Next fiscal year’s budget for Dallas is still weeks away from approval. But KERA commentator Lee Cullum doesn’t like what she’s seen and heard so far in the spending plan for arts and culture:
Click the audio player to listen to the commentary:
Our summer battle for the Good, the True and the Beautiful has begun again. Or the Bad and the Ugly, the Naked and the Dead, however you like your art. It’s budget season at City Hall, and culture, whether high, low or middle-brow, has seldom been so threatened. City Manager Mary Suhm has done a heroic job of paring the predicted shortfall from $130 million to $35 million with painful measures like furlough days for firefighters and police.
But she is not leaving them without hope. In mid-May, city staff presented a five-year plan to restore lost funding not only to the police and fire departments but also to the zoo; parks and recreation and the library, which is partially redeemed in the latest Suhm proposal; plus mid-level maintenance for streets, also now slated for renewal.
However, Veletta Lill, former Council member and now our number one guardian of culture as head of Dallas Arts District, was quick to note that nothing was mentioned in that report about the arts. It’s as if the city is ready to renounce 40 years of active support of performance in Dallas and a commitment to cultural facilities reaching back much farther than that.
The axing of the arts this year will be dramatic, drastic and in some cases fatal. Veletta Lill pointed out the extent of the carnage: Cuts in cultural services grants are budgeted at 73 percent; neighborhood touring programs, 100 percent; conservation of public art, 100 percent; the AT&T Center for the Performing Arts, 95 percent.
In happier days, before the opening of the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre, the AT&T Center had a contract with the city for $2.5 million a year for maintenance. That was reduced to $800,000 for 2009 and an equal amount this year, none of which has been paid. Maria Munoz-Blanco, head of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said these funds would be forthcoming once the Annette Strauss Artists’ Square opens in the fall. As for 2011, all that these spectacular assets can expect from the city is $200,000, a staggering shortfall from the original agreement.
“Let them eat the proceeds from Moby Dick,” the Dallas Opera’s enormously successful world premier, will be the rallying cry for cost-cutters. Perhaps patrons will indeed make up the difference, though it will be a stretch in this economy. But who will salvage the Lone Star Wind Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Singers, the Allegro Guitar Society or the Asian Film group or the Holocaust Museum when they falter, deprived of the certifying city funding that helps attract matching grants from foundations? It will be a case of a thousand graces gone, or seriously diminished.
Maria Munoz-Blanco declared a “new paradigm” for the arts at City Hall, a paradigm based on “less money.” The Meyerson Symphony Center, which she oversees, might deploy volunteer ushers, she said, and charge presentation fees to groups that use the facility. That certainly is a brave and necessary way of muddling through. But it is not the plan for the future that Veletta Lill and Councilwoman Ann Margolin believe we must have. They are right. The arts bring magic to a city, and make that city sing, and prosper. If you don’t have the magic, you don’t have anything.
Lee Cullum hosts the monthly program C.E.O. on KERA 13. Her conversation with Bob Best, CEO of Atmos Energy, airs July 30.