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

The group's next-largest expense in 1997 was for salaries--$123,000 for three staff members listed on the organization's tax filing. Porter, of course, is one of those staffers, but she won't reveal her salary.

The staff puts out a newsletter acknowledging the membership's largesse and runs stories about various gifts and activities. These often resemble advertisements.

In the December-January issue, for instance, Nasher's NorthPark Center shopping mall was highlighted in a piece describing how generous the center is to arts groups. It lets them use "exhibit space," i.e., the shopping mall's interior, to demonstrate their talents to NorthPark customers. This, the story says, "provides a win-win situation for all parties involved. Community and arts groups benefit from the natural steady traffic and exposure received at such a busy shopping center."

Pat Porter is surprisingly friendly--considering the fact that a reporter has just arrived in her office on short notice, asking to pick through her organization's nonprofit financial statements to the IRS.

The Business Committee is located in the rose stone and gold glass Oryx Energy Center, adjacent to the Galleria. Although the address is corporate chic, the DBCA's space is down a first-floor service corridor, just beyond the mailroom. Inside, Porter's small space looks across a narrow strip of grass into the mall's parking garage.

Almost immediately, trying to establish some rapport, she rattles off the names of various Observer writers who are past colleagues of her husband, Bob Porter, a former feature writer and film critic for the Dallas Times Herald.

She is hardly giving the lie to her reputation as a "good schmoozer" and a "good businesswoman" who hasn't spent 30 years in PR for nothing.

Before signing on in 1987 with the Business Committee, Porter was associate vice president for university relations at Southern Methodist University and a public relations person for the Meadows School of the Arts.

During this initial interview, as the conversation turns to the ill-received questionnaire, Porter says that there are poorly managed arts groups and that corporate donors have a right to know what they're getting into when they decide to make a financial gift. "Answering these questions correctly is the minimum you'd think is required," she says.

Likewise, Porter says, corporate executives in Dallas seem to prefer some groups over others when deciding whether to serve on a nonprofit board. She hints that some of the fault lies with the nonprofits but declines to provide details.

On a second meeting, though, once the depth of the arts-community criticism is explained, Porter puts a completely different spin on the questionnaire--and just about everything else about her group's relationship with the arts.

The questions, she explains, were part of a theoretical exercise: "This was an independent program that was developed...it was a culmination of an issues-and-trends series where we look nationally at things that are happening, that are going to impact us eventually--us being the arts and cultural community. As we looked at national things, the thing that kept surfacing everywhere we were looking, corporations said we are going to be looking for accountability, because our feet are being held to the fire by shareholders, by our executives who are giving. Accountability is going to be a major issue in the future. We took it to the board and said, 'This is something we think is going to be very important in how corporations give away their money in the future, and we want to ensure as much as possible that our community is ready.'"

Whew.
Two accountants and a lawyer then put together the list, and off it went.
What about the cover letter explaining how local corporations were relying more and more on the Business Committee's judgment before making grants to arts groups?

Porter says that she passes on only good things to the corporations about local groups. "I know a lot of ways to say 'I don't know,'" she says. "People have to understand the purity with which we try to approach this, really. My husband was a critic, and he says, 'Everybody has favorites.' But I say I just don't."

From the corporate side, some companies solicit the Business Committee's input on giving and others do not, says Kenneth Russo, who retired last year as a vice president at J.C. Penney and served as the DBCA's president from 1994 to 1997. "The big companies pretty much know where they're gonna direct their giving, but even here Pat might get involved, saying this group or that group needs support. She'll do some marriage brokering."

The Business Committee's position as a middle man between the arts groups and corporate donors has tensions built in. The arts-fundraising world, where grants mean life, is so competitive that The Texas International Theatrical Arts Society (TITAS) urges its board members to join the 500 Inc. so they get more votes when the money is doled out.

From the corporate side, it's not unknown for gifts to be tied to special recognition. GTE gave a six-figure grant to one group and made it clear they expected to be nominated by the group for one of DBCA's awards, a knowledgeable source says. Bill Kula, a GTE spokesman, denied that account, saying the company never ties sponsorship to nomination for an award.

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