Fort Worth looks for the place where money and love of arts collide

Posted Thursday, Apr. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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norman The subject was money, and masters were at work.

Specifically, public money -- and, even more exact, using it to help struggling community arts organizations.

Members of the Fort Worth City Council were on familiar ground. Arts groups argued loud and long last year that they do good things for the city and need more public money to continue doing them.

But on Tuesday, the council heard a report from an 11-member volunteer task force that's been meeting since January. Its assigned task: "Determine [the] feasibility and desirability of City funding for local arts and cultural exchange programs."

Again to be specific, it was to find ways to help fund the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, as well as Fort Worth Sister Cities.

Last summer, to balance the 2013 budget, the city cut arts council funding by 25 percent (on top of previous cuts) and zeroed Sister Cities out completely.

Clearly trying to smooth things over with passionate arts advocates, the council promised a midyear review of the budget to see whether any new money could be steered their way. By December, that promise morphed into appointment of the task force.

Besides being arts supporters themselves, some of the people picked for the task force know money. Robert Benda, CEO of Westwood Contractors, was named chairman. Others include investor Robert Bass; Renfro Foods executive Becky Renfro Borbolla; Sundance Square CEO Johnny Campbell; Mike Hyatt, senior vice president of UBS Financial Services; Whit Smith, chairman of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce; and Julie Wilson, Chesapeake Energy's vice president for urban development.

In fact, some on the council grumbled that many of the task force members work downtown. Maybe that's where money and love of art collide.

But you never know whether a group of volunteers will deliver something worthwhile.

"You know, we name these committees and we send them out, and we just hope they come back with something good," Councilman Danny Scarth says.

This one did. No whining, just a solid plan. The council can run with it or put on a shelf. It would involve some not-easy decisions, but the numbers are there for dollars to support the local arts community.

Sister Cities? Well, no. In presenting the task force report, Benda said it focused only on money for the arts council. Must be chilly for Sister Cities out there in the cold.

The plan would move Fort Worth public funding for the arts from a current level of 94 cents per city resident toward a long-term goal of $4.50 per capita, which the report said is the average for big Texas cities. And during the next 10 years it would gradually stop drawing arts funding from the city's general fund. In this year's budget, that would have meant almost $800,000 to be devoted to other uses.

But there's no magic. The plan calls for putting $7.4 million from the city's accumulated unrestricted natural gas well lease and royalty money into a trust fund and dedicating some of that fund's future royalties and interest earnings to the arts. The amount from the trust fund going to the arts council next year would be $450,000, along with $650,000 from the general fund.

The allocation from the trust fund would increase by $100,000 a year through 2022, and the general fund allocation would reach zero in 2023.

The tough part is that plenty of people representing an array of organizations and causes would love to get their hands on some of the city's natural gas money. It's not easy for the City Council to decide who gets it.

But contrast this plan with the "give us money" pleas arts supporters presented last year.

They wanted a share of the revenue from the hotel occupancy tax, which would mean taking it away from activities and improvements at the Fort Worth Convention Center and the Will Rogers complex.

It was wise of the task force to steer a different path.

The plan also calls on the city to complete a long-delayed new contract to help fund the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

It says part of that contract should be a program under which arts groups could get grants based on how many hotel guests they bring to town.

The task force also asked the city to explore ways arts organizations could share city-owned office space and get breaks on utility costs.

Finally, the task force recommends establishing a foundation through which private donors could give money for arts endowments.

All together, it's a sophisticated plan, not just "give us money" but a viable strategy for coming up with it.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.


Twitter: @mnorman9

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