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Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs Faces Fight at City Hall


by Stephen Becker 23 Jul 2009

On Wednesday night, members of the Dallas Area Cultural Advocacy Coalition held a serious strategy session. The focus: how to keep the Office of Cultural Affairs independent. Dallas Cultural Affairs Commission Chair Judy Pollock reported to the group that Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm will recommend that the OCA be absorbed into the Library Department […]

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On Wednesday night, members of the Dallas Area Cultural Advocacy Coalition held a serious strategy session. The focus: how to keep the Office of Cultural Affairs independent.

Dallas Cultural Affairs Commission Chair Judy Pollock reported to the group that Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm will recommend that the OCA be absorbed into the Library Department when she submits her budget recommendation to the City Council on Aug. 10. The city is facing a $190.2 million deficit, and cuts will be coming to multiple departments. Pollock said that Suhm told her the move would save between $100,000 and $200,000 in the budget.

The cost to the OCA, however, would be significant. Its budget would now become part of the library’s budget. And it would no longer have a director-level ambassador within City Hall. As Pollock put it, “When there is a directors meeting, there will be no one there for us. We will not have a voice.”

The OCA performs multiple duties, from maintaining the city’s cultural centers (Bath House, South Dallas Cultural Center, the Meyerson Symphony Center, etc.) to coordinating programs like the recent Free Night of Theater. It also manages several funding programs for Dallas arts groups.

At this point, the best way to block Suhm’s recommendation is for Coalition members to lobby individual council members to vote against the move. At the meeting, members felt they had maybe five allies on the council, though as one participant pointed out, there’s a difference between having an ally and having a vote. The OCA would need votes from eight council members to block the move.

To get those votes, the Coalition members plan to emphasize the OCA’s ability to generate revenue.

“The police, the parks, the libraries – no matter how wonderful they are, they’re not having the economic impact that we are,” said DACAC president Joanna St. Angelo. She and others present agreed that attacking other departments was not the way to go. Highlighting the OCA’s earning potential, they felt, would be more helpful.

To that end, they will lean on a 2001 study conducted by the Perryman Group that states: for every dollar invested in the arts in Texas, more than $298 in cultural impact on the economy occurs. In other words, when the economy is down, why cut from the arts, which have shown that they can bring in much-needed cash?

On Friday, the city property tax rolls will be made public. The estimate, according to St. Angelo, is that revenues will decrease by 5 percent. If that number is lower, there may be some wiggle room for negotiation in the proposed cuts. If the decrease is greater than 5 percent, the cuts could be even steeper than feared.

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  • Jennifer

    It would indeed be a detriment to the entire North Texas arts community if the OCA is absorbed into the Library Department. I sincerely hope that at least eight council members — including the one who represents my district, Sheffie Kadane — votes against this misguided proposal!

  • Whether one is for or against City Manager Mary Suhm’s proposal, I have to say I was taken aback. Dallas has $190.2 million deficit and OCA gets killed to save less than $200,000?

    Certainly, every department’s gotta pitch in to help. But such a drastic move and we’ll shrink that 190.2 down to 190.0.

  • Two-decades-ago-plus, Dallas’ Arts organizations and their leaders argued and won a political struggle to establish the Office of Cultural Affairs with its own director and with a Cultural Affairs Council . Since then, the department has continued to evolve carefully crafted policies and procedures to maximize the efficacy of city funding that leverages the significant earnings and astounding philanthropy twhich, in turn, flows both money and improved quality of life to the City. The Arts are an important and significant economic generator for Dallas, not simply consumers of public monies.

    Establishing a distinct Office of Cultural Affairs wrested financial decisions away from the benign but distracted Park Board and led us all to a more coherent cultural policy for Dallas than in any other major Texas city. Literally thousands of jobs for artists, administrators, and technicians of Dallas have been added over the intervening years. Despite the wounds of the recession, the artistic corps of Dallas has never been stronger.

    Ms. Suhm’s proposal to consolidate City departments is sweeping, not only involving lumping (a word I’m sure she’d contest) the Arts with the library system , but hewing to a philosophy of having fewer independent directors involved in city governance. With all the goodwill I can muster for the library administrators, however, I doubt the wisdom of diverting them from their own challenges to also take on the complicated and distinct needs of arts educators and arts institutions presently supported by city funding. The Office of Cultural Affairs is, itself, overloaded in this upcoming year with once-in-a-lifetime management challenges connected with opening the new the new Dallas Center for the Performing Arts.

    The Arts organizations of the City are unanimous in wanting to keep an independent Office of Cultural Affairs as a distinct department. Cuts in funding are difficult to bear, but over time, most cuts can heal. Especially if shared fairly with other departments. The to-us unworkable administrative joining of the library operations and cultural institution offering isn’t just a cut, it’s uffered an amputation.

    We urge the members of the council to reject this reorganization as a solution to better governance. Such a re-organization, we firmly believe, will obscure everything from budget preparations to administrative procedures.

    JAC ALDER, Executive Producer-Director