The other arena

With major arts players jockeying for position in a new performing arts center, will smaller groups be left out of the Arts District altogether?

Then there's the darling of 500 Inc., the Dallas Children's Theater, whose high-profile support and national reputation for world-premiere dramatizations of prizewinning children's books wasn't enough to rescue them from eviction. The Children's Theater is only months away from being kicked out of its Cedar Springs address.

Smartly sensing that their theatrical ministry to children could be a potent political weapon, the Children's Theater elbowed its way into the most current plans for the Arts District development. If the $18 million Arts District initiative makes it onto the bond ballot and passes, it will include money earmarked for the construction of a new home for the Children's Theater, independent of the proposed Dallas Center. The first indication of how political things could get came when the Children's Theater's aggressive campaign to city officials earned a warning last October from Howard Hallam, the man appointed by Mayor Ron Kirk to fill the volunteer post of Arts District coordinator: Cooperate or risk being booted out of the master plan.

The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center, on the other hand, didn't have to trumpet their cause at town hall and city council meetings. Civic insiders for much of their existence, they were involved in some of the earliest stages of Arts District planning.

Both a new opera house and a new theater complex were outlined in a 1977 report called "A Comprehensive Arts Facilities Plan for Dallas," compiled by Carr-Lynch Associates at the request of the city and nine other arts organizations, including the Opera. The Carr-Lynch report, as it's referred to, is a vague blueprint that has been used by advocates, planners, and city officials in forging a vision for a downtown Dallas performing arts center, like New York's Lincoln Center or New Orleans' Bourbon Street. The ideas for what would become the Dallas Museum of Art (which was already planned when the report was filed), Artist Square, the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and the Office of Cultural Affairs-sponsored Neighborhood Touring Program all come from this report. Still-pressing issues like the refurbishment of Fair Park were first proposed here. Included among these most contemporary of Dallas arts projects are visions not yet realized--a "theater complex" and a "new opera house" --both located in the same "single site arts center...within downtown."

The two-decade journey toward this goal has been fraught with peril--real estate and oil busts in the '80s; the troubled construction of the Meyerson in 1989, which some claim went $34 million over budget and had to be rescued by Ross Perot; and a contentious argument over how to divide city funding among ethnic arts organizations in the early '90s. All these problems--combined with the unpopularity of federal public arts funding throughout the last decade--muffled Arts District dreamers.

As Dallas rebounded from the investment debacles of the '80s, Arts District supporters revived their clarion call for the vision embodied in the Carr-Lynch report--specifically, its proposal for an opera house and theater complex located in downtown Dallas. This call was repeated in "A Future Vision for Downtown Dallas," a 1993 report presented to the city council by the Central Dallas Association, an organization of business and government big wheels that included Plato Karayanis, general director of The Dallas Opera.

A November 18, 1997, story in The New York Times, while not specifically mentioning Dallas, confirms that renewed interest in "Arts Districts" is part of a national trend among cities. The article cites the public/private partnerships that have come together to finance downtown performance centers in cities like Chicago, San Jose, and Newark--all in the hopes of increasing local as well as tourist revenue. Sometimes they result in a big boost to the city economy, and sometimes they become underused arts ghost towns that house an occasional convention or bar mitzvah. The success or failure of such ambitious cultural meccas usually rests on one issue--product.

In this city, The Dallas Opera and The Dallas Theater Center have aggressively lobbied both public officials and private donors to secure their product a place in the downtown Arts District renaissance. The Dallas Opera has wanted to abandon its home at the Fair Park Music Hall for decades; stories of artists from Maria Callas to Carol Channing to Cecilia Bartoli registering tart disapproval of the space's cavernous interior are legendary.

"The Music Hall is just too large to accommodate opera," confirms John Dayton, a Dallas Opera board member and the chair of the Dallas Center. "The acoustics are dreadful for the unamplified human voice. You're asking singers to throw their voice across a much farther distance than they normally have to. Plus, the back of the stage is only large enough to accommodate one production at a time. Most opera companies our size maintain a season in repertory (more than one production alternating at the same time)."

The Dallas Theater Center's stake in a downtown performing arts space came, in part, from its own deep pockets. In 1985, when the city of Dallas acquired what's known as the Borden Tract, DTC spent a million dollars of its own money to help build what is now the Arts District Theater on the site. This barn-like space next to Artist Square essentially needs a theater built inside it for every performance. The Theater Center has always envisioned that its Arts District Theater would be temporary housing until a more formidable performance hall could be constructed nearby.

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