhaps the bigger problem is that most residents don’t realize that the Office of Cultural Affairs exists at all or that culture is important in their life. This issue extends beyond issues of race or class, and can be heard from Lake Highlands to Mountain View.

It remains an open question whether our city’s eventual cultural policy will fully embrace the fact that the Dallas population is made up of a majority of people of color. Will the update be a bold transformational process that changes cultural policy to nurture individual artists and small organizations? Or will the update maintain the status quo that favors large organizations? The answer to these questions depends on both the openness and transparency of the process, and the willingness of residents to voice their desires, to express how they would like to see the city serve them. In 18 months we will have answers to these questions and many more. The battle for the future of culture in Dallas has officially begun.

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