Thursday, August 19th, 2010
According to an article in D Magazine, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is in financial trouble:
There’s no doubt that the symphony, like many nonprofit groups in North Texas, is struggling to make ends meet in the teeth of a still-sputtering economy. The DSO’s plight is especially vexing to many Dallas businesspeople, however, because of the symphony’s importance to the business community as a symbol of the city’s cultural standing….After four straight years of balanced budgets—and a 70 percent increase in its endowment, to $120 million—the DSO ran into difficulty two years ago after its then-president and CEO, Fred Bronstein, left to head the symphony orchestra in St. Louis. Battered by the stock market crash and the so-called Great Recession, the DSO’s endowment would plummet to $84 million.
Local donors are hesitant in a tough economy and Dallas is having difficulty raising funds. What I find interesting is the juxtaposition of the endowment decline with the $1 billion the city just invested in a performing arts complex:
It is clearly one of the most impressive collections of new arts buildings in the country, designed by some of the finest contemporary architects – Renzo Piano, I.M. Pei, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Foster + Partners, Rem Koolhaas and Brad Cloepfil, whose Arts Magnet High School could provide the daily doses of populist energy that the district needs.
How can a city invest over a billion in buildings but not support the on field product? It reminds me of a previous post on Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the performing arts, whose price tag could have created an endowment that would have funded the entire operating budgets of the symphony, opera, and ballet in perpetuity.
Obviously art is not the primary role of these organizations play in their community, but something else entirely. That’s not to say that expenditures on buildings that seem excessive to some or to have no rational purpose is a bad thing. Man does not live on bread alone. Throughout history great civilizations have raised monuments of a questionable nature that nevertheless continue to inspire to this day – from the Pyramids of Egypt on down. A city that did not have such aspirations, that created a purely utilitarian environment driven entirely by the iron law of cost benefit, would be a place in which the spirit of man was atrophied. Few such places ever achieve greatness.
But there’s a balance to be had. The greatness of Athens was not in the Parthenon, nor Rome in the Coliseum. It was the intellectual, cultural (and yes, military) pursuits that happened in those places. Dallas is a great commercial success. It’s now looking to harvest the cultural benefits that can come from it. But Dallas would do well to heed the lesson of earlier boomtowns like Chicago. As Chicago got wealthy, it didn’t just build imposing Beaux-Arts monuments, it populated them with world class institutions. To this day the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago are among the finest in the world.
Dallas, Kansas City, and others looking to elevate their recognition level and quality of life through the arts should recognize that first and foremost it’s about the art. Building world class buildings populated by second rate, financially starved institutions would send a message to the world about a city alright, but I’m not sure it’s the one city leaders hoped to create.