How Did Arts Philanthropy Help Shape the (Purported) "Texas Miracle?"

We hate to get technical here, but the term "Texas Miracle" is a misnomer. The phrase describes the fact that the Lone Star state supposedly rebounded faster from the Great Recession than any other state. Its cities are booming. It has added 1.7 million net new jobs in the seven years since the downturn—more than the entire U.S. over the same period.

But to call it a "miracle" is inaccurate.

After all, a miracle is "an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause." This does not explain what happened in Texas. (Unless you consider former Governor Rick Perry to have had supernatural powers—a tough case to make, given his early exit from the primaries. Then again, God does work in mysterious ways.)

Rather, what happened in Texas was a perfect storm of many ingredients, including a ton of very, very rich people who love to give away their money. In short, robust philanthropy—arts-related and otherwise—has definitely played a role in Texas' success.

Take the Dallas Arts District. J.R. Ewing notwithstanding, the city should naturally be a barren stretch of desert. As Brent Christopher, president of the Dallas-based Communities ­Foundation of Texas notes, "There is no obvious reason for Dallas to exist. There is no port like Houston's; it was never capital of the republic; the Trinity River is a muddy, meager wriggle." And yet, due to what Christopher calls "sheer willpower," the city and its Arts District are as vibrant as any in the country.

Approximately 85 percent of Dallas' Arts District funding comes from philanthropy. Major gifts and programs include $42 million from the late Bill Winspear and the $180 million Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which was funded entirely through private donations. The district's hub is the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2009. In what's become a recurring theme, 93 percent of its $354 million construction costs also came from private donations. What's more, 134 separate gifts totaled at least $1 million, suggesting widespread support, rather than a reliance on a handful of mega-donors. (For context on the thriving Dallas arts scene, click here.)

With many American cities looking to emulate the successes of Texas—most recently, Eli Broad's efforts toward transforming an L.A. neighborhood into an arts destination—it's worth considering certain elements of Dallas' success and to what extent they translate to other cities.

 

  • Lots of (new) money. Sure, Texas has its share of "inheritor" philanthropists, but Texas philanthropy consultant Alison Alter notes that many of the state's new givers are self-made entrepreneurs.
  • "Show and tell" marketing.  Philanthropies have done a great job of convincing Texans that things like museums, arts districts, and green spaces are important to quality of life. It's an example of success building upon success. For example, San Antonio's River Walk has become a model in urban planning and has subsequently inspired planners in Dallas.
  • Urban planning nitty-gritty. As we've seen with Broad's efforts in L.A., revamping a neighborhood to make it more art-friendly can be difficult—and a lot more expensive—if, for example, the area has narrow sidewalks, few trees, a dearth of affordable parking, and bland buildings. Houston had similar challenges. In its efforts to link 20 miles of ­hike-and-bike trails with playgrounds, art installations, and outdoor performance venues, it had to reconnect its previously disparate (and highly polluted) waterways from abandoned properties.
  • Philanthropic DNA. Here's one substantial difference. Texas, as we're constantly reminded, is a low-tax state. And since the state coffers have traditionally been low, philanthropy was viewed as a way to plug financial holes. In other words, private philanthropists have historically picked up the slack that would normally be the job of a better-funded state government. That dynamic continues today.

 

At the end of the day, Texas philanthropists are keen on using the arts as a means to an end—a strategy for attracting families and workers to their cities. (In fact, three of the ­fastest-growing metro areas in the U.S. are Austin, Houston, and Dallas.) In this sense, their approach mirrors creative placemaking efforts across the country, but on a far more expansive canvas. They understand that experiencing the arts isn't a transactional experience, but a foundational component of a larger, sustainable economic and social ecosystem.