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?

If this Arts District initiative actually makes it before the voters next May, some wonder whether the controversial sports arena referendum in January--whether or not that deal passes--will have repercussions for a second request to allocate money for an entertainment center. Hallam attempts to dismiss this fear. "We don't give voters enough credit for common sense," he says. "They know that a new performing arts center and a new sports arena are completely separate issues, and would be paid for differently. The performing arts center would be built from bond money, while the sports arena--which, incidentally, I wholeheartedly support--would be paid for with increased taxes on hotels and rental cars."

Dennis Vincent, who oversees the Arts District Association--the public-private triad of downtown interests that includes the Arts District Friends, Arts District Foundation, and Arts District Management--diverges slightly from Hallam's confident assessment. Concerning all the publicity that has surrounded the proposed sports facility and its possible residual effect on the new Dallas Center, Vincent says, "We're holding our breath."

The ultimate price tag for the Dallas Center, much like the arena deal, will remain unknown to the voters in May, even though they will be asked to approve its initial infrastructure and land acquisition costs totaling around $18 million (which also include construction costs for the new Dallas Children's Theater). If the May bond initiative passes, a second one would later be presented to voters detailing the actual costs of the Dallas Center itself. But to build a "world class" multi-use performance facility on a par with, say, a Lincoln or Kennedy Center will be a pricey enterprise, certainly if done right. And this may cause voters who have just committed over $125 million of city resources to a sports arena serious concern. Of course, a performance hall could not be built without a strong public-private partnership. Donations from generous arts patrons, as well as long-term capital campaigns from individual arts institutions, would be necessary to match public moneys and subsidies.

You can bet, though, that if the city council approves the bond proposal for next May's ballot, voters will be regaled with a vision of a democratic performance space that won't just provide homes for its most immediate beneficiaries--The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center. No matter what the politicos say, Charlotte Akin Jorgensen doubts that her New Theatre Company will be part of that vision. She doesn't feel terribly surprised--or terribly bitter, for that matter--about the slim prospects of getting a regular season housed in a gleaming new Arts District performance center. These are, after all, lean times for all arts organizations--even The Dallas Opera and the Dallas Theater Center, who enjoy budgets she could only fantasize about, regularly lose money on their shows. She and New Theatre Company are focused on finding a "private angel" to help with their plight, rather than going to the public for support.

The Opera and the Theater Center have the decades and the hard-earned reputations under their belt to deserve whatever they can fairly and honestly get from the voters. Both also have infamous reputations for importing talent rather than relying on the homegrown variety. And in a city where bigger is often confused with better, where appearance is valued over substance, and form seldom follows function, it would be a shame if, in some futuristic downtown Dallas arts mecca, imported spectacle stamped out local talent. "Why should every company aim to fill a 900-seat theater?" asks Theater Three's Jac Alder somewhat rhetorically. "That's crazy. Size often limits what you're able to say. But private money usually follows public money, and right now, the city wants to fund the big guys."

But if Dallas truly wants a world-class "arts village," shouldn't support of its little guys--its talented indigenous artists--be a means of fashioning an environment so hospitable that artists who have earned their international reputations in other cities want to perform here? Certainly a city that prides itself on entrepreneurial zealotry should be able to reach an accommodation where performance groups both large and small can thrive.

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