Art Attack

A nosy questionnaire about how well Dallas arts groups run their businesses touches off a revolt against the Dallas Business Committee for the Arts

Sometime in late December, in the hip, harmony-green halls of the Sammons Center, Chuck Moore and 26 other arts-group managers received their questionnaires.

Their "Nonprofit Accountability Checklists," to be precise.
Sent by the influential Dallas Business Committee for the Arts, the mailing asked 20 questions about taxes, debts, budgets, and other dismal money matters--questions to which hand-to-mouth arts organizations don't always have the right answers: "Do you perform a monthly comparison of actual results and budget targets?" "Are payroll and sales taxes current?"

The questions, mailed to 264 nonprofit arts groups across the Dallas area, were accompanied by a letter from Pat Porter, the Dallas Business Committee for the Arts' long-tenured executive director. "With increasing frequency, the DBCA receives calls from corporations wanting to know more about arts groups before they institute funding," she wrote. "The DBCA does not endorse any specific organization, but has long sought a way to make the process of accountability easier."

She went on to explain, in less vague terms, "As our member companies regularly consult with DBCA on the current practices and status of arts organizations as potential grantees, we see the checklist as key to providing vital current and updated information on your organization."

Chuck Moore, executive director of the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra, was one of the managers who found himself faced with the decision of whether to reply. For organizations that depend on private, foundation, and corporate donations for their survival, the question is a tad more difficult when the DBCA's letterhead includes the names of people like shopping-mall king and art patron Ray Nasher, chairman of the Business Committee's board, and executives from many major Dallas corporations.

"I was a little surprised by the nature of the request," recalls Moore, whose organization includes an orchestra that performs five programs a year at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, plus smaller ensembles involving more than 300 students in all. "The Business Committee seems to be placing themselves in the role of a clearinghouse organization which would comment on the worthiness of a particular arts organization.

"I decided not to return it...at that time," he recalls.
Not long afterward, the Business Committee sent him a copy of the previous letter stamped "PAST DUE" in red.

"I must confess, I was taken aback," Moore says. "We really had no obligation to reply, although in all fairness the questions were about sound business practices." Moore took the letter to several members of his board of directors, and they decided they'd better just answer the questions and send it in.

Were they concerned about not wanting to cross Porter's organization, which itself donates nothing to arts organizations but is supported by a score of companies that do?

Moore only chuckles before declining to answer.
As gently phrased as Moore's criticisms appear, they're about as blunt as they come on the record. "We're all scared to death of them," says one arts manager. "They have the Dallas Citizens Council and the chamber of commerce and people like that as members." With Exxon, Mobil, GTE, J.C. Penney, and AT&T, plus The Dallas Morning News and the city's biggest law firms--Jenkens & Gilchrist, Gardere & Wynn, and the like--the committee represents many of the city's biggest corporate arts patrons. Only a few active arts donors--including Dr Pepper and Kimberly Clarke--aren't members.

Privately, though, the directors of more than a dozen arts organizations, heads of well-known, well-respected small and medium-size arts groups, are expressing everything from mild pique to outrage about the letter, its source, and the direction the Dallas Business Committee for the Arts has taken in recent years. (One was hacked off enough to send a lengthy letter to each member of the Dallas Observer's editorial staff, complete with a menu of complaints and a source list for more.)

They wonder whether the Business Committee actually does anything--besides siphoning half a million dollars from its members in the name of arts patronage--that truly benefits the arts. "We see them when they want to use our facilities [for seminars]," says one arts-group manager. "That's about it."

Some actually see the Business Committee as a competing charity that harms more than it helps. Certainly, most say, they raise their corporate dollars with no help whatsoever from the DBCA.

The youth orchestra, for example, gets about $50,000 of its $260,000 annual budget from corporate sources. "We deal directly with our corporate sponsors, our corporate donors, and we have good relations with those connections," Moore says. "They [the Business Committee] don't have a role in it."

Last year, the Business Committee, which has an annual budget of more than $500,000, held a well-publicized, lavishly produced awards gala for which they flew in TV comedian Jay Leno as emcee.

It didn't raise a farthing for the arts.
Financial disclosures from 1997, the most recent available, show that the organization kept a $60,000 net profit for itself from that year's Obelisk Awards gala.

"It kind of reminds me of KERA under [former CEO] Richie Meyer. They're spending on everything except what they're supposed to be doing. They're misdirected," says one nonprofit manager at the Sammons Center. The building, a renovated early-20th-century water plant, serves as something of a hub for small and medium-size arts groups--an array of dance, music, and theater companies. Some are so small that their address is a postal box, with office staff and equipment provided by the center.

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