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

These emerging groups occupy the opposite end of the spectrum from Dallas' four so-called arts cornerstones--the opera, symphony, art museum, and Dallas Theater Center. With their society-studded boards and well-staffed development departments, the four exist in another financial world. But the cornerstones are the ones the Business Committee appears to be helping most, critics say.

With the financial survey, which was widely seen as a flogging of the poor, the low-grade grumbling broke into quiet revolution: the Accountability Checklist Revolt of 1999. Of the 264 questionnaires sent out, only 86 were returned--less than a third. "That had to send a message, but we don't know whether they got it," says one disgruntled manager.

Pat Porter, who has directed the Business Committee for nearly 12 years, has a simple answer to what she believes is a fundamental misunderstanding behind the complaints: It's not their job to fund arts groups.

"We never, ever set ourselves up as a united arts fund; we do not raise money; we do not grant money; we work specifically with corporate members to create more interest on their part," she says. "They are our primary customer."

At the direction of the Dallas Citizens Council, a private business organization influential in Dallas politics, Ray Nasher and AT&T vice president Bill Hideman set up the DBCA in 1987. In 1988, the IRS granted it tax-exempt status as a nonprofit charity organization with the self-described purpose of "promoting, developing, and increasing support for the arts within the business community."

"After looking at several models nationally, they decided they would model this organization after the Business Committee for the Arts," says Porter, referring to an organization begun by David Rockefeller in 1967. The Dallas group is an affiliate but does not pay dues or take direction from the New York-based national organization. Currently, 89 companies are members, paying dues that range from $500 to $1,500 annually, depending on the company's size.

The structure leaves the decision-making on grants to the corporations, with the Business Committee left to work as a sort of publicity wing, touting the corporations' good works with awards and ostensibly cheerleading for more. At least that's how the Dallas organization spends its money.

The Business Committee's 1997 public tax disclosure forms show that its annual Obelisk Awards gala was by far its largest expense, dwarfing expenditures for its two other programs: a leadership seminar aimed at getting corporate middle managers interested in joining arts-group boards, and an art competition for amateur artists among the corporate members, called On My Own Time. Last year's winners included a clay sculpture of a Yoda, a detailed portrait of a wide-eyed golden retriever, and a photo of a baby in a Santa suit, as well as some more abstract works.

Of a total 1997 budget of $547,117, the group spent $128,510 on the Obelisk Awards, an evening affair held in June at the Meyerson Symphony Center. The Business Committee took in $188,385 from ticket sales.

The big party costs an average of $180,000 to stage, Porter says. In 1997, they brought in jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove; last year Leno's middle-brow humor provided the entertainment; this year, Broadway stage star Betty Buckley will help give away the award statues--little hammered brass, bois d'arc wood-and-limestone numbers in the shape of the Washington Monument. For the past two years, the awards party has escalated into a "black-tie affair," not unlike the splashy fetes sponsored by the 500 Inc. and The Auction for Cultural Arts. Unlike the DBCA, however, these two nonprofit organizations actually raise money for the arts. (Although the 500 Inc. has come under criticism in recent years for trying to squeeze money back out of the arts groups.)

The Business Committee's awards single out small, medium, and large companies alike for their financial support of Dallas arts, and special mention is made for corporations new to the area. Nobody complains about that.

But only a few years ago, it took far less money to accomplish the same end. In 1995, when the awards were given away at a luncheon, DBCA spent just over $40,000. A few years earlier, it was a $25,000 event.

DBCA's critics in the Dallas arts community point out that the extra $150,000 spent on the Obelisks is more than the annual budgets of about 40 percent of the nonprofit arts groups in Dallas.

"That's money right off the top that could be going to the arts," says one group director. "I wonder if anyone thinks, 'I gave at the Business Committee' and believes they actually did something to support the arts."

(No one interviewed for this story seemed to be under that impression, but Margie Reese, director of the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, says she gets calls from time to time from companies and individuals asking whether the Business Committee does get involved in arts funding.)

Porter says the move to a formal evening event was done to improve the awards' visibility. "Why turn it into a big event? We just thought we could get more people in the Meyerson and use these examples of success. More people can come and stay longer. At lunch you have to get in by twelve and out by one."

If there's a hint of organizational and personal social climbing behind the move, it appears to be working. Coverage of the awards in the daily paper shifted over the last several years from the business page to the society columns.

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