It’s a bright spring morning in Dallas, and Deedie Rose, a stylish, sixtysomething philanthropist, has just emerged from her red vintage BMW in front of the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Composed of an opera house and a theater—designed by Lord Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas, respectively—the center opened last October with a series of splashy galas and an open house that attracted tens of thousands. Today, Rose, who is considered by many to be a fairy godmother of the Dallas arts scene, having chaired the architectural committee that selected Koolhaas and enthusiastically drummed up financial support for the project from fellow members of her posh social circle, is bubbling over with facts and anecdotes as she leads a tour of the aluminum-clad theater. Rose relates how 135 families each gave $1 million or more to the endeavor—and not all of them are the type to quote Shakespeare or swoon over an aria. “Really, most of our money came from people who were not traditional performing arts supporters,” says Rose, whose husband, Rusty, once owned the Texas Rangers baseball team with George W. Bush. “There were people who said, ‘Don’t ever make me go to the opera because I’m never gonna go, but I’ll give you the money.’”
That kind of thinking would be unusual in most American cities where, for example, major individual donors to New York City Ballet generally, well, enjoy ballet. But in Dallas these days, it’s civic pride as much as personal passion that’s driving cultural philanthropy—and judging by the Big D’s current arts boom, Dallasites have plenty of pride in their hometown. In less than a decade, the city has created, as if from scratch, one of the country’s most dynamic arts scenes. Since the 2003 opening of the Nasher Sculpture Center in an elegant Renzo Piano pavilion, a $1.2 billion contemporary art–filled Cowboys Stadium made its debut; and three local families—the Roses, along with Howard and Cindy Rachofsky and Robert and Marguerite Hoffman—pledged their entire collections, reportedly valued at $215 million, to the Dallas Museum of Art, setting the regional museum on the fast track to national stature. While local philanthropists seem split on whether to invest in content, as at the DMA, or trophy facades, they are united in the belief that the arts are worth paying for. Indeed, one way to look at the boom is through the prism of the so-called Bilbao effect, in which investment in an arts institution catalyzes a citywide revival. Played out on the larger Texas stage, the strategy might instead be called the Dallas ambition—an intent to build a complete cultural identity by funding a whole slate of projects.
Of course, there are limits to the rush to culture. In early 2009 Dallas Opera general director George Steel, freshly arrived from New York, bolted town after only four months for a post at New York City Opera. And no amount of money can compete with weighty reputations accrued over decades—such as at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth or Houston’s Menil Collection. Still, Dallas has many of the fundamentals in place. The three families’ 2005 gift to the DMA, selections of which were first exhibited in the aptly named 2007 exhibition “Fast Forward,” has both the breadth and depth (five Robert Rymans, for instance) to form the core of an important permanent collection.