Last week, the Dallas City Council unanimously approved the city’s new Dallas Cultural Plan, a lengthy, 100-plus-page policy document that is the product of more than a year of public input and planning. The occasion might elicit a shrug from some. Dallas is a city that loves to make plans, though it has a sketchy history when it comes to implementing them. And, as I wrote back in January, cultural plans tend to be wishy-washy, 30,000-foot documents that repeat fuzzy platitudes about the arts and creativity while offering little in the way of tackling the difficult obstacles involved in nurturing a healthy cultural scene. For example, Dallas’ 2002 plan failed to force any meaningful action related to addressing the city’s endemic challenges with diversity, equitable funding, and access space, to name a few.
The good news is this new plan is not like the 2002 iteration. It is a meaty document that does more than simply outline pie-in-the-sky dreams for Dallas’ culturally minded future. The new plan is comprehensive, though focused, making some critical observations about the state of Dallas’ arts and culture before zeroing in on a handful of broad topics it seeks to address in the coming years. It appears to be a useful roadmap, with lengthy laundry lists of actionable items and potential initiatives that could radically change the way Dallas supports its artists and arts organizations. It also seeks to reconsider some of the historical issues Dallas has had with regards to supporting the arts — namely the lopsided approach to funding spaces for large arts organizations, while leaving everyone else out in the rain with their tin cups, begging for the leftover small change.
The only question I’m left with after perusing the 106-page report is one the report itself can’t answer: will the city and its Office of Cultural Affairs have the political leverage and willpower to implement this thing?
I hope so. The new cultural plan is something of a landmark in the city’s history of thinking about arts and culture. It’s not just that it says all the right things. It acknowledges that investment in the arts has generally mirrored the city’s broader entrenchment of economic and racial segregation. Cultural investment has targeted wealthier organizations, while huge swaths of the city — particularly in the southern sector — have lacked access to cultural programing or community spaces. The city’s previous cultural policy has also been overly focused on spaces over programing. Two-thirds of the Office of Cultural Affairs’ budget, the report tells us, goes to venues — and a few marquee venues in particular — and yet those venues also face a towering backlog of maintenance issues.
“The OCA is contractually obligated to spend about $7 million, or almost 50 percent of its facilities funds, on operations and cultural services related to three major venues in the Dallas Arts District: AT&T Performing Arts Center/ATTPAC ($4 million), the Meyerson Symphony Center (net $2 million in expenses), and the Dallas Museum of Art ($1 million),” the report says.
But here’s the most telling evidence of the city’s historically misguided approach to thinking about supporting arts and culture: the word “artist,” the new report observes, is entirely absent from the 2002 cultural plan’s mission statement.
How does the new plan intend to begin to fix some of these challenges?
In a sense, it already has, if only by simply listening to residents in the process of creating the report. The value of this public input is reflected in many of the ideas that percolate up through its pages, from big-picture initiatives — such as renegotiating master agreements with some larger resident arts district organizations — to smaller but potentially impactful initiatives like creating a database of all available studio, rehearsal, and performance space. A seemingly simple, though perennial, challenge like space, in fact, is one of the report’s six main target areas, which also include improving equity, diversity, communication, direct support for artists, and nurturing a more sustainable arts ecosystem.
Those are some broad goals, but the plan does a decent job in boiling them down into some specific, actionable goals. Some of the most compelling include:
- A one-time fundraising push to help close the city’s cultural facilities deferred maintenance gap
- Creating new pop-up cultural centers and programming around Dallas, particular in neighborhoods that currently lack access to cultural facilities
- Requiring organizations that receive city funds to have clearly defined and publicized equity and diversity goals, as well as diversity on their boards of directors
- Creating a digitized catalogue of available space similar to Seattle’s Spacefinder
- Creating a Library Cultural Pass program that would allow residents to get free admission to arts venues with a library card
- Developing a directory of all working artists in Dallas
- Commissioning live musical performances at City Hall events, like council meetings
- Encouraging artist homeownership by exploring potential rebates/discounts for housing based on artist involvement in a neighborhood, as well as cultural use zoning initiatives
- Exploring creating a group healthcare plan or healthcare co-op for artists
- Exploring establishing more hotel-based artist residencies
- Creating an Artist Resource Center that can help artists navigate issues like grants and discover potential funding opportunities, programs, or other resources
- Establishing historical neighborhood tours to help expand Dallas’ residents’ understanding and familiarity with often overlooked parts of town
What I like about the long list of potential initiatives — which are outlined in the last two chapters of the report; the list above is only a tiny sample — is that they include big-picture items like exploring revenue-sharing mechanisms in city-owned Arts District facilities that could potentially incentivize organizations to share space with smaller arts organizations, as well as little ideas like including local musicians’ music on the city’s hold lines. It shows that the city is finally thinking holistically about supporting its cultural scene and recognizing that one of the problems has been a limited imagination regarding what art is and what it can be, as well as where it can be experienced. This new plan recognizes that making Dallas viable as a center of cultural production rests as much on ensuring that artists can afford a place to live and work, as it does funding spaces where audiences might go to experience art.
But it is precisely because the plan is willing to tread into some tricky political territory — rethinking its fundraising and nonprofit culture, suggesting new ideas around economic development policy, housing, and zoning — that it may run into some obstacles. There are some checks and benchmarks built into the plan, but the long-term success will rest on whether the public-input process that helped birth it can now transition into political leverage that will hold city staff and public officials accountable for its implementation. That public pressure will be needed to ensure that the plan achieves more than just the low-hanging fruit and manages to guide the city toward finally addressing some of the larger challenges facing its cultural ecosystem.
This plan will work if it is all implemented. Creating an artist database while failing to create a viable healthcare option for independent artists would constitute a failure of the plan. Launching a few pop-up events in South Dallas or Pleasant Grove without sufficiently renegotiating master agreements with some of the Arts District’s resident companies would constitute a failure of the plan. Creating an online platform that can help artists and arts organization locate space, without expanding direct-funding resources to artists or raising funds to take care of the deferred maintenance needs on existing city-owned facilities would constitute a failure of the plan. And so on.
But for now, let’s focus on the good news. The plan is done. It’s approved. It’s a good plan.
Now the real work can begin.