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Arts Center of North Texas: Wounded, But Not Dead

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Dreams of a multimillion-dollar performing arts center in Collin County took a severe hit last year when Frisco residents voted to pull out. And last week, the cities involved agreed to give back the land donated for the project. But there are still hopes, however faint, for SOME kind of arts complex there.

KERA Radio story:

Last year, the Plano Symphony Orchestra featured music from Carmina Burana in a sold-out concert. In fact, the symphony has consistently sold out concerts for the past six seasons.

There’s only one problem. Those sellouts are happening in Richardson at the Eisemann Center. When Plano residents want to see their symphony, they’ve got to hop on Central Expressway and head to the Collin County-Dallas County border. And the distance isn’t the only problem.

“The challenge for us and others is the scheduling,” says Debbie Watson, the symphony’s executive director. “It’s a very popular venue, and really there’s not another venue like that in North Texas north of LBJ.”

The Plano Symphony intended to call the proposed Arts Center of North Texas home. About a dozen Collin County arts groups were also interested in performing there.

But an agreement among the cities of Plano, Allen and Frisco fell apart, leaving the project in a state of flux. And a number of arts organizations without a home.

“These are some of the finest regional arts organizations in the country,” says Arts Center of North Texas board president Bob Baggett. “And yet they’re really starving for venues and they have a very difficult time scheduling their programs.”

The center was planned for a 120-acre site along State Highway 121 in Allen. The project’s first phase included a 2,000-seat performance hall. A donor gave the land to the organization, and the cities plan to return it.

But just because the plan unraveled doesn’t mean the project can’t be built. Baggett proposes that the Arts Center of North Texas be spun-off into a new non-profit organization. He made the recommendation in a letter to the three member cities and the center’s board. Baggett says the move would allow the center to operate more freely and possibly make it easier to raise money. Plus, he says the land donor would consider redonating the land to the new organization.

But when a project this ambitious falls apart, a question still floats in the air: Was it really a good idea?

“It’s one thing to build up a brick-and-mortar structure, but it costs an absolute fortune to run such a complex,” says  Jim Hart, the director of SMU’s Arts Entrepreneurship program. “And when you’ve got competing interests in both Dallas and Fort Worth, I question the need.”

Instead, Hart recommends thinking more modestly. Rather than 2,000 seats, maybe 300? That wouldn’t help groups like the Plano Symphony, which is already filling the 1,500-seat Eisemann Center. But theater and dance companies typically draw smaller audiences.

“Instead of creating a major touring house that’s going to be competing with these larger interests that are already established, perhaps they should do something entirely new and offer something that isn’t offered anywhere else and actually draws the Dallas and Fort Worth communities to those performances in that community,” Hart says. “That seems to me like a much smarter option because you wouldn’t have as much competition and you have the potential to create a niche.”

Baggett says that during this transitional period, those types of questions will be considered by the Arts Center’s board, as well as arts leaders in the region.

“I think if you talk to the performing arts community, you’d see there’s definitely a need,” he says. “Next question: Is there still a desire to do something on a larger scale that no one city could afford on their own?”

  • Jim Hart

    I’m curious to see what sort of market research has been done in these cities (the ones considering a multi-city collaboration)–both in terms of current cultural offerings (competition in the area), as well as audience demand and future projections. It would also be wise to look at the funding possibilities from sources outside of tax-based funding. It’s important to make sure the donor pools (within DFW) would 1. want to support another center and 2. could do so without all centers in the area, suffering. After all, there are only so many who give to the arts at the moment.

    No doubt there is demand in the area, as this article articulates. So, let’s find out what that demand is and meet it. As that project is able to grow, then build on, organically. Doing this will save these communities from having a large and long-term tax burden.