Yesterday afternoon in the Nasher Sculpture Center, seven Dallas mayoral candidates said they supported increasing arts funding during the next fiscal year to implement the recently adopted Cultural Plan. That plan, which counts among its priorities the need to send more money to small and mid-size organizations and individuals instead of large institutions, was adopted by the City Council late last year. It was at the center of Monday’s debate.
All of the mayoral candidates were there, sans state Rep. Eric Johnson, who was in Austin fulfilling legislative duties, and the socialist candidate Alyson Kennedy, who was apparently out of the country. The forum is the only one currently planned for the sole purpose of discussing arts and culture. It was moderated by Chris Heinbaugh, a vice president of external affairs at the AT&T Performing Arts Center and a former journalist.
Within the arts community, many are watching the race to see who would support the Cultural Plan’s request to increase the amount of hotel occupancy taxes that go to arts funding from 2.6 percent to 13 percent. That move would put Dallas in line with other large cities in Texas. Currently, a majority of the tax goes to the beleaguered VisitDallas, the city’s convention and visitor’s promotion arm that recently came under fire for lacking accountability on how it spent its money. We aren’t talking about small change, either: 2.6 percent is $1.7 million. Jumping to 13 percent would mean $8.5 million.
North Oak Cliff Councilman Scott Griggs, who was in the minority in supporting canceling the contract with VisitDallas, said he would support sending the state-allowed maximum of 15 percent to cultural causes. He said he trusted the arts community to be better stewards of the money than VisitDallas. He added that the $22 million allocated to the Office of Cultural Affairs isn’t enough to grow the arts in the city. He said he’s tired of seeing small art organizations claw for relatively small amounts of funding.
“$22 million going to the Office of Cultural Affairs isn’t enough to implement this plan, and we can implement this plan—all it comes down to is money and our priorities” Griggs said.
Oak Cliff businessman Albert Black and attorney Regina Montoya also said they would support the 15 percent allocation. Education nonprofit CEO Lynn McBee said she’d support the 13 percent recommended in the Cultural Plan. Dallas ISD Trustee Miguel Solis, developer Mike Ablon, and former state Rep. Jason Villalba wouldn’t commit to a percentage, but said they supported additional funding for the Office of Cultural Affairs.
It’s easy to get lost in the percentages, but the takeaway from yesterday is that each of these candidates say they will advocate for adding millions of public dollars to causes benefiting arts and culture. And with the event focused on a single topic, each candidate articulated a vision and priorities for how those additional dollars should be used.
“Arts are not a luxury but absolutely must be integrated into the importance of what we are doing,” Villalba said.
He wants to see more public art, with a focus of it working alongside nature and greenspace. He cited the Pegasus project from 2001, when more than 100 of them were painted by artists and placed throughout the city. “What if we had larger installments that integrated these two components, something artistic along with something in nature, and those two together would really create something unique for our city?” Villalba said.
Black advocated for sending money to artists south of the Trinity. He cited a collaborative concert with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Bishop T.D. Jakes as an example. He also spoke of the potential for artwork and active artist studios to enliven major streets, such as Jefferson Ave., which he said could help welcome first-generation Americans.
“We opened doors, so that I don’t make new friends that are telling me that doors to the arts district are closed to them because they are a Latino group. If that is a reality? Shame. If that is a perception? Shame. We have to be open to citizens at all compass points of our city,” Black said.
Solis said cultural centers needed to have arts and music presented in a variety of languages. He cited a program of the Mayor’s Star Council that encouraged the artist collective Sour Grapes to team up with high schoolers to create murals. He said this collaborative programming needed to be at more Dallas ISD high schools, and the city could help get that moving.
McBee spoke of investing in local artists and the need to retain homegrown talent. She was the only candidate to advocate for one of the arts community’s most critical needs: additional housing and studio spaces. She said she sees Fair Park and the surrounding neighborhoods as a potential destination for these spaces, and said that arts and culture could be better used to address mental health issues, citing programs at the Bridge as an example. Solis and Black also touted the importance of bringing together arts and healthcare in Dallas.
Montoya spoke of shifting the perception of arts as a luxury to a utility. She used the topic to echo her platform of “investing in people,” saying she wants to fund arts programs for young students and kick off large-scale reading and literacy programs. “I want us to transport our children into the world of dreams, the world of opportunities,” Montoya said.
Ablon also used arts to elaborate on his platform, saying public sculpture and other works are ways to demarcate neighborhoods and transition points. He cites the Design District, which he helped develop, as a prime example of this working. “Art can not only be beauty, but it can be functional, it can take an old neighborhood and start to transform it and add life to it,” Ablon said. He cited Miami’s Wynwood Walls project as something Dallas should look to for influence—a public space for local graffiti and street artists to display their work.
Griggs added onto that, saying he missed seeing more art in tunnels and underpasses, similar to the murals that once covered the Good Latimer tunnel that was blown out for the DART line.
Again, only one candidate, McBee, discussed artists not having affordable spaces to live and work, and Dallas must figure out the affordability problem to retain its homegrown talent. But the mayoral candidates seem to be taking arts and culture seriously. Their discussion on the need for small and midsize organizations was encouraging, as was the fact that they’re looking well beyond the Arts District in considering where to send public dollars.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Johnson did not respond to multiple requests to appear at the event. He informed organizers on Saturday that he would be in Austin.