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?

Bart Weiss, director of the Video Association of Dallas, is another veteran local arts professional who oversees an event unique in the Southwest, and one that, as much as any arts organization in the city, would contribute mightily, if given the proper support, to a "world class" reputation for Dallas.

Every year, the Dallas Video Festival screens documentaries, dramas, and experimental shorts, shipped to them by artists and professionals who work in video from all over the world. It's one of the only festivals of its kind in America, honoring work in a technical medium that has overtaken film as the cultural-social-political record of our time.

Like New Theatre Company, the Dallas Video Festival learned this year it would be homeless in 1998. Priced out of using the Dallas Museum of Art, its home for the past 10 years, it will be holding its event next March at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. And just like New Theatre Company, Bart Weiss was interviewed by TPC about The Dallas Video Association's pressing need for space.

"Who wouldn't be excited when an international consortium flies in and says, 'Tell us what you need?' Weiss wonders aloud. "These are desperate times for a lot of Dallas arts groups, which is supposedly what a new performance space in the Arts District would address. But frankly, I'm skeptical. There's too much they couldn't tell us."

Weiss attended a small meeting last October hosted by the same organizations, only this time at the Dallas Museum of Art. He stood up and asked exactly "what administrative mechanism" would be in place to determine who would use the smallest space in a new performing arts center, how long they could use it, and how much that space would cost. No one had an answer to any of those questions.

What they told him, Weiss says, "was basically, 'Trust us.'"

In September 1997, Theater Project Consultants unveiled the first phase of a master plan for the rejuvenation of the cultural life of downtown far into the next millennium. Its 20-year vision for the Arts District is one of an "arts village," a people-friendly place where pedestrians would roam easily between a lively array of theaters, galleries, restaurants, and shops. Phase 1 details only the performing arts center, which could conceivably hold at least four spaces--a 2,000-seater for the Opera; a 700-seater and a 300-seat black box, both for the Theater Center; and a 100-200 seat "recital hall" or "community room" that's up for grabs. John Dayton points out that the smallest theater could potentially be used by as many as 15 different groups, based on the TPC report.

The smallest space remains a source of controversy. Exactly who gets it, when they get it, for how long, and at what cost is still a mystery. This has led some to charge that the community room is merely a token gesture by the Theater Center and the Opera that allows them to call their potential new homes a "multi-use space that would benefit many arts groups." That's how they sold it to the city council (and would sell it to the voters next May), which, critics charge, is why the Dallas Center retained outside theater consultants [TPC] to conduct a study to determine if space was widely needed. That's why so many of the small, homeless arts groups, some of whom now fear they are being used to justify new spaces for well-heeled groups that already have permanent homes, were asked about their space needs in the extensive five-month study.

"They [TPC] talk about the vision for an arts village in the Arts District, a cultural center full of many different theaters," says Bruce Coleman of New Theatre Company. "Well, that's a great idea, but they admit that it's 20 years down the line, assuming everything got approved. Once they get their new spaces, will the Opera and the Theater Center push the whole plan through for the rest of us? I just don't know."

John Dayton is quick to point out that the Dallas Center, despite the vested interests of its original board members, has always had the most egalitarian of motives. "It has always been our opinion that a new space shouldn't be built unless it benefits as many arts groups as possible. It's true there are still many issues involving management and rental cost that we haven't begun to answer yet. We're just now at that stage, where we sit down with these other heads of smaller groups and hash this out. It's a difficult process. And no, not every small arts group will get a chance at this space." In fact, says Dayton, the Dallas Center board is now being expanded from three to nine members, including representatives of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, TITAS, and the Dallas Children's Theater.

"Including many groups was always part of the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts' plans," adds Arts District coordinator Howard Hallam. "That's why they contracted TPC in the first place. They came to us [the city] with this desire." When pushed, however, Hallam says, "If they hadn't offered [for outside consultants to talk to the smaller groups], we would've made them."

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