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

"A lot of these organizations quiver anytime they have to report on their boards or their finances. They live payday to payday. They wonder if their boards will be deemed worthy. They can't compete with the bigger organizations on these terms, even if they put out an excellent product," says Margie Reese.

Reese's Office of Cultural Affairs, which supports 85 different arts organization in Dallas, doesn't ask many of the questions contained in the Business Committee's survey before it writes a check, she says. "We ask them to give us an accounting of how they spent the money once their project is completed," she says. "The key thing is, we have a relationship with their organization. We know their staff." The Business Committee's survey is mostly a reflection of attitudes in corporate Dallas toward midsize and smaller arts groups, Reese says.

"The rich are getting richer," she says, referring to the four big arts groups. "Unlike the foundations, the corporations haven't learned that the value of the arts in a community cannot be measured by management structure. A small all-volunteer arts organization might be playing a critical role in the community, but its management style won't stand up compared with, say, a multimillion-dollar organization in its own building paying union scale."

Hedy Helsell, director of the Center for Nonprofit Management, agrees. "Business tries to nail down everything. Groups do have to be encouraged to do that, but it's probably more important to be looking at measures like output of art and quality of the performance...Arts folks are pretty individualistic. The focus is on art, not 990s [tax forms]."

Lynn Flint Shaw, a businesswoman and symphony board member, says nobody dares criticize the Business Committee or its concerns because "[Porter] has the Citizens Council and chamber behind her, and they rely on Pat. You rankle her, and you rankle her people. If you don't skip to their beat, you might be out of the loop."

In Shaw's opinion, Dallas arts wouldn't change much if the Business Committee folded tomorrow.

"This is an organization that's supposed to be a liaison from the business community to smaller groups that really need help, who need some largesse, and it doesn't do any of those things," she says.

Says Pete Pena, an appointee to the city's Cultural Affairs Commission, "They spend a lot of money on nothing. They're a glorified PR firm. Everybody wants to give to the symphony or the opera. But who wants to give to some theater company in West Dallas where the exposure is so much less? You'd think the Business Committee would be out there helping companies understand that, but...I see the funding, I talk to people, I know who's supporting people. They're not doing that."

The Business Committee's supporters--who are plentiful in business circles--pin their defense of the group on the overall increase in business patronage of Dallas arts.

Russo, the former Penney's executive, says arts groups large and small are receiving more financial support and more employee volunteers as a result of the DBCA's work.

"It's an interesting question--Would the world be any different without the Business Committee?" he says. "It's an intangible thing, creating a partnership between business and the arts...I don't think we've been the end-all answer, but we've played a key role in raising an awareness of the arts in the business community. No other organization is doing that."

Using 1989, the bottom of the last recession, as a baseline, the Business Committee reports that corporate arts funding in Dallas has grown from $4.2 million to $20.2 million in 1997.

A far better economic climate--and new arts venues such as the Meyerson--account for much of that. But like a president in office during good times, the Business Committee is in a position to take some credit.

"They've brought some leaders to the forefront; that's where their strength lies," says Dolores Barzune, chairwoman of the city's Cultural Affairs Commission and a longtime arts patron who has served as president of the symphony board.

Her reference is to the Business Committee's Arts Leadership Institute, which every year exposes about 40 corporate managers to the Dallas arts world through a series of nine seminars and a class project--the compilation of an arts directory one year, a Web site the next.

The program usually leads to placement on an arts board at one of the small or midsize groups, and many of its 300 graduates have served on boards over the past 12 years, Porter says. The largest institutions, which are more likely to favor CEOs than these mid-level execs, have their own nominating procedures.

The graduates have in some cases added nothing to their chosen arts groups; in others, they have been invaluable, local arts managers say.

Zenetta Drew, executive director of Dallas Black Dance Theater, says that the arrival of one particular Business Committee graduate, accounting executive Lisa Pals, to her board in 1996 was critical.

"When you have a senior partner for Ernst and Young as your finance chair, it immediately validates your finances," says Drew, who says she has only respect for the Business Committee.

Pals moved to New York last year, but remains on the dance theater's board. She says that the Business Committee helped direct her to the organization, but that Drew did a convincing job of pursuing her to join.

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