City Arts Festival
Dallas iMedia Network hosted a special live program today at 2 p.m., a collective discussion of the state of the arts in the Dallas area, hosted by Lisa Embry, Dallas iMedia Network president/CEO. In the studio with her was an assorted dozen local arts leaders — from Jac Alder of Theatre Three through Kirsten Brandt James of the Junior Players to Ann Williams of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre.
Part of the motivation behind the show — or at least the arts administrators’ participation in it — seemed to be a fear of possible budget cuts in city arts funding. Or arts support in general. Host Embry aimed the early discussion toward education programs, and straight off, James and Lisa Schreiner of the Dallas Children’s Theatre pointed out that city cuts would directly affect free or outreach performances for students.
Having participated in and hosted such arts summits, I can say that any give-and-take tends to turn into a series of separate pitches and pleas from the arts leaders. Embry introduced the program describing how she was helped in making certain that “each arts discipline is well-represented here today” — an admirably inclusive sentiment that can counter much depth of discussion. We got a blur of data, self-promotion and personal stories: how writing programs, for instance, have suffered along with arts programs (even though writing is considered a “core” subject in education), how young participants in the Video Association of Dallas have gone on to pursue it academically and professionally.
Among artists and arts administrators there’s a felt need to stand up for their art, justify their life’s work, against the general sense that they are sidelined from “the business of the city” — or the nation — sidelined from education requirements, sidelined from our electronic culture. It’s what arts administrators often do with great passion, after all. When they speak to boards, foundations or patrons, they defend their need for tax dollars, philanthropic dollars.
So we got some of that in this forum. The need to justify is also what motivates the argument that “arts are good for business,” an argument I have strong reservations about. It means that, rather than seeing the arts as a value in themselves, a human need, we will judge them on corporate terms. It’s a logical and practical argument for the arts to make and one that can be effective in the fundraising short run. But the arts can lose on those terms; ultimately, they’re not built that way.
Kim Campbell of the Dallas Wind Symphony: “Any city will be remembered by what we [artists] create in our time. … I don’t think anyone who will dig up the remnants of our society will say, ‘Woah, what a wonderful balance sheet this corporation had.'”
Other topics in the program included collaboration among cultural groups, scheduling, philanthropy, the lack of cultural coverage in much mainstream media and the financial impact of the arts (notably the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts as a kind of “critical mass” for attracting new businesses, new audiences). It’s often the seasoned veterans in such a gathering — such as Theatre Three’s Alder or Margaret Robinette of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs — who bring these subjects into a historical or expanded perspective.
What the gathering notably lacked in representation were any bigger groups: the Dallas Opera, Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Summer Musicals, Dallas Museum of Art, etc. The almost-Darwinian struggle between small and mid-size organizations for funding against the bigger ones, the ones with public facilities, took over a sizable portion of the program after Cora Cardona of Teatro Dallas expressed her fear that lovely buildings like the DCPA’s would drain away the funding resources out there.
“The Dallas Center for the Performing Arts is not the bad guy here,” countered Charles Santos of TITAS. “We have to find a way to bring home the needs of the artists — like health insurance. We have to find a way for supporters to understand the less sexy things” that are necessary for any organization to survive, like the core, administrative work. It was what he called “the Catch-22 of arts funding,”
In fact, as Bart Weiss of the Video Association of Dallas later said of the arts administrators present: “If it weren’t for the people in this room, many of the wonderful things that happen in this city wouldn’t happen.”
Dallas Cultural Affairs Commission Chair Judy Pollock asked for new ideas, new incentives — the way other states, for instance, have linked the interests of hunters and fishermen with arts funding. “We need to think big,” she said.
Embry ended the show with the desire that it would become a monthly “arts focus” program on iMedia: “We just really scratched at the surface. Next time: We’re going to invite some of you back along with some new faces.”