Arts & Entertainment

Has Dallas’ Arts Scene Reached a Level Playing Field?

In recent years, the AT&T Performing Arts Center has sucked up the city’s culture funds. Has it finally figured out how to give some back to local artists?

Over the months leading up to the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center in 2009, excitement for what the new arts venues could mean for Dallas hit a fever pitch. The new center—the culmination of more than two decades of dreaming of a downtown Arts District on Flora Street—would do much more than provide Dallasites with two new top-flight performance spaces. Mark Nerenhausen, then the center’s president and CEO (he would depart Dallas only nine months after the center’s grand opening), saw the Performing Arts Center as a new metaphoric center for Dallas, a cultural hub that would unite the city, raise its stature around the world as an arts destination, and generate new excitement in Dallas for the arts both in and outside of the district.

“A performing arts center is both a place—it provides a geographic focus for a city—and, also, the performing arts center of the 21st century, without sounding too esoteric, is an organizing principle or a system,” Nerenhausen told D Magazine at the time. “We can help a lot of other arts groups without being hierarchical. It’s almost like more of an internet model, like hyperlinks.”

That ambition, however, has never quite been realized. Certainly, the Wyly Theatre and the Winspear Opera House are magnificent venues for music, theater, dance, and opera, and their resident companies have raised the bar for what to expect from Dallas’ large regional arts organizations. And often, the spaces themselves have pushed innovation, provided inspiration for new commissions, and drawn in larger audiences. But the secondary promise of the Performing Arts Center—the center-as-hyperlinks idea—hasn’t materialized. If anything, rather than a means to foster a new, nonhierarchical Dallas cultural scene, the Performing Arts Center has become the symbol of such a hierarchy.

This was clear by 2016 when the center, which never managed to complete its capital campaign, struggled to come up with a plan to deal with $151 million in debt. Last fall, ATTPAC leaders approached the city with a deal: chip in $15 million in public funds as part of a fundraising effort that will eventually see their lenders forgive $45 million of that debt if the center can raise the difference. Local artists and arts advocates were incredulous. How was it that a city that has never been able to adequately fund its small and midsize arts groups—or provide adequate spaces for performances, exhibitions, and educational opportunities in so many neighborhoods and communities throughout the city—could somehow find $15 million in the couch cushions for the Performing Arts Center? These arts advocates showed up to protest outside City Hall, while inside, the city council approved the so-called ATTPAC “bailout.”

There is still fear among some arts advocates that the existence of the grant will make it easier for politicians to justify cutting arts from the city’s general fund.

To the casual theatergoer, the back and forth over public and private funding, debt financing, and city funds for the arts hardly matters when they head downtown to catch the latest touring Broadway show or a performance by one of the world’s top dance ensembles brought in by TITAS. But the way a city and its patrons fund the arts and culture says a lot about the character of a city. The historical overemphasis on funding a handful of large, head-turning spaces accessible only by a handful of large, deeply entrenched organizations suggests that Dallas places more value on hearing the artistic voices it imports from the outside, while those artists and performers who want to tell stories about—and speak directly to—the experience and identity of their own communities are seemingly less valued and offered less opportunity or agency to be heard. It is an attitude that conveys the very insecurity and provinciality that showy investments in starchitect-designed buildings attempt to dissuade.

This tension between the funding of large performance halls and smaller arts organizations is as old as the idea of the Arts District itself. Veletta Forsythe Lill, former council member and former Arts District executive director, says that in the district’s earliest incarnations, there was talk about how the city’s investment in cultural facilities could also serve its smaller groups with things like common box offices or shared marketing. In the late 1990s, as fundraising for the new opera house and theater center kicked off, it became clear that what local groups needed was their own spaces in the Arts District. So land was purchased on Flora Street and plans were drawn up for a city-owned and -operated multifunctional performance space. In the end, however, there was only enough funding for phase one of City Performance Hall, which included an elegant and exquisite 750-seat theater, but lacked the black box and rehearsal spaces many arts groups needed most.

Then, in April, the Performing Arts Center stepped on the toes of the local arts community yet again when it came forward with an add-on to that proposal to deal with its debt that directly affected that very concessional investment in the local arts community, City Performance Hall. In the run-up to the city’s “bailout” of the Performing Arts Center, officials indicated to City Hall that private donors were waiting in the wings to help with the center’s debt problems if the city stepped up with the first contribution. Now that the city had sunk $15 million in public funds into the PAC’s debt, the center had one of several donors lined up.

The Moody Foundation agreed to pay down $12 million of the center’s remaining debt as well as offer up an additional $10 million for name recognition for an arts district facility. But there was only one challenge. ATTPAC had already sold the naming rights to all of its performance spaces. The only space in the Arts District left to name was the city-owned City Performance Hall.

The proposal reignited arts community outrage. Why was the Performing Arts Center giving name recognition to a city-owned property? What would the city get in return for the donation? According to the terms of the deal, the $10 million that resulted in name recognition would create an endowment that could fund performances in City Performance Hall and other arts projects in the city. In the beleaguered, exhausted, paranoid ecosystem of Dallas cultural philanthropy, the Moody donation looked like a thinly veiled PAC takeover of City Performance Hall.

It had all the makings of a typical Dallas political standoff when, to the surprise of most observers, the Cultural Affairs Commission, the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, the Performing Arts Center, the Moody Foundation, and members of the arts community collaborated and hammered out a better deal. The Moody’s $10 million would create an endowment to fund small local arts groups, and those grants could be used for projects in and outside the Arts District. The grant-making process was revised to provide for more public oversight. And while at the time of publication a few remaining details needed to be finalized and the Dallas City Council had yet to approve the donation and its terms, it looked like the city’s $15 million bailout of the Performing Arts Center has come back to the local arts community in the form of a new $10 million endowment that will offer grants for small local organizations in perpetuity and can never be taken away or struck from the city’s budget.

There is still fear among some arts advocates that the existence of the grant will make it easier for politicians to justify cutting arts from the city’s general fund during skimpy years. And the grant does not undo the fact that, to realize true cultural equity in Dallas, new sources of public funding must be established, perhaps in the form of a portion of the hotel tax that is currently gobbled up by the Convention Center and VisitDallas. But it is difficult to ignore that, when the dust settled, something unprecedented for Dallas had happened. A large foundation, a powerful performing arts organization, the city government, and local arts groups had managed to listen to each other and worked to strike a deal, one that had the entire Dallas community’s interests in mind.

Does it change the historical and systematic ways in which Dallas has failed to promote cultural equity? Of course not. But it does look a whole lot like a city maturing, coming to understand the value and importance of a less-hierarchical approach to cultural philanthropy.

It almost looks like one of those long-awaited hyperlinks.