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On Friday, August 26, 2016, we held a lunch meeting with Arlington residents who work in Fort Worth. The informal focus group of 20 offered interesting insights and a few exciting ideas. Here is a summary of the opinions and ideas that came out of the meeting:
Overwhelmingly, the group thinks Arlington will never have the kinds of cultural attractions and institutions found in Dallas and Fort Worth.
Overwhelmingly, the group members visit the Arlington Highlands plaza or other area restaurants as their main leisure activity. Half of the group attend events at Levitt Pavilion (most indicated they would like to attend more events like those offered by Levitt).
75 percent of the group have visited museums in Dallas or Fort Worth in the past year; 80 percent have attended the State Fair of Texas at Fair Park at least once in the past five years.
Only 10 percent participated in "leisure learning" (non work-related classes, workshops, educational demonstrations) for adults in the past five years. [Editor's note: this includes continuing education classes at universities and classes at photography or hobby stores.]
Nearly all members of the group like the concept of a museum of culture presented by Imagine a Museum.
Nearly all members of the group believe the concept would fit in very well in Dallas or Fort Worth.
40 percent of the group travel to Dallas or Fort Worth monthly (60 percent quarterly) to attend interesting events and visit museums.
One member of the group pointed out that the concept should be shared with people in Dallas who are trying to determine the future of Fair Park.
One member of the group pointed out that if the Texas Rangers buy the current stadium from the City of Arlington upon moving to a new stadium [Editor's note: They have that option when the current bonds are fully paid, as we understand it], Arlington should use the funds to build a cultural activities center. [Editor's note: Houston has a similar facility for comparison called MATCH - Midtown Arts and Theatre Center, Houston; while it would not have the impact of a major museum, it would be helpful to Arlington's cultural organizations.]
We didn't have time during the meeting to formally ask what kinds of activities and institutions the group members have visited in other cities, but most of the obvious ones were mentioned in conversation, including New York City, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Miami and San Antonio.
On Friday, August 26, 2016, there was an article in the Dallas Morning News about the concept for a museum of culture as presented by Imagine a Museum on this website. It is great to have some very early exposure in our campaign to promote the proposed museum concept. Read it here:
New Arlington resident wants to turn Texas Rangers' stadium into world-class museum
Unintentionally, it raised several important points that need to be considered when understanding the difference between cities with numerous cultural attractions, particularly large institutions, and those with very few. It raises the need to examine the important relationship between large institutions (which provide facilities or generate interest) and successful producing organizations. And it provides an opportunity to differentiate the concept of a museum of culture with the more common subjects of most other singular museum formats.
The article mentioned the small programming organization founded by Mark Lacy in a way that might make it seem like there is a helpful comparison to examine between a program-producing organization and a museum. There isn't. Without any context or perspective, it is like comparing a golf ball to the Moon.
The organization, Houston Institute for Culture (which is winding down its programs in a process that takes several years) was a small organization that produced numerous events, 30-60 per year, in Houston and surrounding communities, along with youth programs in the region and youth camps in Arizona and New Mexico. Its key programs were produced over about 10 years, including Houston's Juneteenth Celebration at Miller Outdoor Theatre, Carnival Connection (a cultural exchange program involving artists and experts from the Caribbean, South America and the Gulf Coast), Celebrate Houston (a mini-festival offering performances and artist workshops like those at the Smithsonian) and youth programs and camps.
The organization provided office space and gallery facilities, with art exhibits that were curated very successfully by local artists (being named best in Houston for five consecutive years), along with performances, talks and classes. An astonishing amount of activity was produced with an annual budget of $125,000-$150,000, with additional grants to individuals and in-kind support reaching $100,000-$200,000 annually. And the benefits will continue well into the future, with a massive archive of educational materials, program concepts that are being shared and developed further, and the possibility of more impactful youth programs and camps.
Many organizations Houston Institute for Culture (HIFC) worked with had similar annual budgets, $125,000-$175,000, occasionally up to $250,000. Like HIFC, these were mostly organizations that produced free or low-cost events. Organizations that produce ticketed events are likely to have annual budgets over $500,000 (like a theater group), or over $1 million if they own facilities (like a theater).
