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Arts & Entertainment

I Used My House Key to Break Into the DMA’s Vault

Forget support for cultural programming. The city can't even afford basic repairs.
By Peter Simek |

On an early Saturday afternoon in August, I walked through the doors of the Dallas Museum of Art with my mind bent on one thing: art theft. I headed down the main concourse to a small, darkened gallery on the first floor. At the center of the room, a sad-looking girl in a beautiful little painting by Vermeer looked off into the distance. I milled about in front of the other pictures in the gallery with one eye on the security guard by the entrance. When she walked toward the back of the gallery, head buried in her iPhone, I made my move.

When most visitors think of the Dallas Museum of Art’s collections, they think of the three stories of galleries filled with paintings, sculptures, and artifacts that attract tens of thousands of visitors each year. But the vast majority of the museum’s holdings are hidden underground. To access that art, you need a special key that unlocks an elevator. I didn’t have a key, but I did have something all great art thieves have: a little bit of inside information. I had learned that the DMA’s elevators are in such dire need of refurbishing that the keyhole that unlocks access to the basement archives is completely stripped. Any key could gain access to the archives—hell, maybe even a butter knife would do it.

I made a beeline to the oversize elevator that sits just outside the Vermeer gallery and hit the down button. After I stepped into the car and the doors closed behind me, I fumbled for my house key. I chose a key by random, slid it into the keyhole, and the big square button labeled “B” lit up. The elevator jolted to life.

It is no secret that the DMA has some serious maintenance issues. All you need to do is walk down St. Paul Street to see the crumbling concrete at the foot of the building.

All told, it only took about 90 seconds to prove my point. When the doors opened again, I stepped out into a long, cream-colored hallway with warehouse-high ceilings and walls lined with piles of wooden crates—like an Indiana Jones movie set in the break room of The Office. Paper labels suggested their contents: a Gelede mask, a statue of an African woman, a 17th-century painting. Many of the signs contained the words “private collection.”

It is no secret that the DMA has some serious maintenance issues. All you need to do is walk down St. Paul Street to see the crumbling concrete at the foot of the building, the result of ongoing drainage issues. In January, when then interim director of the Office of Cultural Affairs David Fisher presented the City Council with a draft list of nearly $58 million in major maintenance needs at the city’s cultural facilities, $7 million belonged to the DMA—and that didn’t even include an estimate on the elevator redo. Also in the city’s early inventory of needs: repairs to stop the leaks in the glass façade of I.M. Pei’s masterpiece Meyerson Symphony Center (part of $14 million in total Meyerson maintenance needs) and another $15 million needed in the Arts District. All told, the list included major maintenance projects at nearly every city-owned arts facility.

Considering the general state of Dallas’ upkeep—the next bond election will be dedicated almost entirely to catching up with basic maintenance of its city streets—the condition of Dallas’ cultural facilities is no surprise. But unlike our streets, the repairs needed at the city’s cultural facilities are not entirely a result of deferred or neglected maintenance, but also of a historical policy approach toward public funding of the arts that has often left the city on the hook for maintaining buildings that were built through private philanthropy. The result is something like that odd disconnect I observed in the DMA’s basement: a well-funded, top-notch museum with broken elevators that leave priceless works of art vulnerable to any Joe with a key in his pocket.

Perhaps the most illustrative recent example of this philanthropic bait-and-switch is the AT&T Performing Arts Center. When Bill Lively led the capital campaign to construct the ATTPAC in the early 2000s, he promised a City Council wary of taking on more long-term maintenance that the center would raise an endowment to fund operations post-construction. Not only did that not happen, but after the opening of the facility, in 2009, the center had difficulty realizing all of its initial pledges. Now the ATTPAC is asking the City Council for an additional $15 million subsidy to offset its debt burden.

This is typical of the way the city deals with arts funding. The city’s cultural budget is bumped up or slashed each year depending on whether the City Council decides Dallas can afford to invest in art. But when one of the city’s marquee facilities arrives with huge needs, Dallas has no real choice but to find the money. After so many years of skimpy budgets, one can’t help but wonder how $15 million could impact the city if it were directed toward cultural programing. Instead, those dollars are sunk into a debt attached to a philanthropic gift the city never thought it would have to pay for.

This is not atypical of the city’s agreements with its top-tier arts organizations. When Jennifer Scripps, the newly appointed head of Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs, came on board earlier this year, one of the first things she did was assess her department’s vast list of maintenance needs. The city is responsible for 1.5 million square feet of arts and cultural facilities, nine of which are operated directly by the Office of Cultural Affairs, while 14 are operated through public-private partnerships that aren’t always favorable—or feasible—for the city.

Jennifer Scripps toured most of the city’s cultural facilities, and it became clear that there was no way to afford to fix everything that needed to be fixed.

“As I read the contracts that we have with some of these organizations, it is really frustrating,” Scripps says.

Scripps toured most of the city’s cultural facilities, and it became clear that there was no way to afford to fix everything that needed to be fixed, not even with the $1 million in additional maintenance funding the Office of Cultural Affairs secured for this year’s budget or through the upcoming bond program. So Scripps and her department have to prioritize their needs. That means tough decisions. Of course the DMA and Meyerson need to be taken care of. But when the city is on the hook to sink huge amounts of public arts funding into the buildings that house Dallas’ largest arts nonprofits, it siphons funds from smaller and midsize arts organizations. The result is a city whose largest arts organizations receive the lion’s share of both private and public arts funding, a de facto public policy that promotes neither fiscal sustainability nor cultural equity.

The last bond program included no money for culture. Scripps has hope that this time around (as of this writing in late August, a bond meeting was scheduled for September 7) the city will dedicate some of the bond package to meet its obligations to maintain its cultural facilities. Still, that will only perpetuate the game of catch-up. Ultimately, the city will only get ahead of its maintenance needs if it can find new sources of public funding for the arts. Right now, the only obvious new source is hotel-motel tax dollars, which lots of cities—including Houston—use to fund culture. But in Dallas, most of those tax dollars (the OCA gets about $1.4 million a year) are given to the Convention & Visitors Bureau, which places pretty pictures of Dallas’ cultural facilities on brochures to help market Dallas.

Again, the private interests dictate how the city spends its public arts dollars. That’s the real Dallas art heist.

Ed. Note: In response to the publication of this article in the October 2016 edition of D Magazine, the Dallas Museum of Art issued the following statement: “It is important to note definitively that all works of art not on view in public galleries are properly and securely kept in storage vaults. DMA staff has sole access to these secure facilities in our building. Second, no art is ever stored in crates in passageways. The crates you describe are all empty.  Lastly, you are correct that as one of several city-owned cultural institutions, building elevator maintenance at the DMA has been an ongoing issue, and we have been in active conversations with our city partners to address these repairs.

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