News and Features

It’s Not the Performance Hall. It’s the City Budget. So Fight for a PID.

What’s currently being built is the middle “tall” part of the City Performance Hall. The rest is “Phase 2.”

With all of the blogosphere fallout over Michael Granberry’s front-page feature last week in the Dallas Morning News — the story about small-to-midsize arts groups worried over how the still-abuilding City Performance Hall will be managed, how much it’ll cost to rent, whether it’ll be any good, how it’ll be scheduled when the arts organizations’ plans are already two years ahead — a fundamental financial-political equation got lost.

The important issue isn’t whether the hall will work the way it’s hoped, providing overlooked arts organizations an Arts District location and a performance platform on which they can shine. For one thing, Phase 1, the current performance auditorium going up, isn’t really suitable for theater companies. They can use it, but it’s really laid out more as a dance-and-small-concert hall. What’s more, it’s taken the Dallas Theater Center a season and a half to get some sense of how to work the Wyly. It’ll be years before the presenters at the Winspear Opera House really know which touring shows suit that hall and suit this market. In other words, no one really knows yet how the Hall will function as a practical, live performance matter.

Nor is the crucial question whether the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs will be an effective manager for the hall. It’s more basic than that: OCA can’t and won’t be an effective administrator for the new hall for a simple reason. It won’t have the necessary staffing or funding to do so. It just won’t. Period.

It’s hardly OCA’s fault. This fact is mentioned in Granberry’s article, though it’s quickly overwhelmed by a blizzard of construction cost figures and revenue projections. But the news this week about the city’s proposed budget plan should have made it plain to anyone who can read: Cultural services contracts will be funded at 75 percent of the current year’s budget level. And 20 percent of program-related expenses at five cultural centers will be cut — as well as 50 percent of funding for the maintenance and repair of fourteen city-owned facilities and 25 percent of the cultural services contracts to arts organizations.

Programming and service contracts are certainly taking a hit, but facility maintenance is being cut in half, and that’s the day-to-day, keeping-the-place-from-falling-apart stuff: trash piling up, not mowing lawns, broken doors being left broken. That’s very telling. what’s more, all these cuts are based on current budget levels — which already are brutally lower from cutbacks over the past several years.

To take one example in programming: Even before the proposed 20 percent drop in programming expenses will take effect, the Bath House Cultural Center already has lost 85 percent of its program budget over the past four years.

And that’s just the programming at one facility.

So what’s the (possible, limited) solution?

Did you feel especially empowered Thursday? It was Dallas Arts Advocacy Day 2011. The Dallas Area Cultural Advocacy Coalition held discussions and a luncheon at the Sammons Center and both mayoral candidates, Mike Rawlings and David Kunkle, were present.

During the luncheon, Bob Ray Sanders (Star-Telegram editor and former KERA journalist) spoke passionately about how, every few years, when budgets get tight or different groups get in power, it’s always the education and cultural budgets that are targeted, even vilified. He pointed out that the Texas legislature has managed something of a home run this year, managing to slash $4 billion from public education while also cutting libraries, the arts and historic preservation.

The same, he argued, is more or less true from the national to the local levels: Politicians who have never supported such programs when the coffers were full are using our current financial woes as a cover to gut the things they’ve always hated. They’re advancing ideological goals in the guise of financial common-sense when cultural matters amount to a pittance in fixing deficits.

Veletta Lill, executive director of the Dallas Arts District, also spoke at the luncheon. She said the solution on the local level is to remove cultural funding from the city’s general budget. Every year, that’s the budget that’s subjected to the interests of pressure groups, the area economy and, of course, it’s the target of council members wanting to score ‘budget-cutting points.’

How to remove the arts from that melee? Create a PID, she said, and get (at least a piece) of the hotel-motel tax. That way, a set amount of each year’s tax revenue will go directly to funding and maintaining the city’s arts facilities. The PID — or public improvement district — would be used to distribute the revenue into covering things like landscaping, improved signage and lighting, whatever. This arts facility PID would be unusual in that most PIDs are geographically localized — Uptown has a PID, for instance. Grand Prairie is considered a state leader in using them for many residential neighborhoods. But a ‘non-geographic’ PID is not unheard-of.

This entire question came up earlier in the mayoral campaign, during the Nasher Sculpture Center debate. The city’s hotel-motel tax currently goes to paying off the debt on the American Airlines Center. But that will soon be retired, years ahead of schedule. If culture groups could re-direct that tax money to support the city’s arts facilities, then, well, a golden age will not dawn, but a large degree of political-budgetary uncertainty would be removed from this equation — the kind of uncertainty that the future management of the City Performance Hall currently faces.

Dallas has a long history of building grand projects (Fair Park, anyone?) and then running off to greet the next Bright Shining Promise,  leaving the established ones to languish in disrepair. Well, we claim, they failed. They got old, they don’t look so cool anymore. Besides, they didn’t usher us into our rightful paradise of permanent cultural acclaim.

In two years’ time, the new City Performance Hall could prove to be an undeniable success when it comes to live performances by, say, the Bruce Wood Dance Project or any number of chamber music groups. But in this instance, what happens on stage and in theatergoers’ hearts won’t make much difference — if the city has continued to gut the administrative and maintenance personnel that any center needs just to keep the lights on, the restrooms clean and next season’s calendar full.

Right now, Lill said, the group that’s pushing for the hotel tax revenue is the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau. An ironic development — in that it can be argued, quite a few visitors come to Dallas  (certainly from the suburbs) because of cultural events.

But if culture groups want that tax money, she said, they’ll have to fight for it.

Lill finished by asking for volunteers.