The Billion Dollar Question: When Will the City of Dallas Financially Support The Arts?

Welcome to Canvassing, our regular look at the conversations that surround the Dallas art world. Pull up a chair. Stay with us for a while. The view's pretty nice from here.

About a year ago, I found myself watching a young black girl, probably around four years old, play in a gallon of yellow paint during a sidewalk painting workshop led by artist Cynthia Saathoff for Rick Lowe's Trans.lation: Vickery Meadow.

I remember how fearlessly she dipped her brush into the paint, how she attacked the sidewalk, how delighted and in awe she was at discovering that this is what paint can do. I think the moment sticks out because I was getting ready to go to the Dallas Art Fair Gala, and I remember thinking that art belongs to this young girl just as much as anyone who would be at the gala that night.

Something that we lose sight of when we talk about art is that creativity is for everyone. Professional writers tend to focus on a very narrow slice of the creative pie, and that tends to mask just how big the pie really is. According to a 2015 Texas Cultural Trust report, the arts and culture industry generates $5.1 billion dollars and $320 million in sales tax revenues for the State of Texas.

A 2010 report produced by Deloitte on behalf of the North Texas Business Council for the Arts pegs the economic impact just from the nonprofit arts and culture sector in North Texas at over $1 billion dollars annually.

Art and culture is a massive industry for the state, the region and the city of Dallas. Granted, some people say that you can't put a dollar amount on what creatives do. But you really can. And, in this town, it's over a billion dollars.

Yet our city government doesn't appear to think it's worth investing in and supporting the people behind this billion-dollar arts and culture industry (read: the artists). When Southern Methodist University's National Center For Arts Research (full disclosure: I work for SMU) did a statistical look into how Dallas compares to other counties across the country when it comes to supporting the arts, 157 counties scored better than Dallas did.

Think about that for a second. There are 157 places in the United States that do a better job at supporting the arts than we do in Dallas. For a city whose government has for years expressed a desire to become a “world-class” city, that's just embarrassing.

Even more embarrassing: When you dive deeper into the data, it becomes abundantly clear that the biggest difference — the thing that is really holding us back from marching to the top — is local government support. Other large cities give twice as much funding to the arts as Dallas does. Whereas the arts in Dallas receive about 3.2 percent of its funding from government support, the rest of country averages around 6 percent. It's important to note that I'm not talking about LA or NYC, which are closer to 8 percent; rather, I am talking about Sante Fe, Minneapolis, Chicago, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and, as Lauren Smart at the Dallas Observer recently pointed out, even Shreveport.

We know that this is a problem. And multiple groups are doing their part to fix it, working on providing grants for artists. The Contemporary Art Dealers of Dallas launched CADD FUNd last fall. The Nasher Sculpture Center too just announced that it will be awarding small artist grants for visual artists in any medium, and I would urge artists to apply for this funding here before the April 3 deadline passes.

Of course, the Dallas Museum of Art has long awarded artist grants each spring, the Meadows Museum does the same in the fall, and there are many other efforts that chip away at this issue, as well. But when you realize that the gap between Dallas and those other markets $16 million dollars, it's obvious that none of these programs are large enough to have a systemic effect on Dallas. And, yes, this includes the upcoming $40,000 Office of Cultural Affairs creative project fund. Although these are all admirable and necessary steps in the right direction, many of these programs are also hampered by the same questions of access that plague most of our major cultural institutions.

And so this brings me back to the young black girl in Vickery Meadow and the hundreds of thousands of black and brown people she represents across the city.

Art-making, this beautiful act of creation that affirms our basic humanity, belongs to her. She deserves access to it. She deserves to grow up among creatives of all types of people living, working and engaging in her neighborhood. And those creatives deserve more than just lip-service from the City of Dallas. They deserve its full support.

Art and culture isn't just for a particular type of person or part of town. Investing in artists can help bring art to every part of Dallas. Investing in artists will help create hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact, improve public safety and public health, and make our entire city a more vibrant place to work and live.

This is what is happening in the many great art cities across our country.

The City of Dallas needs to realize this and make the necessary financial investments in its artists if it wants to finally live up to its own hype and make Dallas a better place for everyone.

Cover photo by Scott Lumley.

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