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Dallas City Council votes to fund renovations to Office of Arts and Culture

An exterior view of the Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Dallas' Office of Arts and Culture has its office on the 4th floor of the Majestic Theatre.
Elías Valverde II
The Dallas Morning News
An exterior view of the Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. Dallas' Office of Arts and Culture has its office on the 4th floor of the Majestic Theatre.

The Dallas City Council voted Wednesday to approve a request by the Office of Arts and Culture to “reallocate” $190,000 from the city’s upcoming budget for the purpose of improving and eventually leaving its offices in the Majestic Theatre.

Four council members voted in favor of an amendment proposed by councilman Chad West that would have nullified the request and allocated the $190,000 instead for “contract services to provide grants to arts and cultural organizations.”

But an outspoken majority voted to quash the West amendment, underscoring how contentious the discussion had become in an hour and 12 minutes.

In a debate that has roiled the city’s arts community — which continues to face economic hardship since the onset of the pandemic — 10 of the 14 council members minced no words in supporting the wishes of OAC director Martine Elyse Philippe, who assumed her position nine months ago.

That was merely one surprise in a testy portion of Wednesday’s meeting. The other was the revelation that Philippe’s plans to leave the Majestic office were long-term, not immediate, as some council members had believed.

Using figures that had not been publicly shared, Philippe said the $190,000 instead would break down this way: $58,000 for “maintenance needs,” such as fixing or replacing an aging elevator that leads from the lobby of the Majestic Theatre to OAC offices on the third, fourth and fifth floors; $42,000 for a stipend to allow OAC employees to take the bus or park near the Majestic; with the remaining $90,000 being used to “reconfigure” the space to accommodate what Philippe says is her current employee level of 30.

Put another way, the Majestic would be repaired while her staff is still using it, en route to creating a renovated space for whomever uses it in the future. The city’s fiscal year begins annually on Oct. 1, which means the start of a fiscal year three cycles from now would be Oct. 1, 2026.

“So, yes, our plans have changed,” Philippe said, as she addressed the council. In a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News, the OAC director declined to say when the office would move to a new space.

West challenged Philippe, saying, “The 190, it’s just different now than it was when it was presented to us. So, I’m trying to absorb this and would like to see the breakdown of what those costs are.”

In terms of 30 staffers occupying the Majestic’s offices, West said, “I just envision having the folks who work in the cultural arts being out in the public, meeting with the artists and on site. Not necessarily in an office. That’s kind of the struggle I’m having right now.”

West praised Philippe for “finding” $816,000 in savings, which she said would come from the city transferring management of the Meyerson Symphony Center to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, as a way of bankrolling the $190,000. But then he added:

“Every dollar that we can find available for artists and for grants, I would want to push for. Having a move now and another move later, I just don’t see as being a fiscally responsible use.”

On that point, West echoed Dallas arts advocates who have criticized the Office of Arts and Culture for the proposal, saying the $190,000 would effectively be drawn from funding for arts groups. The office disputes that claim, saying the cost is offset by savings from the Meyerson.

At one point, council member Paula Blackmon asked: “I’m a little confused. Are you moving, or are you not?”

Philippe answered by saying, “We will be moving but not within the bounds of this biennial budget,” which ends Sept. 30, 2025. “Not in these two fiscal years.”

Blackmon replied, “Did that just kind of change in the last week?”

“No,” Philippe said.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax, who approved OAC’s budget request for the $190,000 for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, praised Philippe for answering the council’s questions and added, “I would hope we would give her the benefit of the doubt. She has a grasp of what she believes the organization needs and has an understanding of what the arts community needs at a broad level.”

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Carolyn King Arnold offered further support to Philippe by giving her pointed advice: “You just have to stay grounded and position yourself for the heat — which is what you’re getting.”

In terms of Philippe’s proposal generating its own political firestorm, Arnold said, “Welcome to Dallas.”

But council member Cara Mendelsohn, one of four who voted for the West amendment, called OAC’s reallocation request “egregious,” saying that $190,000 would be “extraordinary for a small arts organization. That would be an extremely meaningful gift.” Elevators and parking issues should be the city’s problem, she said, without compromising the funding needs of an individual organization, such as the OAC.

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.