Considering one organization might make it seem there is very limited potential in cultural activities (broadly defined), but the impact can only be understood when considering many organizations on that level; impact is multiplied by the number of organizations and the circulation of funding multiplies even further. In the broad definition of Culture, there is immense interest, need and potential. The same way additional major museums have an exponential increase in benefits for cities (like visitors, marketable cultural tourists and economic activity), so do increased numbers of programming organizations.
Houston, of course, has hundreds of organizations - many that are smaller and many that are larger than HIFC. If the average annual budget is $150,000 (a conservative average), and there are 100 organizations (a conservative estimate for a large city), the economic activity is $15 million, with a far greater economic multuplier for related activities. Of course, in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, etc., this number is many more millions of dollars in economic impact than the simple figure derived above. But the conservative estimate of $15 million (with significant outside income) is a major enhancement to a city. If it entirely resulted in moderate jobs, it is the equivalent of 500 jobs. But it results in a wider variety of spending - management and creative jobs, artist stipends, academic honorariums, visiting lecturers, student internships, improvement projects, community services, etc.
Economic activity is interesting when we think of impact; it can be reported for most any area of interest as a benefit to the community. Most any kind of activity results in economic activity. The dynamics become more controversial - what disparity results from spending, how concentrated is the collection, where does the money move, is it going in or out? The result of spending can be a gain to a community or a loss. But also, it is very important to consider that economic activity can result in positivity, the way people feel about the community or place. Having great cultural assets can be like having sports teams that are guaranteed to win all the time.
The sources of the funding are important to understand. Part of the funding for non-profit organizations comes from grants - typically from federal and state agencies, and local or national foundations. With organizations (the more the better), communities have the benefit of this funding on a wide scale of impact; without organizations, communities do not. Part of the funding comes from donors and corporate sponsors. The impact of the donations and sponsorship is not only that benevolent individuals and businesses want to demonstrate support for their home base, but they are engaged in the community as stakeholders, and it is in their best interest to raise the quality of life standards of their communities and further the cycle of economic activity.
Lack of programming organizations is a severe detriment to a mid-sized city like Arlington (which is ranked 50th in the nation by size) when compared to even poorly performing cities like Dallas and Houston (see additional note below). While their income for arts, cultural programs, community education, environment, recreation, and more, suffers in comparison to some other U.S. cities, Arlington's income from outside sources (like grant-making agencies) and successful businesses for cultural and educational activities suffers even more for its lack of organizations, lack of forums or facilities for the organizations to utilize, lack of major institutions that serve as hubs of activity, and lack of incubator-type programs. Arlington's population density is greater than Dallas; it has the need to provide more and the potential to do so. But this deficit of both producers and institutions represents an extreme loss for Arlington.
Facilities in Houston and many other cities provide excellent forums for activities, along with top-notch professional production capabilities, and may have as many as 50 producing organizations (even more in large institutions). One of the facilities where HIFC produced events, Miller Outdoor Theatre, provides 120 to 140 free events per year. It offers merit-based grants to qualified organizations, which are required to match those funds with other income (expenses needed to produce high quality events). The matching funds dedicated to productions (talent, technicians, marketing, public relations, management, etc.) represents a massive gain to the city in income, reputation, cultural experience and quality of life. Again, those matching funds are often from outside sources. This is a very similar operational model that is available and can be implemented in a museum of culture, particularly one with significant activity-based programs.
While an art museum or science museum may strictly involve a limited set of experts from the field, a museum of culture (while it would need many museum professionals and experts) would be wise to involve the widest possible population, academic resources, community advocates and producing organizations (mostly non-profit organizations that qualify for grants and donations) for the presentation of its activities - events, demonstrations and exhibits. The benefits include greater interest, outreach and funding, along with the human power it takes to do great things.
That is the main reason the concept for a museum of culture is presented in combination with an event site and education center - involvement and support. The community of dedicated individuals and producing organizations can only find a role and grow if there is opportunity. And the opportunity is capable to produce income from many sources and economic activity for the city and surrounding region.
Additional note: A preliminary look at Dallas and Houston indicates that Dallas spends more public funds on arts than Houston (a fact), but that Houston may experience a greater economic impact due to more wide-spread involvement, especially in the ranks of small to medium non-profit organizations and arts facilities, like galleries and theaters. Some strategic changes in Houston's views about producing arts and cultural activities have been very controversial because of the potential loss of wide-spread economic activity and the increase in concentrated economic gains. It will take time to measure the outcome.
