When it comes to the cost of culture — still an urgent enterprise — there’s nobody more resourceful than Veletta Forsythe Lill, head of Dallas Arts District. She needs to be. The Wyly Theater and Winspear Opera House, once promised $2.5 million annually for maintenance in a contract with City Hall, saw that figure reduced to $800,000 this year as well as last. Thus far only $360,000 of that $1.6 million have been paid. But Maria Munoz-Blanco, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, said that bills for about $300,000 are waiting for proper documentation, with another $600,000 or so also in the works.
Heating and cooling invoices are the easiest to deal with, she noted, because both the Wyly and the Winspear are highly efficient buildings, unlike the Meyerson Symphony Center with its enormous open spaces. The problems occur in things such as janitorial services. Breaking down a set, she said, is an arts program, not a maintenance expense like cleaning, and thus not covered by the city. That’s where documentation comes in and it’s taking a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to satisfy both sides. However, Ms. Munoz-Blanco was firm in her promise that the full allocation for the past two years will be fully reimbursed.
Even so, the appropriation for 2011 has fallen to $500,000 and that leaves a big, $2 million hole in the funding plans of the AT&T Center for the Performing Arts. The situation is just as tough for other groups funded by the city, from Teatro Dallas to the Kitchen Dog Theater.
Veletta Lill, always one for action, has a proposal. In most Texas cities, she pointed out, the hotel and motel tax is dedicated partly to the arts, but not here. Instead it goes to the convention and visitors bureau and the convention center itself. So why not take the revenues that will become available when bonds on the American Airlines Arena are paid off in late 2011 or early 2012 (before their due date, according to Jeanne Chipperfield, city chief financial officer) and commit them to the Wyly, the Winspear, the Meyerson, the Dallas Museum of Art and similar institutions?
Those in the Arts District could demonstrate pretty effectively, she argued, that they contribute to reservations in local hotels. This would satisfy the demands of the Hotel and Lodging Association in Austin, which insists that state law requires a “head-bed” connection. Not so, counters Texans for the Arts. The legislation that created the hotel-motel tax allows local governments to use their own judgment in allocating funds to cultural groups. My reading of the law agrees with this latter view.
Could it be done? Yes, it could, according to Ms. Munoz-Blanco, who pointed out that in Houston, where she worked before coming to Dallas, there is no need for arts efforts to prove their impact on hotel reservations or mount an advertising campaign outside the city. All the arts draw people to Houston, so all are eligible for a portion of the hotel-motel tax, with the rest going to the convention center and promotion of it.
What is needed, explained bond attorney Ray Hutchison, is a referendum to re-authorize a 2 percent hotel-motel tax and 5 percent car rental tax. The city could ask the legislature to amend the statute, waiving this requirement, he said, but my guess is city officials would be reluctant to take this route, lest they anger the voters.
It would take some doing to win this election, of course, but it’s far from impossible given that the tax is already in place and would not be levied on local citizens, at all, unless they checked into a hotel or rented a car. Culture of all kinds — high, middle-brow and street — is the calling card of Dallas. It is the arts that set this city apart and suffuse it with style. Why not give them the same help here that they have all over Texas?