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Arts & Entertainment

How to Revive Dallas’ Arts Scene

As we celebrate Dallas Arts Month, here are three suggestions that would truly advance the ball.
By Peter Simek |
Rob Wilson

On April 8, as he has for the last six years, Mayor Mike Rawlings will lead a panel discussion about the arts in Dallas. The panel is a fitting centerpiece for an idea—Dallas Arts Month—that basically began as a branding effort built around the many cultural events that take place in the city this month primarily because the weather is usually so nice. If the past is any guide, the panelists will talk about various personalities in the scene without really delving into the nitty-gritty.

The truth is, Dallas’ arts scene is struggling. In the last few years, the city had to dole out $15 million to an AT&T Performing Arts Center that is saddled with debt. This while the city has millions of dollars in needed maintenance at its cultural facilities and only scant funds for actual cultural programming. There are a few new small grants for artists and arts organizations but fewer spaces where that art can happen. Despite the attention poured on the city’s cultural ambition in the decade since the opening of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas artists still have trouble finding money, space, and audiences.

Part of the problem is that Dallas has historically employed a trickle-down approach to funding. But this approach has ensured that only top-tier organizations get reliable support, and it ignores a fundamental reality: the public sector plays an important role in fostering a healthy cultural ecosystem. Many of the problems the arts scene faces today have as much to do with city code and access to public funding as they do with artistic ideas or inspiration.

The good news is that the city’s recently adopted Cultural Plan marks a new effort to rethink our approach to the arts. But that plan lacks specific steps that, with a little political will, could be taken quickly. If the next Dallas mayor wants to champion the arts, here are three initiatives that would dramatically transform the cultural landscape in Dallas.

Give artists access to space now. In 2015, fire inspectors paid their first visit to Darryl Ratcliff and Fred Villanueva’s live-in, work-in studio and multipurpose arts venue called Ash Studios. The artists let them look around, and they were told they needed to purchase a larger fire extinguisher and create a more clearly marked exit sign to comply with their certificate of occupancy. Then, later, after the Dallas Morning News ran a review of a theatrical performance at Ash, the fire inspectors returned. This time, they shut down the performance and issued the artists a citation for a nonconforming CO.

The crackdown on local art spaces began in earnest. Throughout 2015 and 2016, the Dallas Fire Marshal single-handedly extinguished most of Dallas’ homegrown cultural scene. Even if artists and arts promoters wanted to comply with fire and building codes, the way the requirements are written makes it nearly impossible. “I think the most frustrating thing is just that different layers of city bureaucracy tell you conflicting things,” Ratcliff says. “I know it is possible with enough time and money, but not when you are an artist and working on a community level.”

There needs to be a cheap, fast, and simple way to make it legal to hang a few things on a wall of a vacant storefront or a hollowed-out industrial space and invite a few dozen of your closest friends to see them. The city needs a new kind of permitting option that is designed with artists—rather than developers—in mind. In the wake of the crackdown, the city tried to create a compromise solution, a temporary certificate of occupancy, but the permit is still too costly and too time-consuming to be workable for most artists and arts groups. (Correction: there is no cost to obtain the temporary certificate of occupancy)

If Dallas had funded the arts through a hotel tax, it is likely the city wouldn’t be facing millions in deferred maintenance.

A new temporary occupancy permit designed for artists should be established to create a streamlined and cost-effective way to access available space. There are places in Dallas that may not fit the city’s requirements for the Dallas Contemporary or the House of Blues, but they could easily and safely host a small exhibition or concert for a night or two. Creating a permit that would allow artists to access that space would be the first step toward a broader effort to revisit the city’s code with artists in mind.

Incentivize the private sector to create space for the arts. Artists and arts organizations have trouble using alternative spaces. But there is also a shortage in the city of smaller, more traditional venues. Jordan Roth moved his Ro2 Art gallery from downtown to the Cedars in 2016. “You can’t just find space and move,” he says. There are conflicting and contradictory definitions of art galleries in the current city code and various planned development districts. “I think the city still doesn’t know what an art gallery is,” Roth says. “Why? I have no idea.”

Even with a necessary revision of Dallas’ code, there is still a need for more spaces for the arts. Other cities have developed tools that have created incentives for the private sector to fill in the gaps. In Seattle, for example, a report drafted in 2017 laid out a series of proposals to create zoning and permit exemptions and bonuses that would reward developers who build publicly accessible cultural spaces. The proposals include everything from wonky solutions like leaving proposed cultural spaces out of the floor-to-area ratio calculations to allowing developers to build rooftop cultural spaces that exceed the height restrictions set by zoning. Their proposals would place the burden of ensuring spaces are up to code on property owners, not artists.

The market is not going to build spaces for the arts on its own; the city can help push it in a direction that encourages the market to address the shortage. And numerous studies have shown that artistic activity helps build the vibrancy and value of neighborhoods.

Raid VisitDallas’ budget. For years, Dallas arts advocates have batted around the benefits of funding the city’s cultural programming through the general fund or via the hotel tax, which is how, for example, Houston generates cultural funding. If Dallas had funded its public investment in the arts through a hotel tax over the past 30 years—rather than leaving it to the political whims of budgeting season—it is likely the city wouldn’t be facing issues like millions of dollars in deferred maintenance on its cultural facilities.

Those hotel dollars have for years largely been held hostage by VisitDallas, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. Earlier this year, a scathing audit of the organization revealed that VisitDallas’ $30 million annual budget is poorly—and illegally—managed. And Spectra, the company that took over management of Fair Park, is also taking over the booking of the city’s convention center. Now is the time for arts groups to demand their fair share of the hotel tax. That money wouldn’t just address the city’s maintenance needs; it would fund some of the initiatives laid out in the new Cultural Plan, like the desperate need for more community arts centers.

These three ideas are not cure-alls. They are not going to address some of the imperfections embedded deeply in Dallas’ cultural DNA. They are not going to make collectors support the careers of local artists, make more patrons shift their donations to tiny arts organizations, make audiences more curious and adventurous, make schools expand their arts education, make opportunities open to all corners of the city, or make an all-but-evaporated local arts media re-materialize.

But these steps would help. And they are doable. And they would do more than another Dallas Arts Month to establish our city’s reputation as a place where the arts matter.

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