Dallas-based AT&T is putting its business acumen to work for five financially challenged arts organizations. The corporation will provide free oversight to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Dallas Opera, AT&T Performing Arts Center, Dallas Theater Center, and Dallas Summer Musicals.
The goal of the partnership is to stanch the financial bleeding that has plagued the organizations since the 2008 recession.
“The old economic business models are not working,” DSO chairman Blaine Nelson said. “Revenues are falling far short of costs and expenses.”
Financial woes have besieged the DSO, Dallas Opera, and Dallas Summer Musicals, which recently asked the city for money.
The partnership is designed to help the companies streamline operations and share numerous endeavors, while preserving their independence. It’s also aimed at quelling the fierce competition that has existed at times between the performing arts center and Dallas Summer Musicals, both of which present Broadway shows.
Nelson says that “donor heroics” are no longer a winning strategy. Donors are, he said, increasingly younger givers who have tired of “a bottomless pit” and the absence of a “sustainable business model.” They prefer to be seen, he said, as investors, not donors.
Nelson helped conceive the new model, called the Performing Arts Collaboration, which was first broached six months ago.
“The donor community and the corporate community are a bit fatigued,” said AT&T executive Ron Spears. “Their message back has been very clear: We want to support you, but we need to see some level of rationalization about the way we operate in the Arts District. We would like to see it become much more businesslike than what we’ve seen in the past, which is, every time someone gets into trouble, they come knocking at the door in a financial rescue effort.”
Under the agreement, the five will retain what the group calls “institutional and artistic identity,” with AT&T providing “leadership, offering resources and brainpower.” In making the announcement, the institutions promised to explore “combining back-office operations such as health care and benefits, ticketing and box office, scheduling and capacity, artistic collaboration and facility management.”
As for how much each organization would save, that’s a mystery for now.
“We don’t know,” said Chris Heinbaugh, spokesman for the AT&T Performing Arts Center. “Part of the process is drilling down into all the details and figuring out what the real savings might be.”
All five companies perform in facilities owned by the city, though the city will not share in managing the new arrangement. “As both a businessman and an arts supporter, the initiative makes all the sense in the world,” Mayor Mike Rawlings said.
Since the opening of the Winspear Opera House, competition has often been an issue with the Arts District newcomer and its Fair Park rival, Dallas Summer Musicals.
Roger Nanney, board president of the AT&T PAC, and Michael Jenkins, president and managing director of DSM, “have sat down,” Spears said. “They agree that competition for artistic work doesn’t make any sense.” So one of the first big efforts between the two, Spears said, will be “how to better coordinate.” Staging Broadway shows in Dallas should now become “a better overall experience. What’s been going on is not the best.”
AT&T is gifted, Nelson said, at finding “more efficient ways to operate, at reducing costs and redundancies.” He cited as one example the five groups having five separate box offices. “I see no reason,” he says, “why we can’t share one box office.”
“Where do I think this journey will lead us?” Nelson said. “I don’t know. But the goal for all of these organizations, which mean so much to the city of Dallas economically and culturally, is to find better ways to operate. We simply have to.”
(This post, originally published by The Dallas News, is one in a weekly series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage. Visit our website to find out how both businesses and local arts agencies can get involved!)