To the article, we added this somewhat extensive comment, since there was a predictable reaction by some readers to surmise, paraphrased, "Dallas-Fort Worth and Arlington lack 'Culture'."
On the subject of having culture, with 7 million people in DFW, all with their unique ways of life, there is culture by the academic definition. And it is actually very interesting. By another definition of culture, the region lacks the institutions that most other US cities have. For those who are interested in cultural attractions, NYC, Chicago, Seattle, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Fe, New Orleans, San Antonio, Miami, and so many more, offer a better quality of life and healthier lifestyle. I travel to those places as often as possible, and so do tourists from all over the world. I even had the opportunity to study and compare those cities and their cultural assets for several years. In all the directions I was sent to compare the very best, Dallas was never even brought up by leaders from all over the nation (in over three years!). There isn't anything nationally or internationally known here that isn't viewed as just "as good" as what others have. The science museum, art museum, etc. are "as good" as what others have. In a world with better knowledge about DFW, it could be far better. The impact on music here and across Texas should be understood to be as important as Memphis, New Orleans, Nashville, Chicago, Cleveland, Seattle, etc. The impact of industries - cattle to oil to space - should have far better institutions to examine their past, present and future impacts on our ways of life. People are interested. Dallas and Fort Worth have very good districts for visitors - the Dallas Arts District (with the Perot Museum), the Fort Worth Cultural District, the Fort Worth Stockyards, Downtown Fort Worth (with Sundance Square and restored architecture), etc. - (and I think these are exceptional) but they aren't seen by most as a collective destination, and the ground in the middle is severely lacking. I talked to many programmers with small organizations like the one I directed for years and found that their main problem is lack of opportunity to present what they do. That is a big part of a major museum of culture - having the forum for immense numbers of cultural activities that just don't have a place currently in DFW. In Houston, I had as many as 60 programs a year and our group was just one of hundreds, possibly thousands. And that is in a city with minimal resources, where less public money is spent on arts than in Dallas. So, the Metroplex has culture - both population living many ways of life, and cultural organizations that are interested in food traditions, transportation, music, dance, diverse religions, arts, history, etc - but few places to present it (their subjects, broadly defined as cultural interests) and few non-university environments to interpret it. It is probably the greatest lost resource of this region and the result is that people feel the region doesn't offer anything, many national and international tourists don't come here, great potential lifelong learning interests are missed out on, and quality of life is not as good here as it is in many other cities. Since 'culture' in all its definitions is growing in interest and educational need all over the world, it's going to be an even bigger loss in the future for DFW if the trend toward relying strictly on sports and mass entertainment is all the Metroplex offers. While I see that those have a capacity to serve about 1/5th of the population in the Metroplex, there is little else, especially for all the people in the Mid Cities (that area adds up to a population as large as Dallas, and Arlington has a population density greater than Dallas). The Mid Cities have to do more to provide interest, education and quality of life. And by doing more, they will make the region more cohesive, and more able to bring visitors (more steadily than game days, 360+ days, rather than 90 days per year), which is a major means of bringing in money to provide and sustain the interests, activities, attractions, etc.
Many more ideas and possibilities are explored on the Imagine a Museum website: www.imagineamuseum.org
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Imagine a Museum is hosted by the Digital Story Resource Center
Cultural exchange musicians from Kazakhstan perform during a youth program benefit.
A programming organization presents the highest caliber concerts in a major public theater.
Carnival traditions of the Dominican Republic are presented in a an art gallery photo exhibit.
While cultural organizations and academic departments are instrumental in recording the stories of the civil rights movement, disaster survivors or war heroes, museums are an ideal place to present the many dimensions of the stories through media, artifacts, art and narratives.
A film produced by Texas artists explores the impact of cultural traditions and migrant labor in Haiti.
Documentary film screenings produced by community organizations benefit area students and develop greater cultural competency.
Artists, writers, photojournalists and travelers show us the world, but opportunities to interact and learn from them are limited without excellent institutions to host their exhibits, readings, lectures and workshops.