CRITICAL EYE Lost in Cultural Isolation

The closing of Dallas ’ International Cultural Affairs office is a blow to business.

Patsy Swank sat in one of the swankiest offices in Italy and wondered how she was going to talk Dallas’ way into the halls of the lire lords. “The reception we were getting from the banks in Siena,” she says, “was extremely chilly. And there I was trying to set up the itinerary for [then Dallas Mayor] Annette Strauss.”

A senior corporate vice president for international affairs mentioned that NCNB was his American respondent bank. NCNB is known for its arts patronage. “I told him my background was in the arts and that I’d started my career as an arts critic,” Swank says. “Turned out his bank had a collection. I’d been reading the Herald Tribune that morning, and I knew the bottom had just dropped out of the art market. Suddenly, we were getting along swimmingly. He gave me a catalog of his collection. I set up a tour with him for the mayor to see it.”

The mayor of Dallas had gained access to the top brass of one of Italy’s oldest banks. Through art.

That was then. This is now. And in this season of giving, Patsy Swank has been taken away from you. If you blinked, you missed her layoff. Only about two years after it was opened, the cultural division of the city’s Office of International Affairs was closed at the end of September. One and a half jobs were lost. Big deal, right?


The terminations of Swank and her secretary were two more small tokens of the sweeping cultural losses this city and country are taking: When social issues and Economic pressures become overwhelming; the arts seem even more “frivolous.”

But what many don’t understand is that the loss of Dallas’ International Cultural Affairs office also was a blow to business. The elimination of Swank’s job is symptomatic of how much may be burned out of Our community by this era’s fever of financial uncertainty.

As assistant director for international cultural affairs. Swank-a longtime arts journalist who once Worked at The Dallas Morning News with the great critic John Rosenfield-was one of seven staffers in the City of Dallas’ Office of International Affairs. That office is led by James R. Bullington, a 26-year Foreign Service veteran who was U.S. Ambassador to Burundi and a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. As what he calls “the municipal counterpart of a foreign ministry,” Bullington’s agenda is divided into three parts.

“The first area of our mission,” he says, “is the promotion of international business in Dallas-investment, trade and building up the international economic infrastructure.”

The second area is marketing and protocol. “There are dozens [of foreign heads of state and other luminaries visiting Dallas] who need welcoming and we try to orient this to marketing the city, particularly for people who think Dallas is a cow town.

“The third area of our mission is what Patsy was most involved in, cultural exchange and marketing amenities.”

Bullington’s office went from a head count of seven workers to five, saving $80,000 in the dismissal of Swank and her secretary. That’s $80,000 saved on a peculiar “public-private partnership”’ budget that funds the Office of International Affairs. Some $265,000 in salaries and benefits comes from the city. But the office’s operating budget of about $125,000 comes from an annual fund-raising event called the Dallas Ambassadors’ Forum. Proceeds from the event benefit DIET, the Dallas International Education Trust. “We bring foreign ambassadors to Dallas each spring,” Bullington explains, “put on a ball and charge corporations and individuals to come. Last year, we had 50 ambassadors here for the whole weekend. We put them together with leading Dallas people, gave them a business briefing on Dallas, a cultural event-this year, Ray Nasher opened his house so we could take them through his collection of art.”

Depending on who’s talking at any given moment, you may get a positive or a negative spin on the fact that Dallas entrusts its international relations to such hybrid resources. Pat Porter, who leads the Dallas Business Committee for the Arts, was delighted when she announced a survey’s revelations that in 1990 corporate donations to the arts in Greater Dallas were reaching a level of about $8.6 million, matching the city’s $8.6 million allocations for the arts-a 50-50 split of public and private funding.

That’s the arts, though. Others, insisting they not be named, say that leaving a large portion of Dallas’ international outreach to a fund-raising ball may risk the city’s future prosperity.

