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Dallas Ranks 149th in Arts Vibrancy. Is That a Bad Thing?

Dallas leads the way when it comes to producing data about the arts. But in terms of producing art itself, not so much, according to the 2019 Arts Vibrancy Index released by Southern Methodist University.

The annual study — which is the first to measure the level of supply, demand and government support for the arts in communities across the U.S. — ranked Dallas 149th out of 953 communities this year.

The Index’s purpose is to arm arts organizations with better information about the resources and challenges unique to their cities. It scores cities according to 12 metrics, including number of independent artists, program revenue and available state arts dollars to form its rankings.

In keeping with past findings, the top five metro areas in 2019 are New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. Three of those, New York, San Francisco and D.C., have made the list every year. Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville and Boston duke it out for the other two spots.

In the five-year history of the study, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas — three of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. — have never been in the top 20 most vibrant cities. The only Texas cities to accomplish that in any size category (the index ranks small- and medium-sized cities separately) are Austin and Fredericksburg.

Fredericksburg made the cut once in 2018, claiming the No. 10 spot for small cities, and Austin has made the large cities list since 2016, hovering around its current rank of 17th.

This year, Dallas earned its highest marks in the arts dollars category, where it scored in the 93rd percentile.

“You can’t say that money doesn’t matter (in Dallas),” says Dr. Zannie Voss, the director of SMU DataArts, which conducts the study. “There’s a really strong arts district and there are larger organizations there that are supported through both program revenue — what they charge people who attend — as well as contributed revenue.”

But money can only go so far. Case in point: New Orleans, which attracts more arts organizations and artists that generate more money despite being poorer overall than Dallas. It’s the 13th most vibrant large city this year.

“When you look at the socioeconomic characteristics, (New Orleans) is far less wealthy and yet it is high on vibrancy particularly with respect to supply,” Voss says.

Supply is Dallas’ downfall. In the arts providers category, it ranks in the 69th percentile, with individual scores of 49 for the number of arts and culture organizations per capita, and 35 for the number of independent artists per capita.

“We have a really strong concentration of organizations downtown,” she says. “It’s not at all a criticism of the organizations that are there, it’s just to say that we need more of them and dispersed closer to where people live.”

Creating more arts organizations across the city seems like a straightforward enough charge. There’s just one problem: Dallas also needs more independent artists to lead them, and it’s hard to attract artists where there aren’t enough opportunities to begin with.

“In a lot of markets where there’s a tendency to have a high number of arts and culture nonprofits on a per capita basis, it’s typically related to their being a high number of artists on a per capita basis,” Voss says. “Having lots and lots of artists in a community, some of them will start organizations.”

She doesn't find Texas’ overall performance on the Arts Vibrancy Index surprising or concerning.

“I think sometimes there’s a reaction that if a community doesn’t make the list then it’s a failing, and I don’t see it that way at all,” Voss says. “Dallas’ standing is up there in the top 15%. That is really remarkable.”

One of Voss’ biggest takeaways in the years conducting this study is that you can’t predict vibrancy based on reputation, size or wealth. In the top 20 every year are cities that function more like artist colonies, cities that have only a few large arts organizations but have a densely concentrated population around them, and tourist destinations that mainly bring in attractions during peak travel season.

“It’s not just a binary thing where you either have it or you don’t,” she says. “It’s not something that’s just a phenomenon in big cities or on the coasts.”

There are also some practical explanations for why Texas cities lag behind, that have nothing to do with the quality of its culture. Two important ones that affect Dallas are population growth and youth.

“We all know that the Dallas-Plano-Irving area is particularly robust in terms of population growth. This is a place where people want to come,” she says. “But the growth in population is exceeding the growth in the number of arts and culture organizations, and exceeding the growth in the number of independent artists.

“There’s nothing wrong with the numbers that are here, it’s just that it tends to be quite concentrated and because it’s per capita, there’s that much less going on for more and more people. It’s just a question of will arts and culture continue to keep pace.”

Dallas’ youth also places it at a disadvantage compared with repeat winners like New York and San Francisco.

“The arts and cultural organizations that are here haven’t had as long a history as they have in some other markets,” Voss says. “At some future point, Dallas may very well be on the arts vibrancy list because of the growth.”

The Arts Community Alliance (TACA), a nonprofit that provides funding and other resources to arts organizations in North Texas, is working hard to make that happen. In an email to the Observer, executive director Wolford McCue says TACA has been following the Arts Vibrancy Index closely and trying to address the areas for improvement it outlines.

“A local alumni consulting team of Stanford MBA graduates conducted national quantitative and qualitative research for TACA to understand the key reasons a city is attractive to artists,” he says.

The three big ones they identified: the artists in a city are perceived to be connected, the community supports individual artists and arts organizations, and the city has a reasonable cost of living and provides working opportunities in the arts.

“Those insights have given all of us in the arts in Dallas very good direction on how Dallas can be an even better community for artists to thrive,” he says.

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