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

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The latest addition to the Nasher's collection. The artist calls it Platitude Adjustment.
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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21 comments
Joe L
Joe L

The city is full of self-sustaining arts organizations. At a time when the city is broke, people are getting foreclosed from their homes and going hungry, wasting public money on some one's idea of the "arts" is downright immoral. If you want art, pay for it or get subsidized by private individuals.

Shamrock
Shamrock

A total disagree Joe. Combining the arts neighborhoods together in one district isn't gerrymandering at all. The directives of redistricting including holding together communities of interest. This isn't about art on the walls, it is about festivals in the streets and people who choose to live in an area of dense population driven by entertainment options. The arts neighborhoods are where you find individuals who choose public gatherings over residential quiet, many in high rise buildings. They have a different set of issues than White Rock or West Dallas, and these are not addressed by the current system, thus the groundswell for change.

LaceyB
LaceyB

Perhaps the candidates's love of the arts could lead to trafficking to some important town art websites. I mean, that's throwing the artists a bone--a clean one, but still...

That tax money overflow will be used for other things. Why did they spend all this time jawboning about liking the arts? It's an empty promise, and an attention-getter for those like Rawlins, or, not so much for "Burrito Bowl" Okpa.

Love that referrence!

DB
DB

Dallas is extremely fortunate to have such a significant number of private donors (I wish I could afford to be one of them) that really step up to plate in the Arts District. The city could help doing things that would make it better – ie allow street vendors, install public seating, allow street artists, and the list could become quite long. I was especially disappointed in candidates last night that this was not mentioned – especially sitting in the Nasher – where Raymond Nasher gave this city an extraordinary gift. Listening to Ron Natinsky you might think that he made it all happen. enough

wascallywabbit
wascallywabbit

Why don't we use the panhandlers to collect money for the arts at the various intersections and convenience stores throughout Dallas. Think about it folks? We'd be giving jobs to the homeless and everyone could participate in funding our soon to be "World...no scratch that..Universal Class City". Might even be tax deductible? I dunno.

JimS
JimS

I like the idea of having epple on the council to represent the arts, but I think we need more than one district. For all the people who were there last night, there should be a special "Hoity Toity Arts District." Then we could have others, like a "Under $100 a ticket arts district," maybe even a "Martial Arts District." But then we ablsutely have to have an "Arts District for people who might know art if it bit them in the ass" district. Poeple from the hoity toity district would be specifically excluded, with heavy fines for trying to get it.

JimS
JimS

all typos deliberate

Smarysd
Smarysd

They had better not use my pothole money.

Jerome Weeks
Jerome Weeks

Having picked through this report's genial spray of contempt for the candidates, for the arts, for the entire forum format, I did go back and check my audio tape. Kunkle did, in fact, conclude his answer on switching the hotel-motel tax to fund the arts with these words: "I would hope this group would be a very strong advocate, and I would be a supporter of that."

Which doesn't exactly sound like "sort of skirting it."

Joe Tone
Joe Tone

@Jerome: My impression of Kunkle's answer was, if everyone makes a bunch of noise and creates enough pressure that the council supports the money being spent this way, then he would support it being spent this way. But that's different from "I think it should be spent this way," which is how Rawlings answered.

Jerome Weeks
Jerome Weeks

Sorry, we'll have to disagree. Admittedly, Kunkle's syntax is not easy to follow; whatever real strengths he might have as a political leader, speaking publicly, extemporaneously, is not tops among them.

But he began his answer by pointing out that when he was deputy city manager in Arlington, they had such a set-up with a portion of the hotel-motel tax going to arts funding. "And I think that that is an issue that this group and the arts community really needs to mobilize around, become an advocate for it and create political pressure to have that happen. There's also an opportunity now with the debt being paid off at the American Airlines Center, that's going to free up some additional money within the hotel-motel fund. But there's going to be a lot of competition for that money and to the degree that's going to be a political decision, probably as it should be, meaning that it's going to be done based on the goodwill of the larger community, but I would hope that this group would be a very strong advocate and I would be a supporter for that."

Sounds to me more like he's encouraging the arts community to organize -- with the warning that the money won't be easy pickings.

Unlike Schutze [see below], I've made this easier to read by removing the stutterings and repetitions.

Jay
Jay

Had any of the four candidates been totally honest, they would have said:

"If a sufficient number of well connected arts supporters make sufficiently large contributions to my campaign, and also make sufficient contributions to the campaign funds of a majority of other council members....then we will do whatever those contributors tell us to do with the taxpayer's money."

Jay
Jay

One would think that 'the arts,' if it truly has mass appeal and value to the community, would be supported by the community through purchasing tickets to view/attend arts events.

The premise of the debate "since the arts drive so much tourism," is based on what data? Anyone?

Wylie H.
Wylie H.

Rawlings' "art tax" will be a plaything for the Park Cities' crowd do with as they please. I doubt very seriously whether the Deep Elllum/Cedars/Oak Cliff crowd will be able to get their hands on much of it.

Oak Cliff Townie
Oak Cliff Townie

The They in this town and surrounding inter burbs have seen to it using their money that the Big Arts in town now have nice homes .

What Dallas Arts needs(every thing arts that is) would more be folks who like to go see them.

I would like to But...As tight as money is these days It is a stretch of our funds for our Family of 4 to see A first run movie at the multiplex and dine at the Waffle House.

Don't get me wrong I bet we could sack lunch a picnic if they had shows that were $25.00 a ticket .

So would Tax money go to support the Rock Hip Hop Country shows and Ringling at the AAC ?

DB
DB

A lot of stuff in the Arts District is Free - try first Saturday's at the Nasher, sponsored by Target – or free Thursdays at the DMA – many events have tickets under $25 and if you don’t mind being a seat filler there are some unbelievable opportunities. With 60% of the cost of the Symphony funded by private donors it is one of the best entertainment values in town.

Guest
Guest

Wouldn't the voters have the final say on redirecting the hotel/car rental tax towards the arts?

DoubleOJoe
DoubleOJoe

Since when have the voters had the final say on anything in Dallas?

Guest
Guest

I was under the impression that the state law that allowed for the use of "tourist taxes" to fund sports facilities required 1) a vote of the people to enact the additional tax, and 2) that the tax authorized by the vote automatically ends when the sports facility is paid off.

Part of the "Brimer Bill" that came about in the late 1990s.

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