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Mayoral Candidates Debate Arts, Arts Funding, Arts Re-Districting

by Jerome Weeks 21 Apr 2011 7:18 AM

Can the hotel-motel tax be used to support Dallas arts? How big a draw is culture for luring companies here? Dallas’ four mayoral candidates answered questions Wednesday at the Nasher Arts Forum.


David Kunkle, Ron Natinsky, Edward Okpa and Mike Rawlings

Wednesday night at the Nasher Sculpture Center, the four candidates for Dallas mayor answered questions about the future of Dallas arts and arts funding. KERA’s Jerome Weeks filed this report.

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Much of the political discussion at the televised Nasher Arts Forum wasn’t about appreciating paintings or music. It was mostly about money: how the arts and arts education might become low priorities for a city facing a possible $96 million budget shortfall. At the same time, the candidates hailed the arts for helping to grow Dallas’ tax base and its employment opportunities by attracting companies here.

Current city councilmember Ron Natinsky extolled his extensive experience (and success) with selling the city (he’s chair of the council’s Economic Development Committee). He explained that in pitching Dallas to outside corporate leaders, the discussion often has revolved on quality of life issues, including the arts. Former police chief David Kunkle modestly began by admitting that with this forum, he would be listening to the discussion perhaps more than contributing to it. But Kunkle did cite the arts repeatedly for improving neighborhoods, and neighborhoods, he argued, were key for civic improvement. He also is a big believer in after-school arts programs as a way to help keep schoolchildren out of trouble — arts education as a factor in reducing crime as well as encouraging creativity.

Former Pizza Hut executive Mike Rawlings took the idea of attracting people to move to Dallas one step further. He pointed out that his daughter (Michelle)  is a painter — living in Rhode Island. We need, he said, to make Dallas livable and attractive, so that artists like his daughter would want to stay here.

Rawlings: “We need working artists in this community. This is not just a showplace. We need to have an artists’ community. Downtown has got that possibility.”

All four candidates touted public-private cooperations as a way to foster arts initiatives (Dallas has a long history of such colllaborations, Natinsky noted). To varying degrees, all four also supported using the 2-cent hotel-motel tax to help fund the arts. But as he’s often done, commercial real estate executive Edward Okpa presented a proposal no other candidate has: He suggested dedicating downtown parking fees to cultural activities.

Many cities use a hotel-motel tax to support arts groups because cultural events often drive tourism. But in Dallas, the tax is currently being used to pay off the debt on the American Airlines Center — which will soon be accomplished, several years ahead of schedule. Both Kunkle and Natinsky, however, warned that many interests would be competing for that tax money, once it becomes available. Both said the arts community would have to be prepared to fight for it.

With the city facing redistricting, the candidates were asked whether they would support shaping a single council district to include downtown, the Arts District, the Design District and lower Greenville — thus consolidating concerns about nightlife, parking, arts facilities and developing mixed-use and residential neighborhoods in the city core. Natinsky said that the redistricting commission would ultimately have to address the issue. Although downtown Dallas is awkwardly split between two council districts, he wondered whether the population numbers would really justify any plan that could stretch to include the Design District. Kunkle felt that it “does make sense to maintain the integrity of the neighborhoods,” while Rawlings declared that if the neighborhoods wanted it, if they speak their minds, the city council would listen.

Only Okpa outright opposed the idea, arguing for a more holistic approach to the city’s problems. He championed the arts as a way to engage young people — suggesting that local media feature arts projects by local students for a week, then auction them off, in the process inspiring the students and raising money. He often brought up cultural  activities well outside the Arts District, feeling they had been neglected. While Rawlings said he was ready to be “a bulldog for the arts” at City Hall, Okpa evoked a different vision of the arts — as a way to unite North and South Dallas.

Okpa: “Art is about embracing a people. Until we embrace each other’s culture, eat our foods, buy arts and put in our homes – that’s how you encourage civic, strategic growth.”