As arts groups nationwide tighten their belts, Dallas prepares to open the most ambitious urban arts project ever. But will the Arts District be a rising tide that lifts all boats, or will it draw focus from smaller theaters?
After decades of planning and years of anticipation, when the AT&T Performing Arts Center opens this week, it won’t be just buildings but a city’s dreams of becoming a world-class arts destination that will be realized. Two spectacular new venues — the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House and the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre — will host a wide variety of spectacular shows, from Broadway musicals and plays to comedians, grand operas and everything in between.
But will the focus on the Dallas Arts District, the largest urban arts district in the nation, steal away the spotlight (and funding) from smaller arts venues that fall outside its borders? Or had the loud trumpet-blare of its arrival already done that?
It’s no secret that the current economic climate has been a difficult one on arts organizations and other non-profits. (The only for-profit theater companies in North Texas are the Pocket Sandwich and MBS Productions.) The Texas Ballet Theater, one of the long-standing resident tenants planned for the Winspear, nearly folded earlier this year when it met with a financial crisis. Many theater companies have curbed their production schedules or hemmed in budgets while millions have funneled into building the center. Does such civic commitment bode a dedication to the arts or portend a difficult road ahead for all involved?
"I think with the development of the Arts District and the opening of the center, all the groundwork is now in place to move Dallas to the next level," says Terry Martin, producing artistic director at WaterTower Theatre in Addison. "I have known for years that the quantity of the performing arts and the performing artists here in Dallas, and all of North Texas, could rival any major city, including New York and Chicago. We now have an opportunity to show this to the world."
Martin believes that all the performing arts organizations in North Texas will benefit from the expansion of the Arts District, the attention it will receive and the audiences it will draw.
"The more Dallas is known for the quality art center it truly is, the more I think our local audiences — who may not have ventured out to a theatre like WaterTower for example — will want to sample a taste of all the phenomenal artistic offerings in the Metroplex," Martin opines. "We are at the beginning of something truly amazing."
For Jac Alder, executive producer-director at Theatre Three (which he co-founded when the Dallas Theater Center was in its infancy), the opening is something to celebrate simply because of the monumental achievement of creating such an important and grand space for the arts.
"I’m astounded at the generosity, audacity and the artistic verve that not only have gone into the Wyly and the Winspear, but also into the recently completed Arts Magnet High School and the Dallas Black Dance Theater facility," Alder says. "The Meyerson, the Dallas Art Museum and the Nasher — my favorite building in the district — set a high bar indeed. Both as a Dallasite in the arts and as a former practicing architect, I’m button-busting proud."
Alder, too, is optimistic about the impact the overall Dallas-as-arts-destination vibe will have on the arts generally and on his theater specifically.
"I don’t think our colleagues in big buildings will cause a tsunami that will wipe out our philanthropic support or attendance," he says. "What I do think, and certainly hope, is that they’ll create a rising tide that’ll float our boat even higher."
The most positive aspect to him is the landmark status of the district. "The new buildings give Dallas huge bragging rights and possibilities beyond imagining." But he’s also cautious about the flip side.
"It is an asset to the beauty of the Dallas landscape," adds Cora Cardona, artistic director of Teatro Dallas. "On the other hand, we hope that maintaining it won’t continue affecting programs that have been either cut or reduced by the city."
"There are negatives," Alder agrees. "In the short term — say, 20 years or so — it’s going to be very uncomfortable adjusting to the cost consequences of operating the opera house and theater. We went through something akin to this when the [Dallas Symphony Orchestra] left the State Fair Music Hall, and again when the city opened the Majestic. All concerned with these management and budgeting problems realize we’re going to be ‘growing into’ all these new facilities. We have really only grown into the Majestic in the last 10 years!"
"Opening more arts venues around the city, and not in one specific area, could be a positive impact, because we could be taking the arts into neighborhoods, actually exposing audiences to new arts venues where they can experience professional theaters," says Cardona.
For his part, Alder worries about the future of the Kalita Humphreys Theater when it ceases to be under management by the Dallas Theater Center. (Its lease agreement with the city ends in 2013; see Uptown Boys, Page 38.)
Alder also expresses concern that the new facilities will amplify an existing problem for theater and music organizations not in the Arts District.
"There clearly exists a financial bias in favor of the ‘official’ Dallas arts organizations, those in city-owned buildings. And now we have the ‘Super-Official Dallas Where Arts Are’ place, the Performing Arts Center. This distorts the reality that Dallas will continue to have far more theater and music performances produced by groups outside the Arts district than in it."
The Arts District’s so-called third venue, the City Performance Hall, will soon begin construction of phase one, although its funding is incomplete and has not been heralded like the rest of the project.
"I admire the design the architects originally devised," Alder remarks, "but I’m in despair over what I think are disastrous cuts to this project. I’m wary about which arts organizations can make good use of the building — and thus the $35 million or so it will take to build it."
But in the end, Alder points out the most important point to take away from this whole discussion.
"I believe Dallas should be proud and supportive," he says, with strong emphasis on the latter, "not only of the Arts District and its Arts District organizations, but the arts organizations throughout the city."
Matthew Shepard was murdered 11 years ago Monday, and to mark the anniversary, the Dallas Theater Center and WaterTower Theatre are joining a nationwide movement to pay tribute to the hate crime victim.
On Sunday, WaterTower will present a staged reading of The Laramie Project, which the company first produced in 2003. That will be followed Monday with The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, an epilogue written by Moises Kaufman that will premiere at 100 regional theaters simultaneously. North Texas stage legend Betty Buckley, pictured, will be among the cast members.
The Laramie Project, Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road. Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. Free, but donations to Matthew Shepard Foundation requested.
This article appeared in Applause, The Dallas Voice Visual & Performing Arts Guide 2009 print edition October 9, 2009.