There’s a few ways to cut this story in the Dallas Morning News about the AT&T Performing Arts Center subscribers who are upset by new fees that have appeared on their renewal bills. The first is the version the ATTPAC wants you to believe – that it is all a big misunderstanding. Platinum seats at the Winspear for the arts center’s popular Broadway series are expensive, and part of the deal in reserving those prime seats is paying an annual tax-deductible membership fee on top of the ticket price. It’s done elsewhere, and the ATTPAC has been doing it for seven years, officials say. However, since the Winspear opened in 2009, ATTPAC officials say it has waived the fee for long-term subscribers. The time has come to bring in them into the fold.
If that is the thinking behind the move, then, at the very least this kerfuffle illustrates some troubling management practices at one of the city’s major performing arts organization. The fees were added to subscribers bills without explanation. When subscribers complained, a second letter was sent out stating that the “the first letter ‘inadvertently’ omitted a ‘critical update,’” which sounds to me like ATTPAC officials believed they could sneak the extra fees by their most loyal subscribers. That’s also how the subscribers see it. Some told the Morning News that the extra fees make them feel “trapped” into renewing. Others called it a “shakedown.” I get that. You buy Broadway tickets and suddenly you get a letter and it begins to feel like you’re being hustled by a pay day lender. It feels slimy.
But is this simply a case of poor customer service, or a reflection of greater strains at ATTPAC? We all know the arts organization is trying to deal with its hefty capital debt still outstanding from the construction of the performing arts center in 2009. A couple of years ago, ATTPAC went public with the $151 million debt bill in a move that was an attempt to stir up support for buttressing the organization. It worked. The organization struck a multi-party deal that saw the center pay down $56 million of its debt and call in $8 million worth of outstanding pledges, while lenders forgave $45 million, the Moody Foundation coughed up $12 million, and the Dallas City Council agreed to chip in $15 million of public funding. That left about $15 million to cover.
The move was controversial, particularly the part where the city picked up $15 million of the tab. Dallas struggles to find public money to support of arts and culture. Much of the city’s culture budget is eaten up by building and maintenance costs, and yet the city still has a hefty deferred maintenance bill. Cultural programming, educational programs, artists, art centers, and huge swaths of the city (particularly in the south) struggle to find any funding for arts and culture at all, leaving a disparity in who has access to art and culture in Dallas that largely mimics other disparities that fall along racial and economic lines.
In short, the city has long favored investing public dollars in large cultural institutions set-up at the behest of wealthy private citizens. When those citizens don’t follow through their pledges, when the organizations run into financial trouble, or their venues need maintenance, the public is left holding the bag. That’s what happened when the Dallas City Council, which struggles to find a pittance for arts organizations around the city each budget cycle, managed to find $15 million the couch cushions for the ATTPAC in 2016. And it ticked a lot of people off.
What does this all have to do with season ticket subscriptions? This latest move smacks of an institution desperate to pay its bills, and it makes you wonder if the ATTPAC is finished holding out its hat to the city. Maybe it’s a big misunderstanding resulting from communications mismanagement, or maybe the organization is driving away subscribers by gouging them with fees. Either way, considering how invested the city is in ATTPAC, it is reason enough to question how the arts organization is being run.