Rick Wilbins. corporate vice president with AT&T, was named this fall to head Dallas’ Commission for International Cultural Affairs. Wilbins knows the ferocious speed at which modem business is evolving into a worldwide arena. You have only to sit down one morning and watch CNN track the ripples of investment performance on the Tokyo, London, Frankfurt and New York exchange markets to understand Wilbins’ sobering warning: “There’s a global wave engulfing this country-Dallas can either ride that wave or be buried by it.”

Wilbins’ Commission for International Cultural Affairs is a non-profit organization without a city budget, though the mayor appoints the chairman, who then appoints the other members of the commission. In fact Swank was the executive director of the commission when she was given the new spot in Burlington’s office.

“The first year” of Swank’s city job, 1990-91, Burlington explains, “Annette [Strauss] got DIET to agree to pick up the salary for Patsy and the secretary, with the idea that the city budget was bound to get better.”

You remember that idea.

In 1991-92, the city picked up half of the salary and DIET contributed $40,000 to Swank and her secretary. “But the DIET trustees felt they shouldn’t be in the long-term support of staff personnel. They said, ’You, the city, are going to have to pick up that salary,’ “Bullington says.

The new year will dawn over Swank’s empty chair, despite her contributions to efforts to position Dallas as the economic hub of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which meant facilitating the opening of two new consulates and four foreign-government economic offices here; cultivating new “sister city” relationships with Riga, Latvia and Brno. Czechoslovakia; supporting major international exhibitions such as the Ramses knockout. Perestro?ka and Saudi Arabia Yesterday and Today. Swank also paved the way for a Dallas Day in the Friedberg Festival in Germany. She helped make sure that a Dallas trade and cultural mission to Tel Aviv ended in a meeting with Ariel Sharon.

And yet. for all the success she had and dreams she’d nourished, “I’m not feeling kicked out,” Swank says. She agrees with Bullington that, faced with the requirement of losing two staff positions, hers and her secretary’s were die ones to ax.

“I’m just distressed that what could be done isn’t being done,” she says.

For arts observers. Swank’s distress is all too familiar, a source of constant mystery why so many business community members don’t glom onto the cultural-currency connection. The arts make money.

If you’re a corporate honcho, chances are you think you’ve just read a lie. This means you’re a little corporate honcho.

Because the big boys and girls know where the bucks are. In October, Mobil Oil went to the pages of The New York Times to toast the national Business Committee for the Arts’ 25th anniversary with an opened page ad praising the arts’ ability to “enhance the bottom line…BCA shows business that arts partnerships can attract new customers and foster public understanding of business as a vital and caring community.”

The complaint, of course, is always that you can’t touch the results with your hand, or add up the outcome on your calculator.

“It’s awfully hard to measure,” Burlington says, “but we have to hope this [cultural aspect of Dallas’ international work] has a positive impact on our city and our economy by bringing more cultural events and by making Dallas an attractive place for international businesses to locate.”

It’s depressing to hear someone in Bull-ington’s position speak so tentatively.

“From a community’s business point of view,” the Mobil Oil statement continues, “…for every $1 spent on the arts, $4 more are generated through restaurant, hotel, retail, transportation and parking fees.” And, here at home, Pat Porter’s committee has revealed that 102 arts organizations in 1990 had a more than $442 million impact on the economy of North Texas, drawing more than 6 million admissions to some 11,000 performances and exhibits.

And yet, it’s going to take everything Wilbins can do as chairman of the virtually penniless, all-volunteer Commission for International Cultural Affairs to move us toward AmeriFest, the international cultural festival to be held during the World Cup games, on which Swank had been working. “AmeriFest represents a festival that will be important because of all the international media here,” Wilbins says. “We need to show our culture not only in the arts but also in education and entertainment and sports.”

And we have to build whatever reputation we can without Swank in her spot at the Office of International Affairs. “We had the rhythm in place,” she sighs. “We were two years out on everything, planning ahead on the right schedule.”

Ready or not, she’s been forced to hand the paid-professional baton to a volunteer pinch hitter, Wilbins. Wilbins, like Swank, knows that translating Dallas to the international marketplace is going to mean the widest possible interpretation of “culture.”

“Some of my best friends,” Wilbins says, “are into sports.”


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.