Emotions — and confusion — ran high at an Austin Arts Commission meeting last night where more than 100 people packed the room to watch as commissioners tried to grapple with a cut in available monies that’s left many arts organizations facing a steep drop in their city funding.
The upshot at the end of a at times convoluted two-hour meeting is that the Arts Commission voted to dip into a reserve fund and work at finding other monies to address the shortcomings. The commission will present its solutions at a Sept. 24 meeting.
Last week the Austin arts community erupted when the city’s Cultural Arts Division (CAD) staff released a list of funding recommendations that had some longtime organizations receiving up to 40 percent less than last year, while some smaller and new groups were recommended for increases as much as 1100 percent.
City staff said the cuts were a result of both an increased number of applicants this year and a drop in available funds.
The city annually allocates 15% of Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) to the Cultural Arts Division’s for its programs, which include contracts to arts organizations and individual artists. This year, CAD has $11.4 million for cultural contracts, about $1 million less than last year.
At the meeting, both commissioners and arts leaders complained that CAD staff gave little notice of the drop in funding.
Commissioner Bears Fonte pressed city staff to clarify when they knew of both the increase in applicants and the drop in projected HOT funds, and why that information was not shared with the Arts Commission and the arts community.
Cultural funding applications are due May 1 and HOT fund estimates usually arrive in June.
But the funding shortage and the increase in applications were not revealed to commission or to the public by CAD staff until Sept. 17, a week before the funding recommendations were to go before city council for approval and just two weeks before the Oct. 1 start of the city’s fiscal year.
“That’s three months of time we could have been preparing our arts organizations for a big drop in their funding,” said Fonte.
Ballet Austin executive director Cookie Ruiz, representing the Austin Arts Advocacy Coalition, also called for increased transparency.
“Organizations have artists under contracts by now,” Ruiz said, addressing the commission. “We need greater communication throughout the entire funding process.”
The city of Austin is on track to fund 98.5% of all applicants for cultural funding.
“We have to have a commitment to the process,” said Louis Grachos, CEO of The Contemporary Austin. “We also need greater transparency on how the funding matrix is applied.”
Indeed, the competitiveness of city cultural funding was a point of contention for both arts managers and some arts commissioners. The city uses a points-based matrix for evaluating applicants, with those scoring 75 out of 100 points eligible for funding.
CAD compliance manager Jesús Pantel reported that applications this year jumped to 402, up from 243 four years ago. Pantel said that only “five or six” of those 402 applications were not recommend for funded.
The net result is that this year the city of Austin is on track to fund 98.5% of all applicants for cultural funding.
“I’d like to know about any other funding agencies that give awards to 99 percent of their applicants,” said Acia Gray, executive and artistic director of Tapestry Dance Company.
Indeed the sheer increase in new applicants this year is an issue creating tension, with arguments for and against the prioritization of funding to long-established organizations over new and emerging groups.
“I strongly disagree that the old organizations are more important than new ones,” said commissioner Fonte. “We don’t need to be penalizing the new voices in Austin, they’re being responsive to our community.”
Late in the meeting, the audience grew restive when commissioner Felipe Garza said that the current budget cuts would not be an issue for arts groups if they would “just not spend money until you have it in hand.”
“I have dancers already under contract for shows already planned,” Gray interjected. “I can’t undo that.”
With the Austin municipal fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and city funds usually not distributed until December or January, most arts groups are well into a season’s programming by the time they receive their city monies.
Cultural Arts Division manager Meghan Wells pledged greater communication with the arts community and the arts community.
However the swirl of issues discussed left many confused by meeting’s end, with some — including at least one arts commissioner — leaving the meeting believing that the vote to release the five percent reserve had not been passed.
In the end, the Commission directed its Working Group subcommittee to re-examine and re-work the funding matrix by taking the five percent reserve fund (approximately $565,000) plus an additional $135,000 in receipts that have come in since earlier projections this past July. The group is also charged with re-evaluating the matrix parameters used to calculate awards as well as the funding allocations for other CAD programs such the arts tourism and promotions budget.
The group will present its recommendations at a specially called Arts Commission meeting on Sept. 24. Final funding recommendations will go before city council Oct. 4.
This morning at an Austin city council work session at which CAD presented an update, Mayor Steve Adler also stressed the need for more transparency.
“Clearly no arts group in this city should assume that their grant request is going to be successful or that their funding level will always be the same,” Adler said. “But the sooner we can get that information out to them so that they can build contingencies, the better.”
Council members Lesley Pool and Ann Kitchens both pressed CAD staff to provide greater detail when the new round of recommendations are presented.
“I’d really like to know why some (arts groups) received such big increases and others did not,” said Pool.
Disclosure: Sightlines is a first-time applicant to the city’s Cultural Arts core funding program.