Who would envy Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, as she rides the whirlwind at City Hall, struggling to cut $200 million from next year’s budget? The figures are one thing; fairness another; and good, farsighted sense another still.
Ms. Suhm is trying hard for all three, but one proposal that seems to me especially inopportune is to merge the Office of Cultural Affairs into the Dallas Public Library. While the arts are akin to books as avatars of inspiration, they are meant to be seen and heard, not read. They metabolize differently the energies of their creators. More importantly, this move would deny cultural groups their own voice at City Hall. As Veletta Forsythe Lill, head of the Dallas Arts District, put it, what lies ahead is a “fight for table scraps.” If the arts do not have at that table an assistant city manager who presides directly over the Office of Cultural Affairs, they will lose.
The merged Cultural Affairs operation is set to shed 10 people out of 50 as it moves to the library from its current home at the Majestic Theater. This is part of a wave of consolidation which, all told, could save as much as $2 million, according to Ms. Suhm. Her fundamental, irrefutable idea is to rationalize the innards of City Hall in a way that cuts the cost of overhead and spares as many public services as possible.
But from where would further savings come for Cultural Affairs? Apparently from equipment, among other things. (Fewer copiers would have to be leased, for example.) The plan set me to wondering whether it would be possible to leave the Office of Cultural Affairs intact, though depleted, and shift it to City Hall where surely departing employees would leave plenty of room? Couldn’t distant copiers et al be used in a way that would save as much as the merger with the library?
This would save the Office of Cultural Affairs to fight another day. Ms. Suhm is not oblivious to this imperative. She explained, in fact, “I hope when times get better we can go back. I want to make it easy for us to reestablish ourselves.”
Of course, that will take better times and some luck. For now, City Council members are confronting an agonizing range of potential choices. Ms. Suhm has said that close to 1000 positions may be cut, most of them filled though not all. In the midst of such carnage, it’s easy to see why she cannot leave the arts untouched. Indeed she will not. Almost certainly, maintenance support supplied by the city to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meyerson Symphony Center will be slashed, perhaps by 20 percent or more. The Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theatre, due to open in October, could see their operating subsidies fall far below the agreed upon $2.5 million a year.
I have to admire the poise and composure of Mary Suhm in the midst of a raging opportunity to make everybody mad. Even so, Dallas is about to inaugurate the most ambitious arts enterprise in its history. It seems a pity for the city to lower the flag on culture at a moment of maximum achievement. The Arts District is a serious, not a trivial, asset. It is a crucial key to our future prosperity, as promising as any product of the mercenary mind. No doubt some of the treasures there will sustain cuts in the city budget. But the Office of Cultural Affairs, a vital advocate at a critical moment, need not be one of them.