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Mark Weinstein Just Needs Some Swagger, Some Time – And Some Tacos

by Jerome Weeks 11 Oct 2011 6:00 AM

Mark Weinstein is starting his first full season running the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which itself hasn’t even been open for two full years. So he’s asking all of us impatient North Texans to let him have just a little more time to turn it into Lincoln Center.


The new face of the AT&T PAC? Free Saturday morning yoga class in Sammons Park

In May, Mark Weinstein was hired as the new CEO for the AT&T Performing Arts Center. He’s just now starting his first full season there. But as he reminds KERA’s Jerome Weeks, the Center itself is only in its second year. And we’re not even done finishing the Arts District as a whole. So get a grip, folks: Everything is still just in start-up mode.

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Mark Weinstein came to Dallas after stints running opera companies in New York, Pittsburgh and Washington, D. C. Before he arrived, Weinstein did his due diligence. He sized up the center, the city and the state of Texas, with its reputation for swagger.

Weinstein: “I didn’t know what to make of that until I got here. It’s this can-do attitude that I want. ‘We’re going to get this done and nothing’s going to stop us.’ And that’s what happened with these buildings getting built. Nothing stopped them, not a recession. Nothing.”

On the other hand, Weinstein has seen one downside to that can-do attitude. We don’t like to wait. Otherwise, we’re off to the next Big Shiny Thing.

Weinstein: “People expect success overnight. There’s not a lot of patience here – which is a good thing. I like that because it puts the fire under us. But this place opened a year and a half ago. I think people need to give this place a little bit of time.”

Of course, one could also see our impatience as the logical consequence of the way Big Shiny Things have historically been sold to citizens in the Dallas area — as  life-changing, prestige-enhancing must-have, must-pass bond issues or real-estate deals: the Arts District, Victory Park and the American Airlines Center, the Las Colinas monorail and canals, the Trinity River Project and so on. Each was hawked as an urgent bet on the future health of the area, our collective prosperity and probably even general, improved skin care. Given this history, a certain wariness, disillusionment or impatience with such Dream Big and the The Future is Now kind of city planning would seem inevitable.

And make no mistake: The scope  of the AT&T Performing Arts Center is, indeed, vast. Forget, for a moment,  the art being staged in it. The AT&T plans on nothing less than changing the course of the city’s night life, even giving this city a new urban center, something more than NorthPark or the Galleria, at any rate.

Directing a multi-venue performing arts center as complex and ambitious as the AT&T is not something many people have done. There just aren’t many around – with opera, dance and theater companies, touring productions, speaker’s series and outdoor concerts all coordinated by one organization. But while Weinstein (left) was at New York City Opera, he was on the governing council of Lincoln Center. And while he was running the Washington National Opera, he helped merge its operations into the Kennedy Center. So he’s had experience with the two big American art complexes that inspired venues like the AT&T (even if, in some instances, they inspired them with what not to do).

As a result, Weinstein holds to the long view. He points out that for many years after Lincoln Center opened in the early ‘60s, it was considered a failure. Its art groups quarreled, and the Vivian Beaumont Theatre got the reputation for absolutely killing stage shows. The center seemed headed in the wrong direction even when it came to its larger purpose of urban renewal: The public didn’t like to go there.

Weinstein: “Lincoln Center was built in a bad neighborhood. For the first ten years, it was a scary place to go. You weren’t sure if you were safe. But look at the development, look at everything that’s happened. It has become an incredible cultural institution.”

It just took 30-40 years to really get going. Performing art centers are essentially built for the future. Not so much for the immediate pay-off.

The AT&T PAC is already taking strides, Weinstein says, to improve its organizational advantages — like sharing services among its arts groups, such as healthcare. Even the Dallas Symphony — which, strictly speaking, is not a part of the PAC — is looking to join. That’s because in its infinite wisdom,  the federal government, Weinstein happily notes, does not consider arts groups monopolies or competitors. They can collaborate on such financial deals.

But Weinstein’s immediate challenge is fundraising. The center needs to raise $3 to 5 million each year to cover costs. Every major performing arts center, Weinstein says, has such an operating fund. None of them turns a profit unless they’re rock ‘n’ roll venues.

More importantly, he needs to raise the last $40 million to pay for the buildings. Forty million out of a total of $354 million is really not so bad, Weinstein argues. He compares the AT&T PAC’s financial situation to Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center, which repeatedly had to halt construction because of cash drying up . Consequently, the center went way over schedule, and its initial cost doubled to $427 million. It nearly went broke its first season and was only bailed out when Arsht, the former CEO of TotalBank, personally donated a hefty $30 million.

In comparison, Weinstein is following what many would see as the Everest of capital campaigns. When he was CEO of the PAC, Bill Lively persuaded 134 Dallas-area families and foundations to give $1 million or more to the building of the center. No one else has managed that.

But in a front-page feature in the Dallas Morning News, Michael Granberry asked, Has Dallas’ generation of big-pocketed philanthropists — the Wylies and the Hamons and the Winspears  — passed on? With no one to replace them?

Actually, Weinstein sees an opportunity in that unprecedented capital campaign.

Weinstein: “Only in Dallas could it have been done this way. And what that means is that there was a very narrow campaign among the very wealthy. The fact is we have never gone to our audiences. So what we’re going to do is broaden that campaign.”

For one thing, he’s thinking about  a possible membership drive for regular patrons. It’s a way for more of the general public to “buy in” to the center.

When it comes to changing the course of Dallas, the other weakness of the PAC is one that plagues  the Arts District as a whole — and Weinstein can’t do much about it. The area simply lacks the restaurants and stores that people like to enjoy before or after shows – the kind of retail that grew up around Lincoln Center. This is what invites people to stroll, linger, shop and eat — instead of just fleeing back home. It’s the full, downtown, street-scene experience. The advantage New York City had, of course, is that although the Upper West Side in the ’60s was crime-ridden, it still had the basic infrastructure of an actual neighborhood: streets, subways and buildings. Dallas’ persistent disadvantage is that we nuked downtown. So the Arts District is re-building from a starting point much, much farther back than Lincoln Center.

Still, there are food trucks in the Arts District now (above). There will be a restaurant in the nearby Woodall Rodgers Park, once it’s finished. The Billingsley Company plans to add a second tower, Two Arts Plaza, to its multi-use Arts Plaza complex on the north-east end of the District. And the Hall Financial Group has said there will be ground-floor retail in the 22-story tower it has long, long, long planned to build. That’s the one that for the past 15 years has been the ugly concrete bunker (aka “Stonehenge”) over the underground parking garage in front of the Meyerson Symphony Center.

Even with such construction/commercial activity headed toward the area of Pearl and Ross, Weinstein admits: “It will take a little bit of time before we get our first Gap store.”

For now, he sees some of the urban bustle the complex sorely needs coming from events and series that are just starting. Sammons Park, for example, is now home to the free concert series, the Patio Sessions, and on weekends, there are  free yoga and zumba classes. And then there’s the open-air amphitheatre, Annette Strauss Square.

Weinstein: “I think it’s going to be a huge boon to the AT&T Performing Arts Center because we plan to have lots of community events there that are free or for five dollars. Then we’re working on concessions so that we can have, you know, dollar taco night there.”

. . .  dollar taco night?

Weinstein [laughing]: “All right, you got me. It’s going to be a buck-fifty. I lied.”

Photo outfront by Todd Landry one of our Flickr Photo of the Week winners.