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THE CITY POLITICS OF ART

Who will run the Arts District?
By PHILIP SEIB |

WHEN THE NEW Dallas Museum of Art opens its doors on January 29, the Dallas Arts District finally will begin to assume a tangible form. The museum building is grand in its design and in its other aesthetic attributes. But the structure does not overwhelm the art within it; the museum visitor can enjoy and learn from the art without undue distractions.

As a whole, the Arts District should do much the same thing: create an ambiance in which the arts can be enjoyed while the life of the city continues uninterrupted. This is an ambitious goal for the Arts District. It can only be achieved through a remarkable degree of cooperation among arts institutions, private developers, city officials and the citizens for whom the district was first conceived.

Governance of the district must reflect this cooperation and must ensure representation of the interests of the individual citizen-the person whose tax dollars (and, in many cases, bond election votes) have made this district possible. The Arts District is a strange governmental beast: Its mixed ownership and facilities make it, in effect, a private but quasi-public entity. Just as the arts bond campaigns of 1979 and 1982 earned mandates from Dallas voters, so too the district now must maintain public faith in its operations. A formula for appropriately broad-based governance has not yet been found.

Various suggestions have been made about how to manage the Arts District. These ideas will produce some mechanism to make the decisions necessary in day-today operations of the district. A distinction exists, however, between “management” and “governance”; the latter involves more long-term policy concerns about facilities and activities in the district.

The New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS) has designed a management plan for the district. The PPS report states that this plan is supposed to “make the district an art- and people-oriented urban place.” PPS proposes a two-headed “hybrid management organization” with one part- the operating board-involving itself in lease arrangements, promotion, marketing and other business matters; the other-the enhancement board-addressing programming and general arts activities.

A major player in the process of pulling together the disparate public and private interests in the district is Jim Cloar, president of the Central Business District Association (CBDA). As early as 1977, CBDA advocated the idea of a downtown arts center. Cloar and his colleagues wanted to assure that if the city’s arts institutions moved from Fair Park, they would not be tempted by lower land prices to move outside the central city.

The CBDA now plays a number of roles: It is the treasurer for the districtwide design plan (proposed by the Sasaki consulting firm of Massachusetts); it owns, via CBD Enterprises, Borden Dairy’s property in the center of the district (on part of which the new Concert Hall will be built); and it probably will manage the public space of the district (a management contract is pending). This latter task is rare in American cities, but it will likely grow in importance.

Since Cloar is held in high regard by downtown business interests, this management role for the CBDA would be broad, including supervision of the district’s security, cleanliness, design review, retail promotion, public events and any other activities in which the district’s property owners and tenants may be interested. The formal implementation and fine-tuning will take time -deciding who handles what probably will be a trial-and-error process. And however complex the management machinery is, the real power will rest with the Arts District coordinator, the one person who will have open lines to the different management entities.

That person is Dr. Philip Montgomery, professor of pathology at Southwestern Medical School and the volunteer designated by the mayor and City Council to pull together the district. Montgomery keeps his office at the UT Health Science Center, not at City Hall; he fiercely proclaims his independence from the city bureaucracy.

The district coordinator has no statutory powers, but Montgomery recognizes that he holds a unique position: “Although the coordinator has no authority, he is the one person who can work with all the groups. The city government isn’t structured to work with the arts groups.” Montgomery expects that this position will be necessary for almost 10 years. After that time, enough construction will have been completed and enough arts activities under way to ensure the stable, continuing operation of the district.

Almost all parties involved in the shaping of the district praise Montgomery’s skills as a negotiator and builder of compromises. Some complaints have been voiced about Montgomery being inflexible, but there is recognition that the district is actually taking shape and that Montgomery’s persistence is a principal factor in accomplishing this difficult task. Montgomery’s political independence helps his wheeling and dealing, but it also illustrates one of the fundamental problems with Arts District governance. Because Montgomery is beholden to no one and was elected by no one, he is not as accessible as an elected official must be to the constituents who gave him his job (and who just as easily can remove him from that job).

Recognizing the need to maintain a democratic balance in governance, Montgomery is willing to slightly expand the scope of the arts-oriented arm of the management structure by asking the mayor to appoint an at-large member of the group. Montgomery says that he wouldn’t object to that person being a member of the City Council. Participation in Arts District affairs by elected officials is virtually nonexistent now. According to Montgomery, the city will contract with district property owners for services and will ask property owners to fund improvements to Flora Street, the district’s central boulevard.

Montgomery says that except for any ongoing contractual relationships, “Council members have influence on the Arts District only if they choose to amend the ordinance that established the district or if they appoint a new coordinator.” This limited involvement has its advantages, the principal one being that it keeps the district from becoming a political playground for council members’ pet projects.

On the other hand, the council members are directly accountable to the voters; no one else involved with the Arts District is. More than $60 million in bond money-funding that was approved in citywide elections-is committed to the district so far. That would seem to mandate a mechanism through which the public can play a role in shaping the district.

Dallas City Councilmember Jim Richards, a strong supporter of the arts, recognizes the need for more Council involvement in the district. “We have a responsibility,” Richards says, “for the buildings and streets built with public money.” If there is to be formal Council representation in the district’s governance, Richards wants that representative to be selected by the Council as a whole, not by the mayor alone.

Among those most sensitive to the need for more broad-based participation in the district’s governance is Harry S. Parker III, director of the Dallas Museum of Art. Museum directors usually aren’t known for their political savvy, but Parker is an exception. After going through two tortuous bond campaigns (a loss in 1978; a win in 1979), Parker is sensitive to any rumblings that may indicate public displeasure with how the district or any of its constituent elements is being run. Parker says that “discussion about governance has been very abstract and it should get very specific,” adding that there is “a danger of waiting too long and losing the citizens’ enthusiasm.”

With the museum’s paying membership now approaching 20,000, the DMA has a good base. Parker and others think the Arts District as a whole needs similar support. This may be achieved through the creation of a “Friends of the Arts District” organization. For a small annual fee (perhaps about $20), a member of the group could receive newsletters about the status of the district, calendars of events (the museum, for example, has had much activity in its sculpture garden even before the formal DMA opening), and, most important, the organization would have open meetings on a regular basis at which members could voice their suggestions and complaints about the district.

The group also might function as a vehicle to involve artists in the ongoing planning for the district. Montgomery laments the absence of most artists from the planning process now: “We need those people. We want those people. We want the property owners to make space available for them. I haven’t lost my enthusiasm for involving artists; I just don’t know how to organize them.”

If it were coupled with representation of elected officials, the Friends of the Arts District could do much to make Arts District governance more democratic. This would have numerous benefits. For instance, such a plan would make it far less likely that decisions about the district’s future would be made by a few people who may have a distorted view of the public’s wants and needs.

Also, participants in broad-based governance would develop a deeper commitment to the long-term health of the district. This concern could prove crucial if there is another Arts District bond proposition. Such an election may happen as early as 1985. Once Borden moves its dairy off the land theCBDA now holds, the CBDA will lose therevenue from the Borden rent payments andthus will be unable to retain the land. At thatpoint, either the city must buy the land or itwill be sold to private developers. If the city wants to dedicate that land to arts purposes (such as an opera house, a theater ora park), bond money will be needed to payfor at least part of it, with private artsorganizations covering the rest of the cost.

For people who care about the arts inDallas, this is the stuff of dreams: an ArtsDistrict that flourishes because of the diversity of its offerings and the breadth of itspublic support. This dream can be fulfilledif we make the Arts District not only amodel of a city’s commitment to the arts, butalso a model of governance in the publicinterest.