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Dallas's Mayoral Candidates Give Love to the Arts, But How Will They Fund Them?

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The four candidates for Dallas mayor took the stage at the Nasher Sculpture Center last night for what had to be the most relaxing forum of campaign season: a debate on the role of arts and culture in Dallas.

Get this: They all love the arts. Mike Rawlings once wanted to be a painter. Edward Okpa's house looks looks like a museum, he says, because he's always walking around South Dallas buying strangers' art. David Kunkle didn't mention a secret arts obsession, but he keeps his head so still he could be a great nude model. Ron Natinsky's name sounds like a famous composer whose music middle-school bands butcher in the most adorable manner. Like I said: They all love the arts! How will the cultured among us ever choose?

Oh, yes, like everyone else: tax policy. So, first question: As mayor, would you support using the city's hotel/motel tax to fund the arts?

The city has been using the revenue from a 2-percent increase to the hotel-occupancy tax to pay off the debt from the American Airlines Center. But that debt will be paid off late this year. Since the arts drive so much tourism, moderator Kirsten James asked, shouldn't some of that tax revenue be spent on cultural programming?

Kunkle sort of skirted it. He told the audience -- a packed event space, an overflow crowd on the steps outside, and viewers watching on TXA 21 -- that if they wanted funding for the arts they should "create political pressure to make that happen." Of course, that's exactly what they'd just done -- gotten together, formed a coalition, sponsored a debate, and tried to make him commit to using the money for the arts. But why cave to the pressure now when you can blame it on city council later?

Natinsky did the same, although it felt more sincere: While "arts are an economic engine," he said, distributing that cash "will be a competitive process." Translation: Get in line.

Okpa said the city should use parking fees to fund the arts. He seemed oddly sure about this, as if all the money from parking meters and parking tickets were just sitting in a pile somewhere, waiting for Edward Okpa to come along and tell the city how to use it. But this was one of the only answers he gave that didn't admonish everyone for not spending enough time in South Dallas, so in hindsight it was sort of refreshing.

Rawlings was the clearest: "The answer is yes. This is extremely important." So if you think the city should spend its extra hotel tax money on the arts, and that's all you care about, and you don't mind Rawlings hanging some of his old watercolors up in City Hall, he's your guy.

The rest of the debate was pretty tame: lots of questions about how the city should leverage and market and sustain and grow its arts scene. Lots of rah-rah CEO-isms from Rawlings. Lots of résumé bullet points from Kunkle and Natinsky. Lots of weird South Dallas guilt trips from Okpa, who seems very smart but has the political savvy of a Chipotle burrito bowl.

The only other question that required an answer came from the audience -- and apparently several audience members asked it: Should the city council lines be redrawn to create one arts superpower, a district that would include downtown, the Design District, Uptown and Greenville?

I happen to have an acute strain of narcolepsy triggered only by the mention of electoral redistricting, but I stayed awake long enough to develop an opinion: After population and ethnicity and socio-economics and all the factors that a redistricting commission needs to consider, it seems foolhardy to try to create a council district based on which neighborhoods happen to have some art on the walls.

But two candidates supported the idea. "It really does make sense," Kunkle said. And Rawlings vowed to "support the Arts District" -- "if you speak your mind and you speak it loud enough."

Gerrymandering: It's OK as long as it's based on coolness!

That pretty much ended the debate. I didn't stick around with everyone else to schmooze the candidates, but I assume everyone agreed it was nice to have at least one forum where no one had to pronounce Calatrava.

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