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Dallas Has New Public Funds for the Arts, But We’re Screwing Up the Opportunity

When it comes to the public funding of culture, Dallas has always struggled. First off, there has never been much money in the city budget for grants for arts organizations. Most of the dollars that do exist in the general fund are directed to cultural facilities, from the Meyerson and the DMA to the Bath House and the Majestic. And while many other cities divert a portion of their hotel tax to help fund arts and culture, the city’s cultural budget is tied to the ups and downs (and, typically, just downs) of the city budgeting process.

But then, back in 2012, a glimmer of hope: a new way to kick new funds into the arts emerged, a rather loosey-goosey financial tool called a “Dallas Tourism Public Improvement District.” Unlike a traditional PID, in which property owners voluntarily pay an additional tax to create a fund for neighborhood improvements, the TPID wasn’t geographically defined. Rather, it only included Dallas’ hotels. In other words, it’s a tax surcharge on the hotel industry, a municipal funding loophole that promised to raise more dollars for the hotel industry. The other promise of the fund – an important compromise reached in order to create additional support for the TPID – was that arts groups would finally have access to public money that wasn’t tied to city budgeting. It was a bit of a watershed moment. Dallas’ tourism office (which is essentially a convention center business) finally realized that people come to cities for reasons other than Power Points, strip joints, sports, and Razzoos. It just took a few billion dollars invested in an Arts District — and probably regular art cameos on Dallas Cowboys broadcasts — to convince DCVB brass that culture could serve as a calling card.

All hunky-dory, right? Well, not quite. Because yesterday the DCVB announced that it will be holding an information session for arts groups interested in tapping the TPID funds, and it turns out that these funds are not really public dollars at all. In fact, the release says that to apply for the funds, arts groups will have to demonstrate how many hotel room nights their programming generates. This stipulation is punctuated by a somewhat scolding, father-knows-best reminder of just who is charge of the precious dollars: “Established to help boost conventions, meetings and visitors coming to Dallas, a portion of the revenues generated by the Dallas Tourism Public Improvement District (DTPID) is available for local groups and organizations to attract additional meetings and groups.” So here is our city tourism office, yet again, operating as a convention recruitment firm, with its one-dimensional focus bringing in “meetings and groups.”

In a way, the DCVB is right. The funds have become available for arts groups because the DCVB now recognizes that culture helps attract “meetings and groups.” But they still don’t seem to grasp just how this works. Cultural attractions aren’t like sports tournaments; a great show at the Undermain Theatre isn’t going to get someone from Boise to book a night at the Anatole. Culture attracts through reputation, it creates the sense that Dallas is an exciting, invigorating place to be. It builds civic identity via incremental, long-term growth. It’s not the makeup a city puts on to look good – it’s what makes a city beautiful-enough to not need too much makeup in the first place.

Needless to say, it is going to be a burden for the arts groups that are most in need of new sources of public dollars to prove that they have any direct impact on filling up hotel rooms. And even if such correlations could be made with any reliability, arts groups that most need funds don’t have the staff or time to start jumping through the DCVB’s hoops. They have good art to make, and that takes staff and time enough.

But what really makes this stipulation ridiculous is that it flies in the face of the very idea of public funding for the arts. Public funding is intended precisely to remove the pressures of the market from the funding of art. It is intended to help sustain organizations whose value is understood not in terms of market forces, but in the quality of its mission and programming and the relationship it has with the local community. That’s why the groups that get the little public funds that are available today – from Vicki Meeks’ vital programing at the South Dallas Cultural Center to Bart Weiss’ ever-avant-garde Dallas Video Festival – are organizations who wouldn’t be able to easily demonstrate a direct – or massive – impact on hotel vacancies. Nor should they be asked to be. To tie arts funding to hotel vacancy is a ridiculous premise for deciding what kind of arts group is deserving of public support. And if hotel owners believe the TPID isn’t truly “public,” they should raise their fund by creating a private business association. Have fun collecting those dues.

Much of the support for the TPID came from the arts community which was under the impression that Dallas would finally figure out a way to diversify the way it funds the arts. Now, it is likely that the arts groups that will be able to prove a substantial impact on the hotel business are the groups that don’t need the new funds as much as those for whom a new source of modest granting could have a tremendous impact on their operations and viability. Dallas is already a city that tends to favor the support of its top-tier cultural institutions while struggling — both in audience and funding — to sustain a diversity of groups and organizations of multiple sizes and artistic vision. If the DCVB administers the TPID funds in the way the release suggests, it will just perpetuate this top-down model.

In other words, Dallas figured out a way to create new public funds for the arts, and then they’ve figured out how to screw it up again. Let’s hope the DCVB hears this kind of feedback at the information session. They should revise their criteria. They should take the power of the purse away from hotel managers and hand it over to a jury of artistic peers. The TPID should become an important means to nurture the flourishing of a quality, diverse, and vibrant cultural scene. In the long run that will have the greatest impact on filling up all those precious, little hotel rooms. (h/t Art & Seek)