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Lunch With Katherine Wagner, CEO of the North Texas Business Council for the Arts

Dallas is experiencing something of a cultural evolution, says Wagner, and the business community should take advantage.
Kirsten Ulve

An evolution is taking place in Dallas—one that’s not unlike what occurred in 14th Century Europe, says Katherine Wagner, CEO of North Texas Business Council for the Arts. The city is “seeing a coming together of business and the arts, and that’s what was happening in Florence: the Medici business and all the guilds coming together with the churches and the arts to build the Renaissance,” Wagner says, over lunch at her favorite go-to spot, Seasons 52 in NorthPark Center.

If Dallas is in a cultural revival, Wagner’s organization is at the heart of it. It links businesses and executives with arts organizations and tracks corporate giving to local arts nonprofits. Through its case studies and data, companies that are interested in partnerships can find concrete examples of the return on their involvement and financial investments.

Research shows that supporting the arts pays off—big time. Since 2012, the annual economic impact of arts and culture organizations in North Texas has more than tripled, from $428.4 million to nearly $1.5 billion. The stats come from an Arts & Economic Prosperity survey performed by Americans for the Arts. The report also shows arts and culture accounting for 52,850 full-time-equivalent jobs, translating into $1.3 billion in annual salaries.

“The study shows, in very powerful numbers, just what a critical role arts and culture play in keeping our national, state, and local economies vibrant and growing,” Wagner says.

The arts evangelist has volunteered for the Business Council for the Arts since its 1988 inception. Back then, Raymond Nasher headed the nonprofit and Wagner worked at Trammell Crow Co. The company had a programs department aimed at promoting the Arts District, back when it was in its infancy. Wagner would plan art exhibits, theater shows, and educational luncheons in the space in Trammell Crow Center where the Crow Collection is now housed.

She also volunteered as a speaker for BCA’s leadership arts program and coached prospective nonprofit board members on how to make the most of their involvement. To add some pizazz to her talks, she took a cue from a childhood favorite: Nancy Drew. “The title that I used several times was, ‘The Case of the Crumbling Wall,’ which is something I experienced while running a nonprofit organization for a facility that was having some issues,” Wagner says.

According to a white paper recently released by the BCA, written by Robert Dye, chief economist for Comerica Bank, corporate giving to arts organizations in North Texas totaled $8.5 million in 2017. The study found that outside of eight mega donations, the median annual giving in DFW was $7,500 at smaller companies (fewer than 500 employees) and $15,000 at larger companies (more than 500 employees) last year.

Wagner says it is important for business leaders to understand that donations to arts organizations don’t always have to come in monetary form. She cites Avon Cleaners dry cleaning Dallas Children’s Theater costumes as one of many local success stories.

In addition to facilitating arts-centered research and sponsorships, BCA’s annual Obelisk Awards recognize major business, nonprofit, and individual contributions to the arts. Last year, honorees included Cigna’s LaMonte Thomas and HALL Group’s Craig Hall, who’s widely known for pioneering the use of sculptures, paintings, and other art in corporate parks.

Additionally, the organization’s On My Own Time regional art competition showcases the work of hundreds of employees from dozens of companies across the region each fall.

Lately, BCA has also been organizing conversations between artists and industry leaders. The group hosted an Arts and Technology conversation at the Nasher Sculpture Center, where attendees learned about virtual reality and augmented reality in the arts. It also presented an Arts and Real Estate talk with Butch McGregor, who spoke on the many creative influences at Trinity Groves, which he co-developed.

“Last year we had an Arts and Healthcare breakfast that we sold out,” Wagner says. “We’re really interested in that intersection of commerce and culture coming together.”.

Local arts are not a privilege be savored by a sliver of the population, Wagner says: “The arts should not be siloed. The arts should be integral and available to everyone.”

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